Christmas and the Legend of Nicky Bazooka

Silver and Gold as performed by Burl Ives in the 1964 TV special Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.  This holiday classic premiered Sunday, December 6th, 1964 on NBC.  Ives and James Dean were very close during the filming of East of Eden.  (Further discussions at the end of the blog.)

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The festive holiday season surrounds us, and everyone is busy baking, decorating, shopping, and taking a little extra time to spend with friends and family.

I’m pleased to have this opportunity to discuss one of the VERY SPECIAL recipes from the pages of Recipes for RebelsNicky Bazooka’s Christmas Bread (the recipe appears about halfway down this page).

 

Every September 30th since 1980, at the tiny Back Creek Friends Church, just outside of Fairmount, IN and less than a mile from the white farmhouse that was the boyhood home of James Dean, a group of devout fans gather (these fans call themselves “Deaners”).  I recall one of these, back in the mid 80s…the air was crisp with the smoky smell of leaves burning somewhere in the distance.  The trees were already displaying their most vibrant colors.  The tiny Quaker sanctuary with the painted figure of Christ cradling a lamb, the small church organ on the right, and a couple of dozen pews framed by simple stained glass windows was 3/4 full.  Everyone’s attention was on the petite, white-haired woman at the front, reciting haiku’s and telling stories from memory about her prized pupil, James Dean.  Her name was Adeline Nall, Dean’s high school English and drama teacher.

She launched into a story from 1976…while driving her light blue Buick through downtown Fairmount, she was startled to see this man on a motorcycle…mysterious, and all clad in black leather, his identity obscured by mirrored aviator sunglasses and a vintage leather biker hat.  She spun her car around and followed him as he drove all throughout the town, eventually his path leading to Park Cemetery and directly to the grave of James Dean.  He removed flowers attached to the handlebars of his 1965 Kawasaki W1 motorcycle and placed them on Dean’s stone.  Adeline, a tiny, fireball of a woman, hopped out of her light blue Buick and marched up to the foreboding figure, proclaiming “That’s about the artiest thing I think I’ve ever seen!”  His name, he told her…was Nicky Bazooka.

As she concluded her story, the anxious congregants heard the revving of a motorcycle engine, they all knew what time was approaching and in strode 1448985127216Nicky Bazooka in all his glory…dressed the same as he dressed every year, boots and riding pants, a studded 1947 Harley Davidson leather jacket with matching hat and mirrored aviators.  He didn’t utter a word as Adeline invited the grinning crowd outside.  Nicky waited patiently with the only visible hint of his identity, an infectious smile.  The roar of his engine signaled the continuance of a tradition…the crowd of Deaners followed on foot as Nicky led them up the country road to the quiet little cemetery.  He dismounts his bike and ceremoniously removes the flowers attached to the

photo credit the Marion Chronicle Tribune

photo credit the Marion Chronicle Tribune

front, reverently placing them atop Jim Dean’s stone.  Sometimes he would say a few words…other times not, before  jumping on the cycle and zooming off into the distance, never to be seen or heard from until the following year.1448985126252

For nearly 38 years, only Sally at the post office (where he had registered for a P.O. Box to receive fan mail) and one other, knew the true identity of James Dean’s very own guy-version of “the Lady in Black” (the mysterious woman who brought roses to the grave of Rudolph Valentino).  In real life, Nicky Bazooka was the alter ego of race car mechanic Terry Lee Nichols.  In 1980, Adeline Nall and actor Martin Sheen organized the first of these continuing memorial services for James Dean, held on the anniversary of his death every year.  Adeline contacted Nicky (Terry), asking him to become a part of the annual tradition.  Terry agreed.

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photo credit Michael Mathias

Nichols was born (February 9th, 1943) and raised in Crawfordsville, IN (87 miles from Fairmount).  He was a gear box/engine mechanic and pit crew member for 4 decades (1970, 80, 90, 00), starting in Indy Car, then Stadium Trucks, then the Grand Prix Circuit (for the 83-Geoff Brabham Nissan Motor Sport team, where they still hold the record for 9 straight victories in 1988), then the Trans Am Series and back to Indy Cars.  At age 27 he became a father to Aaron (who now lives in the family home in Crawfordsville).

photo credit Sandra Weinhardt

photo credit Sandra Weinhardt

Terry met his 2nd wife Mary, at a race in West Palm Beach.  They lived in Manhattan Beach, CA from 1982 until returning in 1994 to Indiana (to be closer to Terry’s aging mother).  Mary understood that every year at the end of September, Terry would be leaving for a few days because he had “To keep a promise in Fairmount.”

