Ray Bradbury was born in Waukegan, but he never grew up. In his heart and in his work, the 72-year-old dean of American science fiction and fantasy writers is still the wildly imaginative boy who spent hours reading and dreaming in the local library; the non-stop talker who amazed and amused his friends with bizarre tales of ghosts, outer space and other-worldly phenomena.
"Ray was a funny little kid with big, thick glasses. He was always telling stories, always on stage, always performing," recalled childhood friend Abraham Davis of Waukegan. Bradbury's diminutive size and poor eyesight made him less athletically inclined than most of the other youngsters, so he spent a lot of his free time conquering the worlds he found contained in the books in Waukegan's old Carnegie Library.
"Ray wasn't much of a ballplayer, but he lived in the library. He was always going back and forth with an armful of books," Davis said. "Ray was interested in outer space long before any of us knew anything about it. He would go on and on about Buck Rogers. Back then, all that seemed a little crazy to the rest of us," Davis continued.
Marjorie Owens Boyer, who attended Waukegan's old Central School with Bradbury and Davis, has kept in touch with the author over the years. "He hasn't changed much," she said recently. "He always liked to get his own way. He was always gregarious, always out to have a good time."
Those qualities sometimes got Bradbury in trouble, Davis noted. Although he was bright and got good grades, "Ray spent a lot of time standing in the hall at school because he was talking when he shouldn't have been."
Bradbury's outrageous sense of humor was a match for his motor mouth and his vivid imagination, his old friends added. "Ray loved to laugh," Davis said. "As kids, we spent a lot of time in the old Genesee Theater. It was a great place, really huge, and I always knew when Ray was there because, wherever I was sitting, I could hear him laughing."
Bradbury was just 13 in April 1934 when his father, who'd lost his job as a lineman with the Waukegan Bureau of Power and Light two years earlier, packed up the family and drove them cross country to southern California. He has lived in the Los Angeles area ever since and raised daughters Susan, Ramona, Bettina and Alexandra there with wife Maggie, but he's quick to acknowledge the tremendous influence those early Waukegan years have had on his personal outlook and his professional output.
"Waukegan permeates everything I do," he said simply. Part mad scientist, part magician and part moralist, Bradbury is best known for his science fiction, fantasy and horror stories and novels, but he also has crossed the bridge into other genres and mediums. He wrote the screenplay for John Huston's film version of "Moby Dick" as well as numerous scripts, plays and screenplays based on his own work.
Bradbury's childhood memories-people, places and specific events-turn up again and again in his writing. Fans know, for example, that "Green Town," the fictional 1920s community that appears in "Something Wicked This Way Comes," "Dandelion Wine" and in the fantasies of the colonists in "The Martian Chronicles," is really the Waukegan of Bradbury's youth.
The town's Carnegie Library, where Bradbury wiled away so many afternoons, became, appropriately, a safe haven and a source of strength and wisdom for the hero of "Something Wicked This Way Comes." The character of Mr. Electrico, from the same book, was drawn from Bradbury's startling encounter with a carnival performer he met in Waukegan when he was just 12. During his act, Bradbury still remembers vividly, the electrified man touched Bradbury's head and made his hair stand on end-not just with the current that flowed through him but with his amazing command to the boy to "live forever."
Later, on the way home from the funeral of his uncle, who had been killed in a hold-up a few days earlier, Bradbury insisted that his father drop him off so he could go back and meet with the sideshow entertainer. "He talked his small philosophies, and he let me talk my big ones," Bradbury recalled during a recent visit to Waukegan. "I didn't realize it then, but what I was doing was running away from death and toward life."
The man also intrigued Bradbury with his belief that the boy was the reincarnation of a friend who had died in battle in 1918 in the Ardennes Forest area of France, Belgium and Luxembourg. "The soul looking out of your eyes is the soul of my friend," the man told the imaginative youngster. "It was about two months after that that I began to write every day, and I haven't stopped in 60 years," the prolific author said.
Many of Bradbury's other childhood experiences have also found their way into his fiction. The terror the young Bradbury felt when he witnessed a fire in his grandmother's home became the horror felt by the reluctant book-burner "Montag" as he watched flames consume books, homes and people in the novel "Fahrenheit 451." His grandmother's boarder was transformed by Bradbury's imagination into the title character of the story "The Man Upstairs"-"but I turned him into a vampire," Bradbury said with a mischievous glint in his eyes.
Bradbury also entertained a gathering at Waukegan's Stage Two Theater in April with a humorous tale of his 1934 meeting with George Burns and Gracie Allen. Having recently moved to Los Angeles, Bradbury had taken to hanging around the theater where the duo did their radio show. He finally met the pair out front, and Burns invited him in to watch a performance. "I started writing scripts and giving them to him every week. I'm sure he never read them-they were dreadful-but he encouraged me," Bradbury said.
Forty years later, at a banquet honoring Steven Spielberg, Bradbury met Burns again and asked him if he remembered that enthusiastic young author. "So that was you!" Bradbury said the astonished comic responded.
