Why James Dean lives at the Zeiterion Theatre

By Steven Froias

#NBcreative Writer-at-large

If you’ve ever peered into the wings alongside the Zeiterion Theatre stage, you may have glimpsed him. If you’ve ever sat on stage for a Stage Door Live! concert, you know he’s been looking you over. And, if you’ve ever performed on the Z stage yourself, you definitely feel his presence. 

He is James Dean – the truly iconic 1950s groundbreaking movie star and rebel without a cause. His visage hangs along the north wall in the wings of the Z stage on a large mural like a ghostly apparition from the past in all its “Rebel Without a Cause” glory. (Pictured above.)

So, just why is James Dean a permanent resident of the Z?

You may think he’s a relic from the theatre’s film screening days. But he’s not. Sure, the Z has screened everything from John Huston’s Moby Dick in the ‘50s  to Grindhouse sci-fi fare in the ‘70s – but Dean didn’t arrive via celluloid. 

He did arrive at the Z and in New Bedford during the summer of 1984, just two years after the Zeiterion Performing Arts Center we know today was reborn in 1982. As for the building, this year marks 100 years since Barney Zeitz set out to build a “palace for the people” in 1923. 

To commemorate the milestone, the Z has started a special memory sharing project.

James Dean is one of the memories. 

Shortly after the Z reopened in 1982, people at the reopened theater thought it would be a good idea to present live, local theater on its stage. So the nucleus of the founding team of the New Bedford Festival Theatre, Armand Marchand and George Charbonneau transferred their successful tagging of “Jesus Christ Superstar” at New Bedford High School to the Z in 1983. 

By the summer of 1984, they were mounting a dedicated musical specifically for and at the Z, and that musical was “Grease.” 

The ‘50s high school musical was perfect summer fare. Indeed, by 1984, many were comparing President Reagan’s Eighties to President Eisenhower’s Fifties. 

How could James Dean not make an appearance?

A cast member of that production of “Grease” shared this Z memory with me:

“One day during rehearsal, an artist showed up with buckets of paints and brushes and sponges. He took the stage and as we watched went to work on a large wooden canvas. 

“Slowly, a portrait emerged from the brushing and daubing. The shape of a face, piercing eyes, and slick hair emerged under the lights until right there and then, James Dean was on stage with us!”

The James Dean mural featured in that production of “Grease” on the Zeiterion stage in 1983 – and has never left! 

Neither has New Bedford Festival Theatre, as it eventually became to be known. This year, the company will be staging two musicals rather than one. “The Wiz” from April 27 – May 6, and “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” from July 21- July 30. (Find out more here.) Attend both or either show and sneak a peek in the wings for a look at the Dean mural.

Sharing the memory of how and why James Dean came to stay is but one of many memories created at downtown New Bedford’s performing arts center. For the 100th anniversary year of the building, the Z is sharing many more on its Facebook page – and inviting you to do the same. Follow them here to read – or submit your own.

Don’t worry if it doesn’t feature an icon; because what becomes a legend most is the memory you make for yourself in Mr. Zeitz’s Palace for the People. 

Scroll to Top