All Dolled Up
Has there been pressure put on Barbara Inman Beall, Ph.D., to take down her website, www.jamesdeanadventures.com? Of course. When you dedicate an entire site to the wacky photo-adventures of Hollywood's most famous rebel without a cause using your enormous doll collection to advance the plots, you're inevitably going to ruffle a few feathers.
"You always pick up a nut or two," Beall explains. "There was this one woman who used to fill my guest book with comments like 'I want Jimmy's stuff; I want Jimmy's stuff right now!' -- like I was going to just give my entire doll collection to her. I must have blocked about 27 to 30 different addresses from this woman! I don't know what that was all about. I think she was trying to get me to pull the site, but I wouldn't do it."
Beall, a 62-year-old great-grandmother who teaches composition courses at Metro State, Community College of Denver and Colorado Community College online, has spent far too much time working on the site to allow one cyber-wacko to thwart her efforts. She's crossed the point of no return, and it's now onward and upward for Dean and his merry band of plastic cohorts.
On the website currently are nearly thirty James Dean adventures, each of them starring the same figure named Jim -- an American Legend Timeless Treasure doll by Mattel -- navigating different scenarios that Beall has laid out for him. In these elaborately staged vignettes, digitally photographed by Beall in locations around her home, it's not uncommon for Jim to bump shoulders with the likes of Frank Sinatra or Elvis atop a computer keyboard or on bookshelves lined with James Dean tomes. In one scene from a Valentine's Day episode titled "Trouble in Paradise," fifteen Dean dolls, clad in costumes from his various film and television roles, relax together alongside Garfield and a plush pink Care Bear in sunglasses, with an action-figure motorcycle squeezed in for good measure. Sometimes Jim even takes to the road, as visitors to Beall's site can see for themselves by clicking on the "Travels With Jim" section.
Yes, Jim's enjoying the good life, and for that he can thank a skunk.
"I had rescued Jim off of eBay in 2002," Beall says, recalling the photo of Jim hanging from a chandelier that had drawn her to him. "But I didn't really do anything with him until I had this weird experience one night. We live in the mountains, and this was back during the Hayman fire, when the forest fires started early. There were a number of wild animals fleeing to escape, and one night I looked out the window, and I saw a skunk heading down the street. For some crazy reason it went right up our walk, right under the big picture window and down the driveway! That kind of inspired me to do the website. I already had Jim, so I thought this could be funny, you know? Why not get a skunk doll now and try to do something humorous?"
Not content to simply allow Jim to frolic about with the newly acquired Beanie Baby "Skunk," Beall, a longtime James Dean aficionado who once ran her own doll shop in Iowa, began reading biographies of the legendary Hollywood actor. She was surprised to discover that in addition to the three films for which he is so well known -- Giant, Rebel Without a Cause, East of Eden -- Dean had over thirty acting credits, from spots on television programs to bit roles in films, even parts in Broadway plays. For the next two years, Beall busily acquired the many dolls and costumes she felt necessary to properly tell Dean's story her way: a homespun, tongue-in-cheek version of a Hollywood life.
The result, issued just in time to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the actor's death in a 1955 car crash, is The Legacy -- A Fifty Year Tribute (1955-2005), self-published by Beall through AuthorHouse. In full-color photographs, Beall's dolls turn out en masse to attend a gala celebration honoring Dean's legacy. Following a cover shot showing Jim in the actor's iconic red Rebel jacket -- posed dramatically outside a Gunther Toody's in Arvada -- are page after page of stars arriving for the event: Rhett Butler, Marilyn Monroe, elaborately dressed Barbies and Portuguese Princess dolls. It's a tribute fit for a star, with "The League of Hopeful Brides" harassing a James Dean look-alike on one page and three stuffed cockatoos chiming in for no real reason on another. Yes, everything runs smoothly in this elaborate tribute -- until Harvey arrives and all hell breaks loose.
"That Harvey," Beall says. "He's always in trouble."
Like Jim, Harvey -- named after the incorrigible rabbit in Denver playwright Mary Chase's classic -- is also a James Dean doll. Although they're close to identical, Harvey has more blond in his hair so the careful reader can tell them apart. Through his off-the-wall antics, Harvey quickly became the star of both the website and the book.
Throughout the tribute, Harvey appears at the most inopportune times, inexplicably carrying a giant piece of chalk. "You bring that chalk out here one more time before it is time," says MC Jim, "I'm going to feed it to you."
Eventually, it's time. Jim explains that when James Dean was first trying to make it as an actor, as low man on the totem pole he would often have to write out the script on chalkboards for other actors to read -- a common practice in the early days of television. Legend has it that whenever he wrote the lead actor's name, Dean would defiantly squeak the chalk across the board, sparking the ire of the entire cast.
"You aren't going to squeak the chalk, are you, Harvey?" Jim asks in the book. "Do you think you can handle this without incident?"
But you know Harvey. He squeaks the chalk.
Jim and Harvey begin to quarrel, and tempers rise to near-fever pitch.
"This is nuts!" four gathered dolls proclaim. "Are these people having a nervous day?" others wonder. "Ark! Drown them like puppies!" Mr. Magoo exclaims. The assembled dolls flee the scene, with one last wise doll advising Jim, "You better introduce the Professor before you throttle Harvey." Flip the page, and there's Beall herself, waving proudly from the car that Dean drove in high school in Fairmount, Indiana.
"The whole thing has to fall apart because of Harvey," Beall says chuckling. "James Dean was kind of ornery, with a dark sense of humor. He had so many different sides. By having Jim and Harvey, I'm trying to get that across -- the multi-dimensionality of the man. I think James Dean would get a kick out of it."
Beall's fans certainly have. Her message board is filled with positive feedback: praise from graphic artists in California, loving messages from former students who engage in annual mother/daughter Barbie weddings, adoring fans in Britain who tell everyone they know about her efforts.
"It's really interesting," Beall comments. "A lot of people don't sign guest books, but most of the comments are favorable. The whole thing is supposed to be funny."
But Beall's ties to Dean go far beyond humor. A genealogy buff, she has studied her lineage and discovered that her fourth great-grandfather on her father's side and James Dean's third great-grandfather were brothers. There's also a Quaker connection to Dean on her mother's side that dates back to New England in the 1600s. "Pictures of my uncle and James Dean's father are almost identical," Beall says.
Blood ties weren't enough to draw Beall to the James Dean Fest in Marion, Indiana, earlier this month, though, and they won't be enough to draw her to the elaborate fiftieth-anniversary memorial service in Fairmount this September. She's not fond of big crowds; besides, she needs to teach her college courses, maybe prepare for a book tour through local stores. But you can be sure she'll also be planning more adventures for Harvey and Jim, photographing them in all sorts of zany situations and helping carry on the legacy of the actor who once said, "Dream as if you'll live forever; live as if you'll die tomorrow."
Just with dolls.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Denver, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.