Author and film critic Steven Rea is hip. Well he's not trying to be hip, which makes him even hipper, but we'll get to that in a second. He's got two obsessions — bikes and Hollywood history — that he's managed to turn into a pretty hip book.
At first glance, it might look like that kind of loud tourist-appealing kitsch — Ta-da! Tinseltown on two wheels! — but it's better than that. Much much better. Beautifully wrought by local publisher Angel City Press with designs from L.A.-based artist Amy Inouye, Hollywood Rides a Bike: Cycling With the Stars is exactly the type of book you need to have in print…and one you need for prominent display on your coffee table…you do have a coffee table, right?
The book is the type of conversation piece that eschews digitization — classic photos of Hollywood stars, has-beens and almost-weres, all on their two- and three-wheeled modes of self-propulsion. Well, OK, it would be nice if it was digitized, for sales' sake, but it's one of those books that holds up better as a book. We interrupted Rea (not to be confused with the actor Stephen Rea) in the middle of his West Coast tour to talk about just that, and a lot of other things, over a coffee table.
Rea's book actually began digitally, in fact. A little over a year ago, he decided to start putting his collection of rare vintage Hollywood bike photos on a Tumblr blog. He'd given himself a Thanksgiving weekend project and called it Rides a Bike.
“Before that Thanksgiving weekend was out, I had 2,000 Facebook Likes, and hundreds of followers, emails from strangers…and it took me aback. So, then I thought I should probably start taking this seriously. Now it has become an obsession. The first thing I do every morning is check various sources and look for new material,” he says.
Over the course of a year the blog grew and here he is, ahem, pedaling his book on the West Coast. This is just icing on the cake for the Philly-based Rea, who already has the enviable day job as film critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer. The blog has gained accolades from across the spectrum of nerdery. “There's vintage movie buffs, people who leave their TV on Turner Classic Movies…there are cycling geeks…people who are into British bikes, like I am…track bikes, balloon tire bikes, cruisers…everything,” he says.
His fans even bring their bikes to his signings, “Justin Pinchot, brother of Bronson [Balki Bartokomous of Perfect Strangers] Pinchot is a vintage bicycle collector and he brought six or seven of his bikes to the Pasadena Library…and one of them is in the book,” Rea says. He takes us to a stunning photo of Deanna Durbin and Melvyn Douglas on a rear-steering tandem from the set of A Certain Age (1938). “Justin rides this bike by himself, steering from the rear and he gets double takes from passersby. Just to see this bike in person, right there in the room was great.”
Bikes couldn't be hipper or more practical now (check today's gas prices), and like everyone hip, Rea was early to the bandwagon. Riding a Raleigh Sports in his youth, he now owns quite a collection, including a mid-1970s Raleigh DL-1 rod brake bike (a British “postman's bike”), a 1950s Bates, a 1970s Mercian and two Raleigh Lenton Grand Prix models from the 1950s, among others. Rea and his wife don't even own a car, preferring instead to (gasp!) commute via bicycle.
The book covers mostly classic Hollywood and mostly on-set photos rather than screenshots, so younger fans looking for Pee-wee Herman quest-worthy bike, or E.T.'s cycle-flotilla won't find them in Rea's book. But, no matter, this is a niche obsession with a broad fan base, so there are plenty of other recognizable snapshots to be admired. Our favorite, for sure, is a shot of Alfred Hitchcock at Cannes in 1972 on a Helium folding bike — with the sour-faced and portly Hitch spilling over the edges of a too-small bike like Donkey Kong in a tiny Mario Kart.
Rea definitely has enough material for a second book, and with a healthy response to this one, it may happen. Like the hippest of nerds, there are plenty of photos Rea knows about, but just hasn't found. “I'm still on the hunt,” he says, “There's a photograph that I have on the blog…of early Errol Flynn, he continues. “I'm also determined to find the photo, that I know is out there, of Albert Finney on a bike.”
“The more you start looking for these things, the more they present themselves,” he says, talking of the rabbit hole that his obsession has become.
Here's hoping he doesn't stop anytime soon; we love the first installment, and we can't wait to see the sequel(s).