Our Death Ride began a few hours earlier and a hundred miles to the south in the parking lot of the Marie Callender’s restaurant just off the 5 freeway in Valencia. Kim and I were joined there by our friend Alan Pollack, having decided to complete the Hollywood portion of the trek at a later date.
It was on this site in 1955 in a restaurant called Tip’s that Dean may have had his last meal.
“Legend holds that Dean and Wutherich stopped here and Dean had a piece of pie and a glass of milk,” explains Alan, who as president of the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society is an authority on local history. “This story is based on an interview that was made by Tony Newhall in The Signal newspaper here in Newhall in the 1985. He interviewed the restaurant manager at the time who said that a waitress named Althea McGuinness served Dean that day,” Alan adds.
“Unfortunately,” Alan continues, “there’s a problem with this story. Newhall claimed that the Tip’s manager sounded sincere, but Dean’s mechanic Rolf Wutherich claimed in an interview in 1960 that they didn’t stop until three hours after leaving Hollywood, and that would have put them much further past Tip’s.”
This could be simply a case of faulty memory on either or both of the parties. The manager may have remembered a visit by Dean on a different day, and Wutherich, who was severely injured in the crash, may simply have forgotten about the stop.
But there is an additional problem with the story. In 1955 there were two Tip’s restaurants only two miles apart. The manager stated in 1985 that Dean had stopped at “Tip’s Coffee Shop” (which would be at the current Marie Callender’s site) and not at the main Tip’s at Castaic Junction, but other accounts disagree. If Dean did indeed have his last meal at Tip’s, there is no way to positively conclude in which Tip’s it took place.
We leave the Marie Callender’s at 11:00 AM and stop briefly at the intersection of the 5 and California 126, which was the site of the other Tips restaurant. Today, there is nothing but an empty lot.
Afterwards, we get on the 5 and head north. A half-hour later we exit in Gorman, and after gassing up at the Chevron station there (said to be the oldest in the chain) we head up old Route 99, which today parallels the 5. This would have been Dean’s path in 1955.
We stay on the old road until we pass Lebec where we re-enter the 5. Within a few minutes we exit the mountains to find the seemingly endless expanse of the San Joaquin Valley before us. It was here just off of California 99 that Dean signed his last autograph onto a speeding ticket issued by patrolman O.V. Hunter just a couple of hours prior to his death. Officer Hunter clocked Dean going 65 in a 55 mph zone.
Wutherich claimed later that Dean was embarrassed by the ticket because he had recently filmed a public service announcement with actor Gig Young on traffic safety. In this commercial, Dean eerily ends his message encouraging slower speeds by saying, “The life you save may be mine.”
(Something we’re sure took place at the Marie Callender’s site was the tragic “Newhall Incident” in 1970 where four CHP officers died in a shootout. – More on the “Death Ride” tomorrow.)