Friday, June 8, 2012

My Ray Bradbury Chronicles

I wasn’t always a Ray Bradbury fan. Back in high school, an ardent Bradbury enthusiast lent me a copy of Farenheit 451, but I found it far less convincing as a vision of the future than Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and far more sentimental. Yes, I was something of an intellectual snob in those days, which may have been part of the problem. At any rate, Truffaut’s film version, which came out a few years later, didn’t impress me either. Nor did a Bradbury story in my college Freshman English anthology, in which astronauts carelessly despoil a pristine planet. The message, it seemed to me, was all too heavy-handed.

It was during my first year at UCLA that I got the rare chance to participate in an off-campus colloquium on The Arts Today. I was thrilled to be accepted, but not entirely pleased to learn that Ray Bradbury would be one of the honored guests. I knew he’d be spending our weekend surrounded by slavish admirers (mostly male, mostly science majors) who had signed up primarily for the pleasure of his company. I was right: the fanboys were annoying, and Bradbury’s talk on the folly of trying to adapt Moby-Dick for a John Huston film starring Gregory Peck didn’t interest me much.

But something happened at that colloquium that was magical, at least for a Southern California kid like me. We were at a rustic conference center in the mountains near Lake Arrowhead, and it started to snow. Real snow – lots of it. That’s when I learned that Ray Bradbury is a good guy to have on your side in a snowball fight. (In this he was a dramatic contrast to our other weekend guest, the composer and music critic Virgil Thomson, a smug little man who regarded us rowdy undergraduates with frank disdain.)

Over the years I became aware of Ray Bradbury as a quintessential L.A. author. He seemed to be everywhere: showing up at local bookstores, at the theatre, on TV. The rare Angeleno who didn’t drive (though he was not averse to bumming rides from friends), he could frequently be spotted on his trusty bike, or on foot. I also learned of his generous support for local institutions. Clifton’s Cafeteria, a kitschy spot in downtown L.A., was a favorite of Bradbury’s in the tough early days, thanks to the owner’s policy of feeding the hungry, whether or not they could afford a meal. In 2009 Bradbury returned to the now-shabby Clifton’s to celebrate his 89th birthday in style.

I also learned to be more appreciative of Bradbury’s writing. I think it was in my kids’ high school anthology that I first read “All Summer in a Day,” a story that uses an outer-space setting to make its point about life on earth. It’s short but almost unbearably poignant: a small, perfect gem.

My second and last personal Bradbury encounter took place in 2003. My biography of Ron Howard was newly out, and I’d been asked to speak at a ladies’ luncheon held in a hotel ballroom. When I learned Bradbury was also on the program, I felt thoroughly daunted. He was physically frail by that point, but he spoke beautifully – and he couldn’t have been more gracious to me, despite the vast difference in our writing careers.

It’s been noted that Ray Bradbury died during a rare celestial event: the transit of the planet Venus across the Sun. What an appropriate time for the poet laureate of space exploration to leave us! He too was something rare.


  1. A wonderful remembrance. I have always found some of his short stories to be amazing - but his longer form fiction often left me cold when I was a student. I have more appreciation for him now - and I'm amazed at how far reaching his work is - books, stories, movies, televsion, radio, comic books - they've all taken Bradbury to heart - some more successfully than others.

    I'm glad things went well in 2003 - it would have been a sad final tale if he'd gone "old man crabby" by then - as happened with my one interaction with Jean Sheppard on the set of the sequel to A Christmas Story. Ah well. I can still enjoy his stories.

  2. Thanks, Mr. Craig. Do tell me the Jean Sheppard story.

  3. Eight or nine years after A Christmas Story, My Summer Story was filmed in Cleveland, Oh and Wilmington NC. I think they basically only shot the house exteriors in Cleveland, using the same house from A Christmas Story. Since so much time had passed, the whole family was recast - Charles Grodin and Mary Steenburgen in for Darren McGavin and Melinda Dillon; and Kieran and Christian Culkin as the lads. I was hired to be a stand-in for two sequences - standing in for the great character actor Roy Brocksmith as the Tax Man, and later for actor Troy Evans in a fishing scene. Well, all the rigamarole of getting in and out of the boats annoyed everyone, and Troy Evans, so he just stayed on the boat all day. This left me on shore doing nothing but waiting in case he changed his mind. Late in the afternoon, a buzz went through the set - Jean Sheppard was on set! I positioned myself near the end of the dock the camera was shooting off of and waited. Mr. and Mrs. Sheppard came strolling along. I didn't want to try for an autograph - and had no camera for a picture. I just wanted to say hello to the man whose writing had given me so much joy and laughter, and tell him that. As he got near me, I thrust out a hand and said "Mr. Sheppard?" He turned to me, looked at my hand, then turned away, growling "I don't have time for you!" His wife gave me a sympathetic look as she passed by. I know he might have had reason to be crabby, or even have been having a bad day. But that interaction marred my ability to enjoy his work for several years. Maybe he'd had a vision of how poorly this sequel would be received, even under the replacement title It Runs in the Family? I wonder how he'd feel about the new continuation that's set for release this year - with Daniel Stern taking on the role of The Old Man, and Ralphie now a sixteen year old hoping to get his first car. At least they gave it an imaginative (and incorrect) title: A Christmas Story 2 - because no matter how you slice it - it's the third movie in the series, and that's not counting a couple of PBS American Playhouse productions with the same characters.

  4. Fascinating and sad. It's too bad people can't enjoy their celebrity -- I think most writers would be thrilled to be recognized on the street by fans. But old age is tough to handle, so that's probably at least part of the explanation. Thanks, Mr. Craig.