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B is for Bradbury

by Mark Edward, Aug 24 2010

Ray Bradbury 3 Days before 90

The man who helped put the fiction into science fiction and (among other things) envisioned flat-screen wall-to-wall television way back in 1951 turned 90 this week. Obsessed from an early age with death, old age and a longing to retain the eternal child in all of us, his works manage to encapsulate themes of the unknown that playfully bounce back and forth between fantasy and science with the greatest of ease. Ray has been a friend and mentor to me for many years and I can say with that in mind that there are few writers who have humanized the world of science more than him. He's a national treasure and in this blog I will share a few of the magical moments and thoughts he has shared with me.

The Book That Got Me To Read

Ray has the rare distinction of being the first author I ever read in high school whose works I read because I wanted to read it rather than having to read it for a grade point. Back then when I was forced to read “Catcher in the Rye” by other teachers, through a creative writing teacher I will forever be thankful for, I discovered Ray's “Dandelion Wine” and the rest is history. Once to be titled “The Child's Garden of Terrors,” I not only became a fan of his visual style of writing, but his sentiments ran in the same current as mine when it came to magic and the paranormal. He was just right for that time in my life.

As I found out later after meeting him through my dear friend the late great Curtis Harrington; as a child Ray helped Harry Blackstone Sr. vanish a horse on stage and after that became a lifelong fan of magic in all its forms. I have had the privilege to hear in person how both magic and science converged in Ray's prolific mind to give us hundreds of short stories and such wonderful novels as “The Illustrated Man,” “Fahrenheit 451,” and “The Martian Chronicles.”There are few of us that haven't read or are not familiar with his works. I could go on for pages and pages of relating personal anecdotes, but I will try to confine myself to the moments in Ray's presence that really knocked me out. He has been a most gracious person: always there if I needed to talk to him and never one to show any irritating ego affectations so common here in Hollywood that can lead to cold shoulders and arrogance. Not Ray. He still answers his own phone! He's a genuine caring human being – so rare in any circumstance, it's hard to imagine such an icon of Americana can exist. If you want to get a good picture of this man's honor and dedication, please spend a few minutes watching “The Big Read – A Conversation with Ray Bradbury by Lawrence Bridges “ There you can watch him speak from the same room and chair I have listened to him speak from in the past. It's also the same point of view that Susan Gerbic and I sat in last Saturday when we visited Ray to show him a video that was created by Rachel Bloom, “Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury.” More on that later.

The Electric Lady (Collen Gray) from Nightmare Alley (1947)

Ray shared with me his first magic trick: The Ball and Vase. When he was eight years old, he went to the circus and saw his first side-show. During that pivotal moment, he watched a performer called “Mr. Electrico.” This was the old “Electric Chair” illusion where a pretty girl sits in a chair and has electricity passed through her (she is grounded so she doesn't get zapped; see photo) and she is able to hold different kinds of light bulbs which light up in her hands without harm. At one point Mr. Electrico took his own “light sword” and tapped Ray on the nose, telling him he would live forever.  Ray was transfixed. He wasn't afraid since he now thought he would live forever and with this notion in mind he waited until the show was over to ask Mr. Electrico how he did his magic. Mr. Electrico gave him a red wooden Ball and Vase, which Ray still has today. He ran home and tried to figure out how to do the trick and went back the next day to get a private session with Mr. Electrico, where he learned the real secrets behind this minor miracle. This adventure started out as  a short story he wrote in “Dark Carnival” which later became the title of Ray's first published book and on to “Something Wicked This Way Comes.” Such are the many real life experiences that were magically transformed in Ray's mind that have become classics of fantasy and science fiction. He's done everything imaginable including lampooning himself in a futuristic commercial for pitted prunes: “Brave New Prune.” Stan Freberg anyone? Ray has a devilish sense of humor and he has never been afraid to speak his mind.

