Illustration by Tra Selhtrow

The cover of my old Ballantine copy of The October Country bears a blurb from The New York Times declaring the book’s author, Ray Bradbury, “the uncrowned king of the science fiction writers.” Today, some four decades after this judgment, Bradbury unambiguously wears that crown, having left behind a literary legacy that includes Fahrenheit 451, The Martian Chronicles, and countless short stories and teleplays. It is, however, little known that he is also a playwright and theater enthusiast who is often busy overseeing stage adaptations of his work through his Pandemonium Theater Company. Some of his plays have been original works that he later rewrote as short stories; others have been Bradbury short stories that he or others adapted. Pandemonium, which operates in cooperation with Theater West, is now presenting Next in Line. (See New Theater Reviews in Calendar.)

Last week I spoke by phone to Bradbury, whose declining health has forced him to attend public events in a wheelchair. When the Weekly offered to send a photographer to his Cheviot Hills home, he demurred, saying, “I’m 84 and falling apart — there’s not much to photograph!”

Bradbury has been demanding that Michael Moore change the title of his documentary, Fahrenheit 9/11, worried that people might confuse an upcoming new version of Fahrenheit 451 with Moore’s.

“I’m waiting for him to appear at a press conference with me to give me my title and my book back,” he says.

Bradbury is famously anachronistic, a science-fiction writer who has never driven a car or used a computer. “I’ve got three typewriters,” he will later tell me. “I don’t need a computer.” When I call, his line is busy, indicating an absence of call waiting.

Adapted by S.L. Stebel and Charles Rome Smith from a Bradbury short story appearing in The October Country anthology, the Pandemonium production is a melancholy fable about an American couple named Joe and Marie, who visit a small Mexican town around the time of its Day of the Dead festivities. Before long, Marie becomes obsessed with the local cathedral’s catacombs and their gallery of mummified corpses, seeing in their dried husks the arid texture of her life.

I was 14 when I read “The Next in Line” (as the original short is titled), and it disturbed me in ways that other literary forays into the adult world, with their sexual atheism and sardonic violence, hadn’t. Here was something new, all right — the everyday grown-up terror of mortality that can suddenly be fanned into an obsession by a chance encounter, the way swallowing a glass of water too quickly can bring intimations of drowning. This wasn’t a supernatural yarn about mummies coming to life, but an unspooling of a woman’s regrets and the conversational cease-fire that had come to typify her marriage.

“In order for a thing to be horrible it has to suffer a change you can recognize,” Marie says while standing in the catacombs, and before long we realize she’s not just talking about those brittle mummies.

Bradbury was only 25 — and single — when he wrote this existential parable of marriage and isolation after visiting Guanajuato and its mummies.

“When World War II ended, a friend of mine wanted to go to Mexico,” Bradbury recalls. “I had no money — I was a $15-a-week pulp writer — but my friend had an old beat-up Ford and needed someone to hold a map. I went like a damn fool, because I didn’t belong there — I didn’t speak the language or know the country.”

The short story that came from their 5,000-mile journey exhales an admiration for rural Mexico, but Bradbury’s actual feelings were far different — he has never returned south of the border. His encounter with the mummies became a claustrophobic nightmare.

“Mexico scared the hell out of me,” he says. “I didn’t like the country and I didn’t like Guanajuato. It stayed with me until I got home to Los Angeles. I wrote the story to get it out of my system.”

The trip did have one reward, however.

“In Mexico City my friend and I stayed at a private house. One morning John Steinbeck sat across from me at breakfast — I was stunned! He was there making the movie of The Pearl and came to breakfast still a little drunk from the night before. He was a wonderful talker that morning.”

Steinbeck was a hero to Bradbury, who, nevertheless, could not bring himself to tell the famous author that he, too, was a writer — the young Bradbury felt the pulps unworthy to even mention in conversation.

