Unflagging Optimism Is Ray Bradbury's Ticket to the Future

Musical TheaterPoetryTelevisionEntertainmentPhilosophyRay BradburyDeath

Get Ray Bradbury talking and he soon makes the Rev. Robert H. Schuller sound like Oscar the Grouch and the proverbial busy beaver seem like a lazy sloth.

"Everything is good--children don't die any more . . . people are living into their 70s and 80s, everyone has a car and a telephone--I didn't have a telephone in my house until I was 17. And when it comes to living well, even the poorest people in our country are better off than moderate-income people in some Third World countries," said the 67-year-old perennially enthusiastic author, playwright, poet, public speaker and self-confessed pack rat (he never throws anything away because it may provide an idea for a book or a story somewhere down the line).

Such unflagging optimism is a recurring theme in Bradbury's writings; it reflects his belief that humankind can shape the world into anything it wants. And it makes Bradbury an ideal choice to talk about the often uplifting poetry of Walt Whitman, one of his favorite writers.

Bradbury will discuss Whitman tonight at 7 at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, where the Pacific Chorale's "Celebration of the Sea" program will include two works set to Whitman poems, Ralph Vaughan Williams' "Sea Symphony" and Frederick Delius' "Sea Drift." (See accompanying story).

The title of one of Whitman's poems--"I Sing the Body Electric"--inspired one of Bradbury's best and best-known stories. A fable set in the not-too-distant future about an android grandmother programmed to raise, and love, a family in which the mother has died, the story has been done for television twice: originally in the early '60s as an episode of Rod Serling's "The Twilight Zone" and again in 1982 in an hourlong NBC special starring Maureen Stapleton.

The sea, meanwhile, looms large in the Bradbury legend, too. His first big break into screen writing came in 1954 when director John Huston was so impressed with Bradbury's short story "The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms" that he recruited him to write the screenplay for the film adaptation of "Moby Dick."

Bradbury has performed with orchestras before, serving as narrator for such popular pieces as Prokofiev's "Peter and the Wolf" and Saint-Saens' "Carnival of the Animals."

"It's a challenge because you're performing instead of exploding," he said during a recent telephone interview from his vacation home in Palm Springs. "When I lecture, I throw myself all over the place. But doing a thing like (narrating an orchestral work) you have to integrate yourself with an orchestra and a conductor, and it's a little nerve-wracking, I must say."

His role on tonight's program will be less structured: "It will be an informal talk, sort of going over Whitman's life a little and integrating it if I can with the music," Bradbury said.

An Illinois kid who grew up in Hollywood to become one of the world's most published writers, Bradbury still travels daily to a Beverly Hills office jam-packed with books, magazines, comic books, videotapes, toys, you-name-it.

Far from ever running short of ideas for new stories, the indefatigable writer says, "I've got too many of them. I'm always at work on five or six different projects every week."

In a matter-of-fact tone, Bradbury outlined his current list of works-in-progress: an opera drawn on his play "Leviathan 99," which is based on "Moby Dick"; a new novel, due in June; a new anthology of short stories; a book about his experiences working with John Huston entitled "The Whale, the Whim and I"; a musical based on his book "Dandelion Wine" on which he is collaborating with songwriter Jimmy Webb; writing and hosting new episodes of his cable television series "Ray Bradbury Theater"; and a theatrical project he describes as "quasi-opera musical drama akin to 'Sweeney Todd' " based on his anti-censorship book "Fahrenheit 451."

He is pursuing the musicals both despite and because of his belief that "rock musicians have ruined the whole field. They can't write lyrics, can't write songs and you can't understand what they sing. Like Michael Jackson, who makes a sound like a cat with its tail caught in the door--when a million copies of 'Bad' sell in a single week, something is wrong. Stupid people have taken over the field and driven the quality people out.

"Getting productions of musicals staged is very difficult and very expensive, so I usually save up my own money and put them on myself. My wife asks me, 'Is this the year we open the window and throw the money out?' That happens about once every five years, and they never make money."

But even that frustration can't make the Pastor of Positivism glum for long.

"We've done it time and again, haven't we? In spite of all the doomsters, in the last six years we've done very well. We have created 14 million new jobs but nobody wants to talk about that. . . .

"There are no guarantees anywhere," Bradbury said. "But if you get out of bed in the morning thinking the world is doomed, you're not going to do anything."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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