Why is James Dean’s legacy larger than life?
The James Dean Memorial in Cholame has been in place for 41 years — long enough for many to have forgotten how the monument got there or the hidden symbolism in its design.
Dean’s movie star career came to an end just east of the memorial, where Highway 41 merges into Highway 46.
The Japanese businessman responsible for creating the memorial, Seita Ohnishi, rarely grants interviews.
But three years after it was built, Ohnishi revisited Cholame and talked about his design.
Alison Harvey shared Ohnishi’s insights in this story, published in The Telegram-Tribune on Oct. 1, 1980. (Adjusted for inflation the monument would cost about $65,000 to build today.)
A living monument to James Dean
At dusk, a silver Porsche Spyder swept down a steep grade on Highway 46 toward the intersection of Highway 41 just east of Cholame.
It was Sept. 30, 1955, and actor James Dean and his mechanic, Rolf Wuetherich, were heading through the dry, rolling hills to Salinas for a sports car race.
They saw the oncoming Ford slow down for the turn onto Highway 41, but they kept coming. The Porsche hit 85 mph as the grade flattened out before the intersection.
“That guy’s got to stop,” Dean commented to Wuetherich about the Ford, driven by Cal Poly student Donald Turnupseed.
But he didn’t. He turned onto Highway 41, and Dean’s Porsche slammed into the Ford broadside. Turnupseed and Wuetherich survived the wreck, but Dean’s short career was ended that evening in Cholame.
It was one of Dean’s three movies, “East of Eden,” that brought Seita Ohnishi into the cult of the sullen, brilliant movie star.
He’d never met Dean, but Dean’s portrayal of a son in a bitter conflict with his father struck a receptive chord in the Japanese man, now a wealthy businessman in Tokyo.
Such conflicts are common in the strict Japanese family life, Ohnishi said Tuesday in Cholame. Dean showed the Japanese that they are not alone in having such disputes.
Ohnishi is among the wealthier Dean fans.
He spent $15,000 in 1977 to erect a memorial to the young star. Ohnishi designed the concrete and chrome structure with the aid of his business partner.
The people of Cholame helped him place it next to Stella’s Country Kitchen, a restaurant patronized by truckers and other travelers on the San Joaquin Valley-to-San Luis Obispo County link.
So on Tuesday, the 25th anniversary of Dean’s death, Ohnishi flew from Tokyo to join about two dozen tenacious Dean fans for lunch at Stella’s. He looked fondly at his memorial, as he does every year.
The fans shook his hand, shouted questions above the roar of idling truck engines and showed him their scrapbooks. Ohnishi reigned during the hot afternoon as the No. 1 Dean cultist.
Ohnishi proudly showed his memorial to news media representatives.
The rough concrete part of the square monument, built around a tree of heaven, represents the suffering and difficult times of Dean’s Life, Ohnishi said through an interpreter.
The gleaming chrome is the glory of his stardom.
In the back of the monument, a corner is cut out. That interruption in the flow of the structure represents the incompleteness of Dean’s life and the violence of his death, Ohnishi said. Like the monument, Dean was something beautiful that was flawed.
People tell Ohnishi he’s odd, he said, but “I’m doing something I wanted to do.”
More Americans should think about the beauty and tragedy of Dean’s life, he said with an appreciative glance at the group of fans hovering nearby.
Dean should get an Academy Award for his Work, he insisted.
Like the challenges James Dean met in his short 24 years, Ohnishi saw a challenge in building the memorial and getting permission from the Hearst Corp., owner of the land, to erect it.
He had to do it, Ohnishi said, “because I loved Jimmy Dean so much.”