Sometime during the summers of 1955 or '56, my big sister Sarah and I engaged in our happy walk of a couple of blocks to attend a block-buster which our mother recommended. Edna, an avid reader, boasted often, "Hmmmm, this movie...not nearly as good as the book," and the transplanted southerner usually wasn't "just whistlin' Dixie"!
However, George Stevens' adaptation of Edna Ferber's sprawling, atmospheric novel, chronicling that mighty "country" of Texas, decidedly approached a perfect blend of magnificent story delivered with superlative filmic skill. GIANT-- Technicolored, panoramic, epic and positively "cine-magical"-- boomed onto the screen with a roar and a wallop. Elizabeth Taylor as Leslie Benedict rivaled Vivien Leigh's Scarlett O'Hara of GONE WITH THE WIND fame. Rock Hudson swaggered and suffered as Bick Benedict. No Tara Plantation; instead, Reata Ranch! Both of these beautiful people stood possibly 10 feet tall, projected upon that screen one newly air-conditioned day. Yes, the Columbia Theater only recently had installed a curious system which encouraged a noticeable bump in attendance--new-fangled enhancement for your viewing pleasure and comfort. Myriad fountains of cool, cool water shot skyward from the roof as we approached the building. Such an exciting afternoon for us all, almost as fine as attending the Clyde Theater or the Embassy or Rialto, all fronted by elaborate marquees, in near-by Ft. Wayne. Our daddies would have had to transport us for half an hour and a distance of some 20 miles away for those family-type experiences. We were big kids embarking upon a local adventure, an event in our own neighborhood--three hours, split by an intermission, which we would remember for years thereafter.
Thus, all by our lonesome, little independent selves, Sarah and I hoofed it down Line Street, navigating a quick left onto West Jefferson, looking both ways as we crossed red-bricked Chauncey, finally arriving at busy, traffic-laden Main Street, the prettiest residential, tree-lined roadway in town, ranked immediately after our own North Line. We sensed the sprinkles of the shooting sprays of air-borne, then cascading, roof water lightly splashing onto our up-turned faces as we rounded the corner to enter the front lobby or "foyer". Coin purses in hand, we shelled out a whopping total of 50 cents' worth of change into the waiting, open palm of Mr. Hancock whose blondish, movie-starrish head poked through an arched, interior, ticket window; next, we scooted toward the popcorn vendor kid and watched him funnel scoops of aromatic delicacy into paper sacks. Luckily, we carried enough jingling coins for Milk Duds, Mallo Cups, or M & M's as well, confections to be found exclusively at this dream-like location in Columbia City we believed. We sisters didn't get out much though. The muffled sounds of the "previews" (followed by a Looney Tunes cartoon) commenced--so down the aisle we rushed to participate in one of the most thrilling cinematic experiences I can recall. Mitch Miller's "The Yellow Rose of Texas" and the incomparable Dimitri Tiomkin's soundtrack would reverberate inside my heart for the rest of my life.
Still lamenting to this very moment that I knew not what magic I witnessed through my 9 year old "wide" eyes that lazy Sunday afternoon. Legendary, iconic 24-year-old James Dean
, native of the Hoosier town of Fairmount, which is now only an hour's drive from Columbia City, portrayed Jett Rink, the young scalawag who spends half the film's duration digging the toe of his cowboy boot into the Texan clay soil until the film's remaining half where he reigns as the wealthiest oil baron in the Lone Star State. Quite a character study, as young Dean convincingly ages into his fifties. Not until 1957, when my graduating sister and her high school friends allowed me to tag along and endure their weeping and sobbing through-out the running-time of director Robert Altman's THE JAMES DEAN STORY
, did i begin to register even a glimmer of the star-power of this mythical creature. I thought those much older "girls" were silly, and I ventured back and forth between the treasure-filled lobby which over-flowed with mouth-watering treats to the cushy, velvety theater seat where I was supposed to sit still under the watchful tutelage of my flock of "baby" sitters. I hadn't a clue how important a classic Altman's documentary might be one day, as we witnessed the re-enactment of the fatal, California crash involving the young star's Porsche 550
Spyder, dubbed "Little Bastard". Dean's visiting aunt and uncle, who had raised him from the age of nine, were in the midst of returning to Indiana, having that same fate-filled day exchanged good-byes with their movie-star nephew. State troopers tracked the couple motoring toward home in their family automobile which Dean had driven to his Fairmount High School prom a few years before, stopped them and delivered the tragic news. Jimmy's funeral service, conducted just down the road in a small chapel next door to the farm-house where he grew up, brought monumental crowds of fans and V.I.P.s to Hoosierland.
I write that the Duncan sisters' excursion to our community's movie house occurred in 1955 or 1956 as small towns often featured Hollywood films a bit after the fact. If, indeed, our summer adventure occurred in 1955, we unknowingly participated in an eerily noteworthy slice of cinematic history. GIANT, REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, and Dean's best film according to most sources--EAST OF EDEN; incredibly all three of his movies were released or distributed within that same year, 1955, in which he died. This young sensation's magnetic pull on the public, international in scope, continues to the present. We re-watch GIANT and particularly John Steinbeck's EAST OF EDEN, directed by Elia Kazan, several times per year--slip those DVDS into place and ease into our recliners, eyes and ears intent upon the television set which is positioned in the same corner of the living room where our first 1953 Zenith model nestled. "Cal", Dean's EAST OF EDEN character, uncannily close to his actual persona, never fails to inspire tears. His performance jumps off the screen, and this "boy next door" I have, as an old lady, finally begun to appreciate and love. James Dean stirs my Hoosier pride and always will.
Post Script to the JAMES DEAN STORY: Whenever we youngsters were allowed to take in an "after-dark" movie, at which time we traveled in giddy groups of 5 or more in this rugged city, most of us C.C. kids would stoop down to attempt to pluck up shiny particles which sparkled like diamond chips embedded within the new state-of-the-art cement concrete, freshly applied to the side-walk area surrounding the movie-house. Our town's fluorescent lighting issuing from evenly positioned lamp posts created this visual mirage. Post-movie, we lingered a little while at Karl & Clara Miller's lengthy, narrow, tiny sandwich nook abutted to the theater building so that we might prolong the evening prior to trekking back home similarly to Jem and Scout after their Halloween pageant in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. "Those were the days, my friends; we thought they'd never end" and haven't for many of us!
Susie Duncan Sexton is a lifelong Columbia City resident. She and her husband, Don, have one son, Roy.