Tinseltown on two wheels

William Holden cruising past the Paramount arch;
William Holden cruising past the Paramount arch; ("Hollywood Rides a Bike")

The Inquirer's Steven Rea puts the pedal to the movies, gathering pix of cycling stars in "Hollywood Rides a Bike."

Posted: February 23, 2012

It was Thanksgiving 2010 when Steven Rea decided to do something with the pile of photographs of Hollywood movie stars riding bicycles that he'd collected over the years.

That day, Rea, who has been an Inquirer movie critic since 1992 and a biking enthusiast for even longer, started to archive the pictures of silver-screen darlings on two wheels for a blog, which he named "Rides a Bike."

The response to the images came in fast and strong. By the end of the weekend, Rea says, more than 1,000 people "liked" "Rides a Bike" on Facebook. Numerous blog commenters asked him to post more images, and several friends advised him to turn it into a book. Rea listened: He has collected more than 400 photos since then, filling up six binders in his study at home. He has posted almost 250 times on "Rides a Bike." And Friday, he releases his collection as a book, Hollywood Rides a Bike (Angel City Press, $20).

The glossy hardback features 125 photographs of Tinseltown legends, from Brigitte Bardot to Fred Astaire, pedaling through back lots of movie studios and in the stars' own backyards. With each photo, Rea provides a brief history of where the image comes from or a little-known anecdote about the star. There is also a description of each bike, and the back of the book has two indexes, one for stars and one for bikes.

For Rea, 59, a Center City resident who rides one of his 14 bikes to film screenings almost every day, organizing a book that combines his two passions was a challenge.

"It was a crazy process of culling through the photos and deciding which to use, and it involved a lot of research," he says.

The research included working with experts from both the movie and cycling worlds to find the vintage photographs and understand their history. That's why Rea turned to Dollie Banner, a lead researcher at Jerry Ohlinger's Movie Material Store in New York, who started combing through the memorabilia in the store's archives for almost two years.

"When he first came to me with the idea, I started finding photos that were from films that a lot of people haven't seen or didn't know about," Banner says. "They were often from lovely, quieter moments in the film. That's what makes them moving and different."

For help in identifying the bikes, Curtis Anthony and Joel Flood of Via Bicycle on Ninth Street in Philadelphia would sit down with Rea, examine the photos with a magnifying glass, and narrow down their make and year by inspecting their individual parts.

"Going through the photos wasn't just about identifying the bikes. We got to see some really cool things, like the fact that some of the movie-production houses used the same bike for a decade, in all different films, but they would put different streamers on it," Rea says. "We also noticed that the studios would use a modern bike and make it look old."

Rea didn't just learn about the bicycle from the photos. The process of putting together the book enabled him to study films he had never watched before, something that's rare for a man who says he has been a movie nut since he was a kid.

"In almost every case, I went back and looked at the film where the photo was taken, and if it was a still shot from the movie, I tried to find the scene where that still was from," Rea says. "It was time-consuming and a lot of work, but it was a really cool thing to do."

As the book hits shelves, Rea hopes the work catches the eyes of bike-culture enthusiasts and fans of old movies and movie stars.

"One part of the appeal is for 'Cycle Chic' people to see these iconic figures from the silver screen who were usually in very chic, stylish attire or elaborate costumes riding around on the bike with their shirtsleeves rolled up," Rea says.

"Then there are the movie buffs and cinema history people who can pick up the book and see movie stars from bygone years, iconic faces that people have come to love over the years, in films they know or in new settings. And bike-culture people will also get a kick out of these images . . . of old American-built balloon-tire bikes, cruisers, tandems, banana-seat bikes, British lightweight 'club' bikes, French track bikes, midcentury Italian road bikes, and 19th-century high-wheels."

Flood agrees that the biking community will embrace the book, but not just to get a glimpse at those rare vintage two-wheelers.

"I deal with a bunch of collector people and they all enjoy seeing the old photographs because it was the heyday of some of these companies," Flood says. "When you're in the bike world, you like the promoting of bikes," and Rea "is doing that by showing big movie stars riding them."

The appeal extends beyond the cycle and film communities and taps into something more universal. After keeping track of photos for Rea for months, Howard Mandelbaum, president of the photo archive Photofest, feels the images the author chose bring out an emotional reaction in those who see them.

"People ride bicycles as kids, so there's a nostalgic value to the image," he says. "There's a contrast of people who we think of as glamorous or dignified pedaling themselves from one place to another, not in a limousine. The candid, more relaxed nature brings out a casual, easy quality that brings us back."

Hollywood Rides a Bike may be complete, but that doesn't mean Rea's search for more photos and this personal response is over.

"Anyone who collects anything becomes obsessed and wants to have it as expansive and as representative as possible," Rea explains. "The collecting is constant. It may be labor, but it's a labor of love."

To read Steven Rea's blog, go to http://ridesabike.tumblr.com/.

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