In a December 1955 article in Modern Screen titled This Was My Friend Jimmy Dean, reporter Mike Connelly recalled the 24-year-old actor who had died in a car accident in Cholame, Calif. on Sept. 30 of that year.
"No will not call him rude or neurotic now; at worst they will say he was a non-conformist," Connelly wrote. "He was."
Connelly had interviewed James Byron Dean a month before his death. While listening to everything from Puccini to Bartok on Dean's record player, Connelly marveled at the sheer amount of pursuits outside of acting in which Dean engaged including photography, gardening, racing, carpentry and drumming. "I don't understand how you find the time for all this," Connelly said.
Dean replied that an actor would be selfish if he didn't try to learn everything life had to offer. "He should seek the truthhe should try to learn what is valid in life and what isn't," Dean said. "It takes time, when he could be goofing off, but it's worth it, when and if he finds it."
Nearly half-a-century later Elgin, Ill native Cathy Nathana lifelong theater-lover, producer, accomplished stylist and president of the theatrical production, events, creative and consultancy company Cathy Nathan UNLTDwas riding high after the huge financial and critical success of the 2002 original Broadway production of Hairspray in which she served as an investing producer.
"I felt strongly about coming back to Chicago with the idea of producing," Nathan told Windy City Times. "I found that it was not only more affordable but also you had an ability to have a creative voice with less risk."
Nathan discovered a picture of Matthew Morrison who played the role of Link Larkin in the original production of Hairspray and whom she had befriended. "He looked like James Dean in this photo," Nathan recalled. "I told him I was interested in creating something around the idea of James Dean."
She suggested a partnership to which he agreed.
Meanwhile, Nathan toured The Cribone of the shelters offered by the Chicago-based homeless advocacy organization The Night Ministry which she came to know through church trips with her son that provided an education about Chicago's homeless youth population. At The Crib, she met a homeless transgender woman who had been ostracized by her religious family.
"I thought to myself that it was pathetic and sad that someone would throw out their child because she doesn't align with their religious beliefs and how ironic it was that The Night Ministry was housed in the back of a church," Nathan said. "The irony and sadness was incredibly upsetting to me. It started me thinking about how these kids were going to survive and who was going to help them."
One of Nathan's childhood friends was internationally famous and award-winning photographer Sandro Miller. "I told him the story about The Crib and that I had strong visuals in my mind about James Dean," Nathan said. "I thought there was a way to tell a part of Dean's story and part of a story about someone who has a huge affinity with Dean."
Miller was enthusiastic about the project.
Nathan was in the middle of sketching out ideas when, at a friend's birthday party, she met Chicago playwright Sarah Gubbins. "She personified what a female version of James Dean would look like," Nathan said. "She was beautiful."
Around the same time, Nathan ran into Chicago actress and writer Kelli Simpkins who had been a part of the Tectonic Theatre's original production of The Laramie Project. Like Dean, Simpkins also hailed from Indiana. She told Nathan that she had an affinity for the actor.
Gubbins, Simpkins and the transgender woman from The Crib formed the genesis of the lead character of Val in Nathan's musical Exposurea script currently in the revision stage with writers Erik Della Penna, William Brown and Doug Frew but which has already peaked a fervent interest from theaters in Chicago, New York and London after it was selected as one of five from among hundreds of entries by Chicago's FWD Theatre Projectan organization that provides opportunities for new musicals to find a home on a stage and, from there, a means to propel themselves to limitless heights and audiences.
"We've gone through three separate readings," Nathan said. "So the storyline has morphed dramatically but the thing that held through was the character of a homeless girl called Val who presents as a male, specifically as James Dean. She is asked to leave her home because she doesn't fit in with what her parents feel is the right way to be a girl. So in her search for her identity and a place where she could be accepted, she takes the train from Southern Indiana to Chicago. The other two pillars are the spirit of James Dean who is Val's shadow and the photographer named Joe that Val meets on the steps of the church [patterned after The Crib] one early morning that she can't get into because she has missed curfew. The photographer is lost artistically and emotionally. He wants to make one more great artistic contribution. In the course of one night, we see them search for love, validation, identity and hope."
The ongoing creation of Exposure and the truths Nathan has continually garnered about Chicago's homeless LGBTQ community have been symbiotic.
"When I developed this piece, the more I learned about Dean, our transgender kids and adults and the [LGBTQ] senior community opened up a dialogue naturally," Nathan said. "We know that 40 percent of the homeless youth out there right now identify as LGBTQ. We also know that the highest amount of sex trafficking occurs in the LGBTQ community. It is a tragedy and it is something we need to get behind and be part of the answer."
Just as troubling to Nathan are the homeless transgender kids who are profiled by the Chicago Police Department while spurned by Lakeview's continually gentrifying community.
If Exposure is the success it is shaping up to become, as evidenced by early critical and audience reception from an FWD Theatre Project kick-off concert in September 2014 to its most recent reading at the City Winery in July, Chicago's homeless youth population and perhaps those nation and worldwide will be the beneficiaries.
"If I am so blessed to get this piece up on its feet and we have the good fortune of having a successful run, it will be my joy to see some of the proceeds go towards helping homeless youth in our city, especially the LGBTQ community because they're the ones who are marginalized the most," Nathan said. "It is in the arts where we find our commonality."
Meanwhile, Nathan is doing everything she can to give Chicago's homeless youth the validity in life Dean professed to seek before he died.
She has become involved in the Out in the Open sleep out for homeless youth on Nov. 20 as well as using her vast network of artistic connections to put together programs for the event and its launch at Sidetrack on Nov. 9.
"Two of the songs [from Exposure] will be performed by [celebrated actress and singer] Jess Godwin at the show," Nathan said. "We've got a tremendous amount of Chicago talent so I just started calling in some favors and people who were available said 'count me in.' We are really blessed. We have a loving, caring, thoughtful community of people willing to lend their voices and talents."
In a relentless determination to be the squeaky wheel in finding more people like them, Nathan is hardly ever off her phone. One of her recent calls was to the General Manager of the Virgin Hotel in Chicago after she found out that homeless youth advocacy is one of the causes to which Virgin founder and philanthropist Richard Branson is dedicated.
Virgin has since not only donated rooms for the artists arriving for the launch and Out in the Open events but has also donated bedding and supplies to The Night Ministry.
"You have to show-up," Nathan said. "These homeless kids are all of our children. We are put on this earth to take care of one another, to lift each other up, to be an arm, a shoulder, whatever you can do. That is our responsibility as human beings. I don't care what dogma you believe in, 'love one another' is the first commandment. The only way we are going to do that is to make sure these kids have a home, an education, a warm place to be and feel loved and protected, not marginalized."
Connelly's 1955 interview was interrupted by neighboring kids who wandered into the star's home.
"I whispered to Jim, 'don't you find it strange to have so many people walking in and out of your house?'" Connelly wrote. "He smiled and whispered right back, 'why notthe door's open'."
For more about Out in the Open, visit: www.sleepoutchicago.org .