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Where the Sidewalk Ends 

Wednesday, Apr 3 2002
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Downtown L.A. was its festive and contradictory self last Sunday: A sullen homeless man greeted traffic at Figueroa and Sixth with a “Happy Easter” sign, while a block away a guy rode an elephant down Flower Street during a movie shoot. Further east, families thronged Clifton‘s Cafeteria on Broadway, where the holiday meals ranged from the deluxe ham plate to Chicken Sonora. (Or is it Sonora Chicken?) Clifton’s, with its wishing ponds and Bambi-esque evocation of “nature,” inspires mixed feelings about downtown. On the one hand it‘s a relic of commercial eccentricity and civic responsibility from L.A.’s golden past and, on the other, a faded reminder of just how long ago that past is -- you don‘t know whether to laugh like Huell Howser or cut your throat.

If nothing else, Clifton’s will go down in local literary history as the place where young fantasy and science fiction geeks like Ray Bradbury, Forrest J. Ackerman and Hannes Bok met during the Depression. On Monday, Bradbury received Hollywood‘s Walk of Fame Star No. 2,193, our city’s cultural equivalent to France‘s Legion d’Honneur. The ceremony, presided over by the irrepressible (or is it unavoidable?) Johnny Grant, was held in front of Larry Edmunds Bookshop, where Bradbury has been a customer for the past 50 years. Indeed, the morning provided spectators with a rare living connection to L.A. and Hollywood history: Joining Mayor Jim Hahn and Councilman Eric Garcetti in congratulating Bradbury were Charlton Heston and Stan Freberg, along with Rod Steiger and wife Joan Benedict -- both of whom were dressed in black with identical gold Little Prince medallions.

Like Clifton‘s, Bradbury’s work over the last 60-odd years has provoked mixed reviews. He was always the great sentimentalizer of the future -- a man more at ease creating characters who dream of rural Midwestern boyhoods than building stories from the nuts and bolts of hard science. Not for nothing did Steiger, in his remarks, quip, “Ray, you‘re such a sentimentalist that you’d starve to death if you couldn‘t hide behind science fiction!”

It was Bradbury’s native humanism and aversion to real technology (he‘s never driven a car nor owned a computer), however, that allowed him to easily make the leap from pulp to Playboy and, more important, to Hollywood, which employed him on scripts from Moby Dick to King of Kings, and whose seminal TV shows like The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents introduced him to millions of households. Although The Martian Chronicles put Bradbury on the map in 1950, it was his 1953 dystopian fantasy, Fahrenheit 451, in which firemen start fires to burn books, that resonates to this day. The novel, filmed by Francois Truffaut in 1966, also kicks off April’s “One Book, One City L.A.” campaign, a 30-event program promoting, as one press release put it, “literacy and civic pride.”

Except for a brief moment when he was helped to the podium, the 81-year-old Bradbury sat in a wheelchair throughout the ceremony, but his voice was still robust and mischievous as he said hello to “the man I slept with for 27 years” -- his brother Skip. Bradbury‘s award ceremony, with its gathering of old men and ladies, and gawking tourists clicking cheap cameras from behind barricades, was very much like one of his short stories -- say, a tale about some man coming to the end of a long, happy life to become a sidewalk star in the kind of city where a man begs for change on one street while a block away another rides an elephant.

Reach the writer at smikulan@laweekly.com

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