Ray Bradbury is arguably literature’s most beloved storyteller. His tales have inspired a parade of prolific writers who’ve come after him, his catalog a dark carnival of science fiction, terror and magic.
Born on August 22, 1920, Bradbury was raised in northern Illinois, a bustling town settled on the shores of Lake Michigan called Waukegan. While the Bradbury family ventured westward to Los Angeles when Ray was fourteen, there is no doubt that Waukegan is his home.
Downtown Waukegan was the mystical epicenter of Bradbury’s formative years. The Carnegie Library was where young Ray spent countless hours among the pages and shelves of worlds he’d lose himself in. At the beach, the magician Mr. Electro mesmerized Bradbury with a performance in which the showman knighted the young boy, proclaiming that he “live forever!”
The man who penned countless iconic novels and stories often set his tales in the quaint city of Green Town. Based on his hometown of Waukegan, Bradbury’s Green Town featured several real-life landmarks, including the Carnegie Library where the harrowing chase scene between Mr. Dark and the boys, Jim and Will, took place in Something Wicked This Way Comes.
Over eighty-five years have passed since Ray Bradbury walked the streets and crossed the bridges of Waukegan as a boy, but his legacy in the town does, indeed, live on.
Annual events such as the Ray Bradbury Storytelling Festival occurs every Halloween in Waukegan. The Dandelion Wine Fine Arts Festival occurs each summer, as well. The library, albeit in a different building than the one Ray grew up in, holds several contests and programs throughout the year inspired by Bradbury and his work, as well.
The Carnegie Library still stands today and is in relatively good shape. A local movement to have the building deemed a national landmark continues to pick up momentum with each passing month. Currently, the library is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a local landmark building. One of the many things I learned recently is that the Carnegie building is also a PokeStop in the Pokemon Go game, which would no doubt illicit a chuckle from Mr. Bradbury, I’m sure.
Waukegan enjoys the third Saturday of every month with an Art Wauk, a spotlight on local artists that also feature a presentation and celebration of Ray’s life at the Greater Waukegan Development Coalition hub, raising awareness to the group’s cause of turning the Carnegie Library into a Ray Bradbury interactive museum.
Ray Bradbury’s childhood home is still occupied as a private residence, a humble dwelling that is, of course, within walking distance to the Carnegie Library and the Genesee Theater.
The bridge a preteen Bradbury crossed to get home after watching Lon Chaney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame at one of the two beautiful theaters in downtown Waukegan still stretches across a ravine in what is now rightfully named Ray Bradbury Park.
I have had the pleasure of speaking with countless men and women whom I consider heroes of mine, amazing talents who all have put me in some sort of state of tongue-tied fanboy wonderlust. But believe me when I tell you, there has never been a place that creatively energizes me as much as Ray Bradbury Park does. It is a gorgeous setting, a quiet and beautiful haven in an otherwise noisy downtown city of nearly 90,000 residents.
Walking through downtown Waukegan, the magic of Bradbury is omnipresent. Green Town Tavern, established in 2008, sits directly across Dandelion Gallery, a nod to Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine.
A colorful mural across the side of a tavern near the legendary Genesee Theater depicts a grinning Bradbury smack dab in the middle of a visual timeline of Waukegan (a city that claims pro football Hall of Famer Otto Graham and iconic comedian Jack Benny as hometown sons, as well).
But Bradbury’s influence isn’t strictly limited to the city limits of Waukegan or the imaginations of science fiction writers and voracious readers across the globe. Bradbury is still very much a huge source of inspiration for countless filmmakers, authors and artists both in Hollywood and the independent film scene.
A few years back, I had the privilege of interviewing director Stuart Gordon (Re-Animator, From Beyond, Honey, I Shrunk The Kids) and for one reason or another, my growing up in Waukegan was discussed. Gordon became animated in telling me how much Ray Bradbury means to him and even reminisced about the time he traveled to Waukegan and was able to soak in Bradbury’s hometown with his own two eyes.
