I know. This series is about making movies, in particular Westerns, in the Santa Clarita Valley. So the story of James Dean's last meal is a stretch. But considering the subject matter and Dean's influence on an entire generation of actors, it bears a mention at least.
Up at the north end of the Santa Clarita Valley is the small unincorporated area of Castaic. For many people, including me, Castaic is primarily known for Castaic Lake, a man-made lake that is a very popular recreation area for southern Californians. You see it every time you're on the Interstate 5 on your way in or out of the L.A. Basin. It's also an area that had experienced a large amount of suburban growth in the past 10 years (what area of California hasn't?). I mainly know Castaic as that place on the Grapevine where there are coffee shops, a truck stop, and a couple of gas stations that charge very expensive gas prices. They do it because they're the only ones around.
But even though there are more tract homes there now, Castaic is still very much a wild area. Going north: the last depot before heading down into that endless flatness of the San Joaquin Valley. Going south: the place to see one last bit of country before heading back to the city.
Back in 1955, Tip's Coffee Shop was the place to stop if you wanted a bite to eat before heading out of the L.A. Basin. I imagine a lot of people stopped there then, as there wasn't much else beyond this point between Castaic and Bakersfield.
According to legend, Tip's is where James Dean had his last meal on September 30, 1955. He was on his way out of town in his infamous Porsche Spyder with mechanic Rolf Wuetherich. The two were on their way to Salinas for a race. There, an article in the local paper says "Reportedly, the actor best known for his brooding image ordered an all-American snack of apple pie and a glass of milk."
The article goes on to say:
"Several hours later in Cholame, 25 miles east of Paso Robles at the junction of Highways 41 and 46, Dean swerved to avoid hitting a Ford sedan that had turned left into his path.
Dean's car came to rest in a ditch, his arms and neck broken and his left side crushed. He died in an ambulance.
California Highway Patrol officers estimated Dean was driving about 70 mph.
Wuetherich, who was injured in the crash, said Dean's last words were, 'He's got to see us.' "
Now there's speculation whether the apple pie at Tip's was really Dean's last meal. For one thing, several hours passed between the stop at the coffee shop and the accident. But one thing's for sure, he did stop at Tip's. Althea McGuiness, who worked as a waitress and waited on Dean, told newspapers emphatically that it was Dean.
"He sat at the counter. We all recognized him."
Undoubtedly a major loss for cinema. As for the building where Tip's operated, it eventually became a Marie Callendars. (You knew that was coming, right?) It gets worse - the business of Tip's moved down to Newhall and became an IHOP and eventually closed in the mid-1990s.
Next time you're on the Grapevine in a hurry to get where you're going, think of James Dean.
Source for this post: "Castaic Junction: James Dean's Last Stop Before Immortality?" by Josh Premako, The Signal, September 30, 2005.