There are so many words of wisdom I have heard uttered as casual asides from Ray's lips, I could write my own book of quotes. Words like:
“Touch a scientist and you touch a child.”
Perhaps the best advice he has given to me personally came when one afternoon as I sat in his presence to talk about a book I was starting about magic. I was going into all sorts of detail about this and that and fretting over what I thought was important and what was not when suddenly Ray grabbed my pen and note pad from my hands and wrote in a huge scrawl: “Stop Thinking! Do!” I have that sheet of paper framed in my library and have tried to live up to those words. He is quoted as saying it to others this way:
“Don't think. Thinking is the enemy of creativity. It's self-conscious, and anything self-conscious is lousy. You can't try to do things. You simply must do things. ”
Maybe that's part of the reason why I'm less concerned with correct spelling, syntax and semantics when I write and more involved in getting out and DOING SOMETHING.
Last Thursday morning, I received a message telling me about a video that I had to see. It was a rock and roll piece with the intriguing title of “Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury.”After watching it a few times, Susan Gerbic and I knew that Ray had to see it. He would be 90 years old the next day and I knew seeing this bit of future shock television would give him a kick that would brighten his day. So I rang him up and asked if he had seen “the video about you with the young girls?”  He said he hadn't, which was amazing because after only three or four days on YouTube it had garnered over 300K  hits! We made plans to go over to his house at 3:00 p.m.

Susan in Ray's Sitting Room

Ray's house is a museum. It is cluttered from floor to ceiling with history. One can only hope that when the time comes, it will be put together in a safe place just as it is: with every shelf and corner just the way he has it now; like some wandering wizard's toyshop of fantastic curios. You could spend hours walking through hallways and hidden nooks housing collections of bizarre paintings and ephemera that include everything from models of the Nautilus submarine from “20000 Leagues Under the Sea” to a saved brick from Poe's original birth place. Years and years of magical thinking surround every wall. This is not woo, this is the modern outcome of investigating centuries of mind, myth and magic.

A Corner of Ray's Dining Room Circa 2010

We spoke with Ray for a few choice minutes. He's incredibly fragile and not in good health, with both vision and hearing problems that make conversing with him a challenge. But he's still as sharp as a tack. When he speaks, it is always something profound. He doesn't mince words and when you are in his presence, you better pay attention. We ran the video that we had downloaded on a laptop. Considering the title and content of this video, it was a tense few minutes. Still, we both soon saw that wise old knowing gleam in his eyes and heard a few soft chuckles. This is a man who has been around the block a few times and we could see that he was charmed by the whole thing. And who wouldn't be? How many authors of his stature get to see young women frolicking in a girl's school singing that tune? Not appropriate for the workplace, you can watch what we watched at:

Ray Watching YouTube Video Tribute

Susan Gerbic, Ray Bradbury and The Ball and Vase

As a finale for Ray's afternoon, as if anything could possibly top the Youtube video performance, I managed to coerce Susan to treat Ray to one of her own inimitable performances of The Ball and Vase. I gave her one as a holiday gift and she has been keeping people in stitches ever since. If you haven't watched Susan doing her version of this classic of magic and want to have a few laughs (and watch Randi double up in laughter too) you can find that gem at:

All in all it was a short but memorable visit. Like Ray's own dandelion wine, it's best to drink in such  heady experiences in small sips. When we got up to leave I asked Ray if there was anything we could do for him, he replied, “… Just keep visiting me.” What a sweetheart. Ray is at this moment getting set to observe an entire week devoted to his birthday here in Los Angeles. Tagged as the “Live Forever” week, although I remain skeptical, I have no doubt he will live forever, one way or another. Thanks Ray for teaching me how to read – for real. FYI:Ray Bradbury is about to publish a new book of 22 new short stories!

AND THIS JUST IN: Lots of reaction to this video (and Susan's picture!) at P.Z. Meyer's blog:

26 Responses to “B is for Bradbury”

  1. I gotta say, I hope things are going half as well for me at 90.

  2. don’t step on that butterfly !

  3. this was precious.
    thank you.
    and thank you, ray bradbury.

  4. MadScientist says:

    Ray’s one of my favorite (well, probably *the* favorite) SciFi author. Sorry Asimov, you’re no Ray Bradbury. I wish I had gorgeous young women bouncing about and singing songs like that for me …

    By the way, wrong link on Susan’s ball and vase trick – that’s a link to the music video.

  5. Mark Edward says:

    Thanks, I’ll fix that link stuff pronto..

  6. Zenn says:

    Mark, you have some great friends! I am envious!

  7. Max says:

    “Maybe that’s part of the reason why I’m less concerned with correct spelling, syntax and semantics when I write and more involved in getting out and DOING SOMETHING.”

    If you’re going to do something, do it right. And that includes writing.