Acclaimed actor Bill Oberst, Jr. (Heir, Take This Lollipop, Zombieworld, Abraham Lincoln vs Zombies) is a lifelong Bradbury fan who has performed his nationally and critically hailed one-man show Pillar of Fire, a reading of one of Bradbury’s early classics, in Waukegan and speaks of Bradbury’s hometown as most love to remember it as – a mecca of creativity.
Oberst was gracious enough to discuss the author’s legacy and inspiration with me recently.
Terror Time: What was it like, for you personally, to visit Waukegan and walk through Ray Bradbury Park – to actually be able to trace the historic footsteps of Mr. Bradbury in his hometown?
Bill Oberst, Jr: Justin, Halloween night of last year was one I will never forget. Sandra Petroshius, President of The Ray Bradbury Canergie Library, Inc (the group that’s spearheading the transformation of the Carnegie Library into a Ray Bradbury Center) asked me if I wanted to see the ravine in Ray Bradbury Park after my performance. I didn’t have to be asked twice. Bounding up those famous steps at midnight on Halloween was, for a Bradbury nut like me, beyond joyful. I was twelve years old again!
Terror Time: When did you first get hooked on Bradbury’s work?
Oberst, Jr: When I was twelve. It was a paperback of S Is For Space, which contained the novella Pillar of Fire. I was a lonely boy growing up. In those pages, I found friends. I learned to dream and I fell in love. When I was a kid, Bradbury meant endless possibilities. Now he means endless wonder.
Terror Time: Bradbury was a magician with words, completely immersing his reading audience into his world on the pages. What is your favorite piece of his literary career?
Oberst, Jr: Something Wicked This Way Comes. It’s on my nightstand right now. Even after twenty-five years of being an entertainer and knowing how the tricks are done, his word-magic-voodoo still drops my jaw. Sometimes I go back and read a sentence again – four, maybe five times – trying to figure out how he did it. It really is immersion. You’d be hard-pressed to text Bradbury. You damn sure can’t Tweet him.
Terror Time: Any plans to come back to Waukegan anytime soon?
Oberst, Jr: No plans but I’d love to. The morning I flew out, David Motley, the city’s Director of Communication, called and asked if I’d like to see the inside of the Carnegie Library. This was the library Ray wrote about in Something Wicked This Way Comes – I said yes! He took a picture of me in the basement. When I saw it, I thought, ‘I remember you’. It was the face of my inner kid in that photo. Bradbury is such a big part of who I am, and now so is Waukegan. Joy by association. To me, Bradbury will never die. I will, but Bradbury won’t.
Ty Rohrer is known around Waukegan as the definitive encyclopedia of Ray Bradbury. Rohrer leads walking tours throughout the city, spotlighting several Bradbury landmarks and also is a proud supporter of The Ray Bradbury Carnegie Library cause. In speaking with Mr. Rohrer, it’s clear that Ray Bradbury means just as much to our town as our town meant to Ray.
Terror Time: Downtown Waukegan continues to blossom as an artistic haven for Lake County. Bradbury’s career has left an indelible mark on the scene, to this day. Why do you feel his literary work still resonates in the modern era?
Ty Rohrer: Bradbury encourages imagination. His unique way of telling a story allows the reader to almost step back in time to 1920’s Green Town or step foot on a far away planet. Reading Bradbury is not always easy to do and it sometimes takes a little getting used to, but once you have it down, he gives a very unique experience that sticks with you.
Terror Time: This has been something that has boggled my mind for years, so perhaps you can shed some light on it. Why do you feel it’s taken so long for Ray to get a statue in his hometown? (note: Jack Benny has a gorgeous statue directly across from Genesee Theater and the only thing that would make the little nook better is if a Bradbury statue was alongside the Benny piece)
Rohrer: Waukegan has a history of taking a long time to create statues and monuments for some reason or another. For example, it took a long time to get the Jack Benny statue also. As the statue process for Ray has progressed, I’ve always had in the back of my mind that we want to do something that Bradbury would be proud of. Bradbury is not an easy mind to get into, though, to figure out what he really would have liked. It’s too bad we waited too long to be able to get his input.