Mary only made the trip once, in 1988.  She remembers getting terribly carsick on the long drive, only to find out later that she was 5 weeks pregnant.  Terry’s second child, Ashley was born.  He officially retired from the racing circuit in 2002 and opened his own shop, the “Old Car Doctor,” in Speedway, IN where he worked on “any car that didn’t have a computer,” and built engines and hot rods “…for very wealthy guys who liked fast toys.”

Terry took the name for his alter ego from his adopted father’s nickname (Nick, from his name Walter Nichols.  He died when Terry was just 16), and a pack of Bazooka Bubble Gum that he was carrying at the time.  He never failed to be carrying a box of Bazooka in the pocket of his leather jacket after that.  He kept Nicky Bazooka’s “promise” for 37 years, until at the age of 71, he was diagnosed with cancer.  Terry passed September 17th, 2014, 2 weeks before the next memorial came around.

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Terry at home. photo credit Mary Bevins-Nichols

Terry loved his family and loved the holidays.  One of his favorite things was his wife Mary’s Christmas Bread.  “Ter always knew the holidays were upon us when I had the loaf pans out and pounds of Walnuts!”  Heavenly fragrances of cinnamon and clove wafted out of the kitchen, “The whole house will smell like Christmas,” says Mary.  This became such a fond tradition, that “…when he knew he wasn’t going to make it to the holidays, he requested me to make a loaf, just so he could smell the aroma!”

Nicky’s motorcycle was meticulously restored by Marcus Winslow and sons, and now resides, along with his vintage biker wardrobe, in a place of honor at The James Dean Gallery in Fairmount, forever preserving Nicky Bazooka’s contribution and dedication to the memory of James Dean.  In the photo below right, Nicky’s bike is pictured with 79 year old Ivan Ivins of Bluffton, IN.  Ivan had accompanied Nicky at the memorial for the past several years and has now become “leader of the pack”…fulfilling Nicky’s enduring promise, “I’m like Santa Claus.  I’ll be back every year.”  Also seen in this photo is the trophy he received after being named Grand Marshall for the Fairmount James Dean

photo credit The James Dean Gallery

photo credit The James Dean Gallery

Festival parade in 2001 and the sign that hung on his old, red, panel truck used to transport his bike and costume every September 30th.  He would park behind the bank in downtown Fairmount, arriving unnoticed.  Terry climbed into the back where he changed clothes and stealthily emerged as Nicky Bazooka.

At this time of year, the 2-story Victorian house where the James Dean Gallery is

photo credit The James Dean Gallery

photo credit The James Dean Gallery

located has been lavishly decorated for the season.  Lenny has accumulated and re-purposed vintage ornaments and garlands from old store window displays and a collection of many years, to perfectly enhance the elegant interior.  Main Street Fairmount pipes Christmas carols through speakers all about the downtown area where many of the shops sport painted windows.  Surreal and romantic…truly a moment lost in time.  It’s a wonderful time to visit…and if you’re lucky, it might even snow.

photo credit The James Dean Gallery

photo credit The James Dean Gallery

So here’s the recipe for Nicky Bazooka’s favorite Christmas Bread (and your entire house really WILL “smell like Christmas”).  The recipe comes passed-down from Mary’s Irish mother who made this for her husband to share with his partners on the railroad.  (Mary is 2nd generation Irish-American, with all 4 grandparents emigrating from Ireland through Ellis Island).  It is a variation of the traditional Irish Tea Bread (like an Irish Soda Bread, but with fruit).

Irish Tea Breads are a variation of the traditional Irish Soda Breads (except sweet, with added fruit). The Irish soda bread (quick breads) were invented in the early 1800s in America as way way to keep bread on the tables of the impoverished Irish immigrants (yeast had suddenly become a very expensive commodity). Soda ash, combined with an acid produced the leavening. Early recipes called for diluted Hydrochloric or Muriatic acid (sometimes with deadly results). Sour milk or buttermilk soon after provided the necessary acidity (or the raisins in the case of this recipe). Irish Tea Bread is known as Barmbrack, which translates from the Irish as “speckled bread” (due to the raisins).

NICKY BAZOOKA’S CHRISTMAS BREAD

 

INGREDIENTS and DIRECTIONS:

1    box, raisins (that’s about 2 1/4 cups)

2 c sugar

3 T shortening

2 c water

3 T cinnamon

1 t ground clove

-Bring all ingredients to a boil for 3 minutes.  Remove from heat and cool 10 minutes.  Preheat oven to 375F.

