The novelist who loved theater: How Ray Bradbury changed my life

A life lesson from Ray Bradbury (3rd tribute)

7 minute read
Bradbury: 'You'll never make money in theater, but that's not important.'
Bradbury: 'You'll never make money in theater, but that's not important.'
I was on my way to work, dropping off my garbage bag in the dumpster shared by the entire condo complex, when I saw them: a stack of books, tattered and dog-eared, lying naked next to the dumpster in the searing Los Angeles sun. As I wondered what Bradbury would think about this discarded stack— the real-life embodiment of the book burnings he chillingly evoked in his futuristic novel Fahrenhheit 451— I noticed one of Bradbury's own works, The Martian Chronicles, among the titles.

I couldn't leave it there. I grabbed it and tossed onto my car's back seat.

This was back in the 1980s, when I was an actor in LA, which of course meant I was also a waiter— a captain, in fact, at the posh Bistro Garden, famous for its Hollywood elite clientele. On any given day, half a dozen celebrities walked through that restaurant's door. No star-struck waiter could long survive at the Bistro Garden: A cool demeanor was demanded at all times.

That was no problem for me, until that day— when, serendipitously, I found a stack of books by my dumpster and Ray Bradbury sat down for lunch at the Bistro Garden.

I'm not sure what I recognized first. Maybe, again, it was the collective image: the face I'd seen on book jackets my whole life, the white hair, the signature Mr. Peabody glasses. Bradbury was by himself, attending an elegant banquet dressed in K-Swiss sneakers and tennis shorts.

Sneaking out

No one else on the staff recognized him. But this was too big a coincidence, the planets aligning far too neatly for me to remain silent. Cool demeanor and restaurant protocol be damned. I had to approach him and tell him how I'd saved his book from an evil landfill or, better still, from possible burning!

I introduced myself and gushed through the story. Without missing a beat, Bradbury asked me if the book was still in my car. When I said yes, he replied, "Go get it."

I sneaked out of the restaurant and ran the block to my car and all the way back. Some things justify the risk of being fired. As sweat poured from my forehead, I handed Bradbury my new, beat-up copy of The Martian Chronicles. He inscribed and signed it. That was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Over the next five years, I saw Bradbury three days a week at the restaurant and learned a great deal about him. For one thing, he never deviated from those shorts and K-Swiss sneakers. He could be wearing a dress shirt and a tie on top, but on bottom would always be tennis shorts and K-Swiss sneakers. He didn't play tennis; he just refused to be uncomfortable. Ray was unapologetically himself.

Money-losing scripts

He was also, I discovered, a theater guy like me (even though he's best known for his novels and his TV scripts). Once Bradbury brought me a stack of 17 plays he had written— some published, some still in manuscript form. He said his wife would complain that every time he wrote "one of those," he lost $20,000. She was right, he acknowledged, but he simply couldn't help himself. He loved writing plays, and he loved watching them come to life onstage.

Those 17 plays were his first gift to me. If I didn't like any of them, he said, I could "simply throw them away." When I told him I would never consign a single one to the trashcan, he replied, "Fine. Maybe you'll produce one of them."

A year after we first met, he invited me to join him to see Falling Upward, his latest play at the time, starring his friend Tom Troupe. The theater was a small Equity-waiver house, but Ray treated it like it was the Music Box. It didn't matter to him that this was just a bare-bones production; in fact, I think he admired the elemental approach.

"'Find an old garage'

A few years later, when I told him I had decided to leave L.A. to return to Pennsylvania, my home state, with the goal of starting a theater company, he said, "Tom, find an old garage and hang some lights from the ceiling. Get some chairs and some friends and pass the scripts out. Once they are memorized, invite people to come and turn the lights on. That's theater. You'll never make any money, but that's not what's important. It's the art of live theater that's important. So go. Do it."

I couldn't find a garage, but four years later my wife, Hope, and I found an old firehouse, which I thought that would do nicely. We hung some lights. Bought some chairs. Passed out scripts and invited people to see what we'd done. That was the beginning of what became the Montgomery Theater in Souderton.

Ray and I stayed in touch after my move, and he was thrilled to learn that I'd followed his advice. In 2004, on the 50th anniversary of Fahrenheit 451, Ray called me and asked me to produce the stage version of the story. He said he couldn't think of a better place for its Philadelphia premiere than an old firehouse. I jumped at the honor.

The kick I needed

Over the past four years, as Ray's health declined, I heard from him less and less. It became difficult for him to hold up his end on our phone conversations, so our communication was reduced to Christmas cards and occasional e-mailings. Less than a year ago he sent me a package containing more of his scripts, some of them duplicates from the 17 he'd given me in Los Angeles more than 20 years ago now. The attached note message echoed his original refrain: "Maybe you'll produce one of them."

I don't know what I expected on that day many years ago when I approached Ray Bradbury at the Bistro Garden. I certainly didn't expect to find a mentor and a friend whose words of encouragement would give me the final, needed kick to give up my life as an actor/waiter and return home to pursue my dream of running a theater.

Message to my son

When my son Matthew was born in 1988, Ray sent one of his children's books as a gift, with this inscription: "To Matthew, way up there in the future from me, Ray Bradbury, way back here in the past."

Now that Ray is gone, and now that I have been artistic director of Montgomery Theater for 19 years, how can I best honor his legacy? To me, the answer is simple: I must pass on to other young and struggling artists the same message that Ray transmitted to me and to my son years ago.

So I would like to say to you, young artist, way up there in the future, from me, way back here in the past: Remember that, with all the wonders of electronic and virtual communication, nothing can replace the art of live theater. Don't be afraid to find your own garage and hang some lights. So go. Do it.♦

To read another tribute to Ray Bradbury by Kathleen L. Erlich, click here.
To read another tribute by Tom Purdom, click here.
To read a response, click here.

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