The Grapes of Wrath influenced me as a writer,” Bradbury says. “My structure for The Martian Chronicles was modeled on it. The sad thing is that years later, on the day I got around to writing Steinbeck to remind him of the time I’d met him, he died. Afterward, his son, Tom, told me Steinbeck had read my stories to scare his children at Halloween — I felt so honored.”

When talking to Bradbury, it becomes clear that he has never forgotten the relative poverty of his childhood — which may partly explain his reverence for The Grapes of Wrath and its author, as well as his grim fascination with the Guanajuato mummies, whose exhumed and publicly displayed bodies are of people whose families could no longer afford to pay the local cemetery “rent.” It even seems to have affected his attitude toward cars.

“Writers can’t afford cars,” he tells me when I ask about his lifelong resistance to driving. “By the time I was old enough to buy a car, I didn’t want one.” Instead, he was driven everywhere by his wife, Marguerite, who died this past fall after 56 years of marriage.

After his classes at Los Angeles High School, Bradbury would sell newspapers on the corner of Olympic and Norton from 3 to 6 p.m., then would devote evenings to writing. He also attended meetings of the Science Fiction League, which met downtown on Thursdays in the Brown Room of Clifton’s Cafeteria.

“Dues were 10 cents a meeting,” he says, still conscious of the price of fraternity. “It cost 7 cents to take the trolley car there, and Clifton’s had wonderful dime malts — they were whole meals. We’d also eat cheese enchiladas.”

Even though it was the Depression and Bradbury made the pilgrimage to Clifton’s in hand-me-down clothes, the league’s meetings were clearly a golden time for him.

“It was 1937, and we didn’t realize it then that we were contributing to a literary style,” he says.

At Clifton’s he rubbed frayed elbows with Robert Heinlein, the future author of Stranger in a Strange Land, as well as the science-fiction/horror impresario Forrest Ackerman, fantasy illustrator Hannes Bok, and Leigh Brackett, whose screenplays would one day include The Big Sleep, Rio Bravo and The Empire Strikes Back.

“Leigh became my friend and teacher,” Bradbury says. “I’d meet her at Muscle Beach, and when she finished playing volleyball, I would read Leigh’s beautiful stories and she would read my lousy ones.”

Throughout his youth Bradbury attended the theater whenever he could — sometimes by sneaking in, but more often through the time-honored entrée of ushering.

“I was an usher at the Biltmore Theater, Hollywood Bowl and the Philharmonic. The Lunts came to the Biltmore with There Shall Be No Night — Montgomery Clift’s first play on the West Coast. Katharine Cornell was also there, with a George Bernard Shaw play.”

Years later, after he had firmly established his writing credentials, Bradbury, who had written plays in his youth, felt the urge to return to theater.

“In 1963 or ’64, I joined a group of amateur actors who put on plays at a tiny stage on the old Desilu lot, which is now part of Paramount,” he says of a theater where, as a 14-year-old, Bradbury had seen Jack Benny and Al Jolson perform their radio shows. “Charles Rome Smith put on my stories ‘The Pedestrian,’ ‘Medicine for Melancholy’ and ‘The Man in the Ice Cream Suit.’ It proved to me I was a playwright after all.”

With that, Bradbury and Smith launched the Pandemonium Theater Company, christened for the name of the spooky carnival in Bradbury’s novel Something Wicked This Way Comes. Together, by Bradbury’s estimate, he and Smith have staged between 35 and 40 Bradbury plays, with Smith directing Next in Line, as he did at the New Ivar Theater a dozen years ago.

“Theater’s never been very popular,” Bradbury admits. “Not since the 1920s or ’30s. Today there are 80 or 90 theaters in town doing what they all love. I don’t care what people think of my plays. They make my life worthwhile.”

NEXT IN LINE | Adapted from a RAY BRADBURY story by S.L. STEBEL and CHARLES ROME SMITH | Pandemonium Theater Company at Theater West, 3333 Cahuenga Blvd. West, Hollywood | Through July 24 | (323) 851-7977

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