Terror Time: What does Ray Bradbury mean to you, personally?
Rohrer: For me, it’s interesting to share Waukegan’s history through Bradbury’s imagination. For example, I can show students a black and white photograph of a trolley that used to run through Waukegan. But with Bradbury, I can read them a part from Dandelion Wine that provides a vivid description of colors, scent and sound. Being able to connect actual Waukegan people, places and events and sharing these with both children and adults has been one of the most rewarding parts of my job. Standing in the ravine at Bradbury Park, reading the part about The Lonely One in Dandelion Wine to students is always enjoyable. The anticipation throughout that part of the story gets the kids hooked and the fact that part of the story is true makes it real for them. They can connect with Bradbury without even yet opening one of his novels.
Terror Time: What is your favorite Bradbury story or novel?
Rohrer: My favorite so far is Something Wicked This Way Comes. An evil carnival comes in to Green Town on a train. When you read it, you feel like you are there, hiding with the boys in the stacks at the Carnegie Library from Mr. Dark and the Dust Witch. And the evil is just not out at night. The evil has a parade downtown in the day to lure the young boys out of hiding. Such fun.
Following Brabury’s passing in 2012, Richard Lee, executive director of the award-winning Waukegan Public Library, traveled to Los Angeles to get a firsthand look at Bradbury’s personal library. Bradbury had left roughly $400,000 worth of his personal library to his hometown. The home to so many books that shaped so many of Ray’s most cherished childhood memories, it’s no wonder Mr. Bradbury bequeathed his personal book collection to the library.
Per Mr. Lee, “(Ray) had decided to give his personal collection to the Waukegan Public Library, which is everything that he had in his collection not authored by himself. Everything else went to IUPUI for The Center for Ray Bradbury Studies where they do an incredible job of presenting over there. We made some trades with them regarding the items we received and the items they received because they are duplicating his basement office as part of their presentation. They’ve got his desk and files. I was there a few months ago and it’s just a fantastic thing to see. So they wanted some of his personal collection to include in their set. We got some things back that we are very excited about in those trades. Then we asked the executor, along with the blessing from Ray’s daughters, if we could get anything else special to Ray. We actually have one of his typewriters. He had five in his lifetime and we have his last one that he used for the last ten years of his life. He had a Mars driver’s license that was given to him by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory that we have as well. We’re making displays of all of these items.”
In total, there were 330 boxes of items willed to the library, mostly books, from his collection and Mr. Lee currently has a professional librarian indexing everything one by one. The librarian is currently about a third of the way through the collection. The state actually paid to have the collection transported from Los Angeles to Waukegan!
Lee speaks fondly of Ray’s love for his hometown, saying “it was wonderful of Ray to think of his hometown and give us these wonderful gifts. When the collection first arrived, it was in a climate-controlled storage unit but now it is all here at the library.”
Perhaps one of the most exciting pieces of news to come out of the Bradbury camp as of late is the fact that the Waukegan Public Library is just about ready to announce the winner of the Bradbury statue! Forty-three artist submissions were sent in and the Library is currently down to its final three proposals. Mr. Lee said that the winning announcement will be soon, most likely within the week, and then there will be a presentation to the city council in which Lee will propose the statue be placed right in front of the library, with fundraising for the project beginning shortly after the city council meeting.
With the statue becoming a reality more and more each day, and the library continuing to create displays for the countless artifacts Mr. Bradbury left behind, this will ensure that the magic of Ray Bradbury will be around much longer than any of us reading this piece. This legacy of a man so deeply rooted in his hometown will live forever, in fact. For me, personally, that is the best news of all.
I sincerely ask that you keep updated on all things Bradbury within the Waukegan Public Library by checking out their website regularly.
Keep an eye out for when Bill Oberst, Jr. may be in your neck of the woods performing Pillar of Fire!
Follow The Ray Bradbury Waukegan Carnegie Library Facebook page for all updates on the wonderful progress being made!
Follow me on Twitter at @MangledMatters