  8. peter says:

    I can only say “Thank You” to a writer who has given me hours of immense reading pleasure – which almost turned into an addiction
    with novels like the “martian chronicles”, “something wicket…” “the illustrated man”, etc. etc…Happy Birthday.

  9. Wendy Hughes says:

    How groovy that Ray was entertained and even given a little laugh on his 90th birthday by people I totally know are kind and gentle. Some of the stories that came from his mind live in the recesses of ours… we owe him so much. Thanks for giving him a nice birthday, you two.

  10. Zenn says:

    I always thought B was for boobs though.

  11. Jeremy Anderson says:

    Just a quick note: Didn’t George Orwell foresee flat-screen wall-to-wall television, back in 1948?

  12. Wendy Hughes says:

    Check out this link on Wired magazine to the origin of the F*** You Ray Bradbury video!
    It was posted on the IIG facebook page by Stacy.

  13. Kitty says:

    Yes, please do keep visiting him! I adore the “Stop Thinking! DO!” My own daughter has struggled all her life with dyslexia. She really needed to practice reading to help “rewire” her brain, but honestly the struggle was so much she would be exhausted and give up most times. But then, we found “Dandylion Wine” and it just took off from there. She said “hey this guy thinks like I do! He’s great!”. Her English class in high school saw how much she and the other students with special needs loved Ray Bradbury, so they did an entire Ray Bradbury short story class. The quality of his writing and the “ah ha!” moments his writing gives students, means that the joy of reading is being known by kids that otherwise would have just given up. Including my daughter.

    Mind you, I hear I’m to expect a special package in the mail for my daughter in the next few days. Let’s just say Susan and Mark are awfully special people.

  14. Michael Lewis says:

    Thank you for article, I too have been deeply touched by that grand old man. Many, many years ago as a teenager I read the Martian Chroniles and was compelled to write it’s writer, having no idea this famous, very busy man would take the time to really read it, much less actually respond. But respond he did and not just once but several times, eventually inviting me to the Pacific Coast Writers Convention to hear him speak. That encounter was certainly a pivotal experience for me and though I never became a writer, other than of puns and bad poetry, his advice on creativity still infuses the paintings I do fifty eight years later. Ray Bradbury is the definition of the word generosity, both physically and in spirit. He is truly the answer to Mr. Electro’s prophecy, as he will live forever through his writing. Thank you too, to Rachel Bloom for putting a smile on his face.

  15. Kenneth Polit says:

    Fahrenheit 451 was the first book I read because I wanted to. Thanks Ray, and happy birthday.

  16. Sgerbic says:

    Just watched the above video Bradbury does for prunes. Priceless!

  17. Luftritter says:

    Happy Birthday Mr Bradbury!

    The “The Martian Chronicles” was the first book I read in english.
    This post was really magnificent!!

  18. MaikU says:

    I have brand new “451…” on my desk :)

  19. Tommy says:

    Could you please link to bigger images than the tiny thumbnails?

  20. Karen Henery says:

    My friend in Toronto directed me to this blog entry after I posted the “F*ck Me, Ray Bradbury” video in my journal on another site.

    It is undeniably satisfying to hear that Mr. Bradbury has seen this video, mainly due to the fact that it has a brilliance of its own kind. I’ve always wanted to meet Mr. Bradbury. He – like many others have stated – undoubtedly made an impact in my life; in thought process and provocation; in writing style and delight – intensifying the already strong attraction to the worlds of science fiction and fantasy and the concentricity of their effect on the real world.

    All the happiest wishes to the man synonymous with the very essence of unwaivering curiosity in the light cast by the bedside lamps of future generations. Thank you, Mr. Bradbury!

  21. Pam Young says:

    I tapped into Bradbury’s genius and humanity when I introduced several classes of grade 7 kids to his work in the 1980s. The kids wrote wonderful metaphors, a la Bradbury’s style, and we sent a sheet of the best ones to him c/o his publisher. I forgot about the letter until I went back to school the next September, only to find an envelope containing a piece of bright yellow card stock thanking me and the kids for their metaphors and sharing how pleased he was that he had inspired such creativity. The card was decorated with Alice in Wonderland stickers and signed in silver ink. I was blown away by the man’s generosity….

  22. I’ve never met Ray but I got to see him appear at a performance of the Pacific Symphony and Pacific Chorale (of which my dad is one of the founding members) when they performed a piece based on his poem “This Time of Kites”. Such a gentleman and an elegant poet, a true luminary.