-Stir the following into the wet mixture:

1 c chopped walnuts

2 eggs, lightly beaten

3 c flour

1 t baking soda

– Mix until well incorporated.

-Pour into 2 oblong loaf pans and bake at 375F, 1 hour.

-Cool in pans 10 minutes and then remove to cool on wire racks.

Mary says to slice and serve with cream cheese, I agree.  The tart and slightly salty cream cheese, perfectly1449069321029 balances this wonderful, sweet, holiday treat.

From my personal notes of making this bread, the top tends to turn dark easily (many Irish grandmothers serve tea bread with a crispy top!), I used foil, loosely tented to avoid this over-browning.  Watch it carefully…my oven is small, and even at a reduced temperature, it tested done in much less time.  I always line my loaf pans with baking parchment…it may not be totally necessary in this case, but it makes for super easy removal and clean up. I used golden raisins when 1449069314737preparing this recipe (due to an allergy in our household to the tannin in the dark ones), which slightly affects the visual, but certainly not the festive flavors.  Wrapped in plastic and then foil, this bread lasts a very long time, but it can also be frozen (it thaws out perfectly).  Make plenty to go around to friends, neighbors, and co-workers…it’s a wonderful tradition!

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1448898556732And contemplating traditions, and Christmas, and James Dean…I always think of Jim’s good friend and co-star from the cast of East of Eden, Burl Ives (who also has a couple of great recipes in Recipes for Rebels).  Burl played Samuel (Sam the Sheriff) Hamilton.  Both he and Dean were from the Midwest and had an instant camaraderie.  During breaks on set, the two were known for playing musical duets…Jim on recorder, Burl on bagpipes.

During the “forbidden kiss” scene, where Aaron (Dean) and Abra (Julie Harris) exchange a passionate kiss at the top of a Ferris wheel, director Elia Kazan ordered everyone off the set.  This was an attempt to make Julie Harris more comfortable.  Only Burl was allowed, as he sang and played guitar to ease her nerves.1448898558770

Burl took Jimmy to lunch EVERY DAY.  They frequented The Smokehouse and Bob’s Big Boy.  Most likely, Jim was enamored of Burl’s musical talents and acting accomplishments.  Throughout his career, Burl  had over 96 albums with 26 top hit singles.  He appeared in 29 movies including The Big Country (winning a Best Supporting Oscar in 1958) and as Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)  Baby boomers most recognize him as the voice of Sam the Snowman in the 1964 TV special Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.

1448898549684Rudolph… is THE longest continuously running Christmas special in the history of television.  It’s been telecast every year since it’s premiere at 5:30pm ET on NBC, Sunday, December 6, 1964.  Burl had 3 hit musical numbers from it…Silver and Gold, Have a Holly, Jolly Christmas, and the title song Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.

The show was based on the hit song by Johnny Marks, which in turn was based on a 1939 poem written by his brother-in-law, Robert L. May (originally marketed as a coloring book give-away for department stores.  Some department store executives were nervous that the public would perceive Rudolph’s red nose as a sign of drunkenness…the give-away was a huge success!)  Bing Crosby turned down the opportunity to first record the song, forfeiting the honors (and the hit) to Gene Autry in 1949.

Here for your viewing enjoyment is the most complete copy of the original I could find (it’s gone through many edits over the years…usually being cut to allow for more commercial time…but also including the network having to shoot and add a scene after the second year, due to a write-in campaign by children who complained that Santa had not kept his promise to the Island of Misfit Toys.  In the new scene, Santa fulfills his promise by stopping at the island and carrying them all away (just as Nicky Bazooka fulfilled his promise to “come back every year”).

So bake some of Nicky’s Christmas Bread, grab a hot beverage, cozy up in a warm blanket, and enjoy Sam the Snowman as he reminds us “Maybe Misfits have a place too.”14488985524151448898553885

 

 

 

 

 

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Recipes for Rebels wishes everyone a bright and joyous holiday season!

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4 Comments

  1. What a wonderful post – Nicky’s story is fascinating. What an incredible life! I am definitely making this bread this weekend. Thank you so much for sharing. I can’t wait to try it!

  2. This was so lovely to read Greg. The legend of Nicky Bazooka is just wonderful. Thanks for sharing all of that. I am going to try and squeeze in a Christmas Bread making session in the next couple of weeks – fingers crossed!

    Jenny x

    • Thanks Jenny! Alex says it’s a crime to bake this in an empty house…make sure Mr.R is over. The fragrances of cinnamon and clove jarred him out of a deep sleep! It ‘s a Christmas potpourri! Definitely to be served with the cream cheese schmeer. 🙂

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