The Two Rays
Sometimes you write the article, sometimes the article writes you.
You’ve seen it a million times. The head table, on a dais, faces the audience. The honored guests take the stage to applause. The microphones are adjusted, name cards arranged, the host begins the program.
But when the greatest living science fiction writer is the guest, the gods are aware and send us a message, lest we begin to imagine that we are in charge of the agenda.
Ray Bradbury is in a wheelchair these days. The Comic-Con arranged for a nifty, new-looking wheelchair elevator to be at the end of the stage. Ray’s people wheeled him across the front of the stage to a round of applause. They wheeled him into the elevator, a glass box (waist high, if you’re standing, if you’re sitting, it’s up to your neck) on a lifting platform, glittering, unmarked by fingerprint or key scratch or any marks of human inhabitation. It was also innocent of any rehearsal, the hallmark of every smooth use of any stagecraft more complicated than a hat.
If it was President Roosevelt, two guys would’ve lifted him and his chair the two or three feet from floor to the stage. It might have taken an extra guy, Comic-Con folks not usually bringing Secret Service beef to the table. But we have modern technology—no sweat, no strain.
In 2007, still without our silver jumpsuits, faced with an untried, miniature elevator, Ray sat there a prisoner, his unfailing good nature in no danger from this silly snag, for ten minutes. They fiddled with the lock, they looked concerned, they did their impression of Wile E. Coyote in the moments between realizing the scheme has misfired and feeling the faint breeze that announces the arriving boulder. They moved the platform up an inch, they moved it down three inches. They did these things for ten minutes with no help sought or offered from any authority. Finally, they blundered upon the right sequence of actions and the gleaming glass and steel doorway opened and Ray Bradbury was freed from The Crystal Prison of the Festival of Fans.
Compared to the non-stop talking and alternate video realities of the Comic-Con, this was the equivalent of racing your Mustang through the streets of San Francisco, something real, something dramatic.
It threw off the balance of the program. The idea was to present two great friends, Ray Bradbury and filmmaker Ray Harryhausen on the occasion of the release of newly colorized (get back in your seats!) versions of some of Harryhausen’s best-remembered films.
I’m afraid a lot of the audience was a step behind, still assimilating the latest release of Harryhausen’s great stop motion classics bringing to life the worlds of Homer and the tales of the Arabian Nights. Now we were moving on to the more obscure, but at least equally artistic 20,000,000 Miles to Earth, beloved by all but not quite imprinted in the forebrain like the works of Ray the Bradbury.
Ray Bradbury has done and seen so much that he needs an anecdote wrangler to make sure he remembers to tell the ones with the biggest celebrities in them when before a jaded crowd of know it all fans. Today that job is filled by his biographer, Sam Weller. We’d gladly listen to Bradbury reminisce about this morning’s breakfast or the quality of the sunlight but Sam Weller is a showman.
We heard about the day Bradbury met George Cukor and got a ride home and a big smooch from Katherine Hepburn. He told us about the time he introduced himself to Walt Disney in a Beverly Hills department store one Christmas season.
The story started with Disney’s arms full of presents. We find out that Disney knew Bradbury’s work and was delighted to meet him. They share a series of lunches at the studio and the story ends up with Bradbury’s arms full of presents. These were not forgettable trash from a department store, but the result of his request to “open the vaults” when Disney asked how he could repay our Ray for championing Disneyland to the “New York intellectuals” who didn’t quite get it. The way Ray tells it you can imagine him barely able to walk, burdened down with his pick of the greatest animation art ever made, transferred from one compulsive saver to another.
We also learn that this treasure is safe with Bradbury, who has never thrown away a movie stub, let alone a work of art. His place is filled with filing cabinets full of it all.
Ray tells the story about how he called up the motion picture Academy office to make them an offer (one they couldn’t refuse, he joked he’d otherwise have to bomb the place) to present Harryhausen’s special Oscar. “Come and get your Oscar, Ray” is how you get it from a best friend.
We learn of Bradbury’s vow one year to write a story every week. We learn he now writes a poem a week. We learn Aldous Huxley considered The Martian Chronicles a work of poetry.
To know Ray Bradbury is to never stop learning, the consummation we truly wish, whether we know it or not.
When the program was turned over to the audience, I started to feel sorry for Ray Harryhausen; nearly all the questions were for the other Ray.
English teachers wanted tips on teaching Farenheit 451 (it’s about his love of libraries; he’s still upset about the burning of Alexandria), a young lady wanted to know about inspiration for The Martian Chronicles (the speculative canal paintings made by Giovanni Schiaparelli in the Nineteenth Century), and the real identity of a character in one of his books. I needn’t bother to specify which one: he said that all his characters were himself. It brings to mind the Zen notion that all of us are merely part of a great game of hide and seek that is God’s chief occupation.