It’s likely that few residents realize that a half-century ago today, the Santa Clarita Valley played a bit part in one of Hollywood’s most notable tragic endings.
In the late afternoon of Sept. 30, 1955, actor James Dean was heading north to a race in Salinas in his Porsche Spyder, with mechanic Rolf Wuetherich.
The pair reportedly stopped for lunch at Tip’s Coffee Shop in Castaic Junction, where Dean might have had his last bite to eat.
Reportedly, the actor best known for his brooding image ordered an all-American snack of apple pie and a glass of milk.
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."
The other driver, Donald Turnupseed, said he didn’t see Dean coming.
Just 24 years old, an actor on the verge of stardom was dead and a legend was born.
At the time of his death, only one of Dean’s films — "Rebel Without a Cause" — had been released. "East of Eden" was released days after his death, and "Giant" was released in 1956.
Ironically, prior to his death Dean had filmed a traffic safety film warning motorists to "drive carefully. The life you save may be mine."
While some have said Tip’s was not the site of Dean’s last meal, former Signal publisher Tony Newhall calls that "hearsay."
"Don’t let anyone tell you he didn’t stop at Tip’s," said Newhall, who wrote an article on the 30th anniversary of Dean’s death for The Signal’s Sept. 29, 1985, edition.
In the biography "James Dean: The Mutant King," author David Dalton wrote that Dean and Wuetherich "drove along the Ridge Route, stopping at Tip’s Diner for something to eat."
Newhall said last week his research leads him to believe Tip’s waitress Althea McGuinness — who died in the mid-1970s — was the last person to serve Dean.
In a 1985 interview, former Tip’s manager Carmen Cummings told Newhall she vividly remembered Dean’s stop at the restaurant.
"Yes, he did stop there on his last day," she told Newhall. "He sat at the counter. We all recognized him."
But did the actor stop for another meal that fateful afternoon?
Fifty years after the fact, Newhall said ultimately, "only James Dean and his mechanic know the answer."