"Ray tells the most amazing stories, but they really are true," said Bradbury's friend and bibliographer, Don Albright of Westfield, N.J., a suburb of New York. "I think it's because he's so gregarious and so adventurous that things just happen to him that don't happen to other people."
Albright, an art teacher who grew up in Muncie, Ind., first heard Bradbury on a radio show in 1950. A friend subsequently told the 13-year-old that "Mars is Heaven," the Bradbury story that had caught his attention, was in a book. "I started trying to track down everything he had written. ... I was amazed. Here was this old man of 30 who was writing stories about me," he recalled. Albright sent a fan letter to Bradbury, and the author wrote back. It was the beginning of a lengthy correspondence, but the two didn't meet until 1965 at the performance of one of Bradbury's plays in New York City.
In the meantime, Albright had continued to collect everything he could find on Bradbury and ship it home to his parents' house in Muncie. "I had no place else to keep it," he explained. Albright's parents are now deceased, but he still owns the house, which has become an unofficial museum of Bradbury's life and work. The massive collection is serving as the basis for the Bradbury bibliography that Albright is writing with co-author Jim Welsh. Titled "October's Friend," the 800-page volume will cover Bradbury's work from 1936 to 1991 and will contain 700 photos. It is due out this fall.
Another Bradbury fan who became a friend is writer William Nolan, perhaps best known for his futuristic trilogy "Logan's Run." "It was in the 1940s, in Kansas City, Mo., which is where I grew up, when I first read one of his horror stories and thought, `Here's something totally extraordinary,' " Nolan said in a telephone interview. A few years later, in 1950, Nolan met Bradbury. Although just 29 years old, seven years Nolan's senior, Bradbury was already a well-known writer. Nolan told him he also wanted to write, and the older man encouraged him and promised to review his work when he was ready.
In 1953, Nolan took Bradbury up on his pledge and sent him a story he'd finished. Bradbury was then on location in Ireland with John Huston, filming "Moby Dick."
"He took time out to read it. He told me it was very good but that I should change the ending because the emotions were wrong. I did, and the story sold right away," Nolan said.
Nolan has since written 60 books, hundreds of stories and magazine articles and 24 television movies. "Ray has been a big influence on me, a prime influence. I used to write out his descriptions longhand just to study how he'd done it," Nolan said.
Bradbury, who sold his first piece of writing on his 21st birthday, has had his work published in nearly 2,000 anthologies and 800 textbooks. That's an accomplishment that no other American author-not even Ernest Hemingway or F. Scott Fitzgerald-has ever matched, Nolan added.
Although touted by one of his publishers as the world's greatest living science fiction writer, Bradbury has been criticized by purists who find too little science in his fiction. His skeptical view of modern technology is reflected in his personal life-he has never learned to drive a car and, until 10 years ago, refused to fly in a plane. It also is a recurring theme in his writing, where his characters suffer from the misuses and abuses of technology as often as they benefit from its wonders.
"Ray is not a science fiction writer in the truest sense," Nolan agreed. "He writes social fiction. He writes about people and feelings, not science and technology. He has the moons coming up on the wrong side of Mars, but no one cares."
The human themes and emotions that are Bradbury's focus make his work more enduring than that of science fiction writers who concentrate on gadgets and gizmos, noted Marge Engesser, associate artistic director of Waukegan's Stage Two Theater. The local theater performed four of Bradbury's one-act plays-all at least 20 years old-at its Bradbury Festival in April.
"I think they've held up very well. ... They make very effective theater. ... They're about people, not technology, so they're timeless," Engesser said.
During his long career, Bradbury has turned his attention to a number of non-writing projects, including the preservation of Waukegan's long vacant Carnegie Library. His work to promote libraries in general also has earned him honors from the American Library Association.
"I'm a library-educated person," noted Bradbury, who never attended college. "I started studying in the library when I was 18, because I couldn't afford to buy books. I graduated from the library when I was 28."
Bradbury's vision of the future provided the concepts on which the U.S. pavilion at the 1964 World's Fair in New York and the Spaceship Earth at Disney's Epcot Center near Orlando were based. He's also been consulted on urban planning projects in Los Angeles, San Diego and Tokyo.
Since 1985, Bradbury has adapted a number of his short stories for the USA cable series "The Ray Bradbury Theater." His short novel "Fahrenheit 451" was made into a film by Francois Truffaut and has now been transformed into an opera. The film version of "Something Wicked This Way Comes," starring Jason Robards, has become something of a cult classic, while the novel "Dandelion Wine" became a play and more recently was adapted for the musical stage.
Bradbury keeps busy on the lecture circuit and travels extensively, but he still keeps in touch with his Waukegan friends and visits when he can.
His wife of 46 years, Maggie, a California native, has never been to Waukegan, however. "Of course, I've heard about it for years, but the reason I don't go to Waukegan is that is his thing," she said. "I don't want him to feel he has to take me around and introduce me to everyone."
She's right about Waukegan being Bradbury's thing. "This is where I started writing, and that's the reason I come back here," he said. "I couldn't stay away if I wanted to."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun