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Distinguished Guests: famous monsters of s-f

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Anyone who's noticed the mainstream spread of science fiction--via movies, TV, books, and magazines that seem to multiply faster than aliens' eggs--might have trouble comprehending the lowly status the genre endured half a century ago, when a high school senior named Ray Bradbury stumbled across the Los Angeles Science Fiction Society. A relatively recent transplant to LA from Waukegan, the would-be writer learned of the club in 1937 from a notice in a Hollywood bookshop.

"I left my name with the owner of the store," the 72-year-old Bradbury recalls today. "A week later I got a letter inviting me to a meeting at Clifton's Cafeteria downtown. When I got there I looked into this room filled with all these weird people who were gonna be my best friends forever." Among Bradbury's fellow cultists was a "scientifiction" fanatic named Forrest J. Ackerman, a cofounder of the club.

"He was my first editor," Bradbury says. "He had a fan magazine called Imagination, and I began to write for it and help him put it together. The first issue I worked on was printed by hectograph"--a gel-transfer system that required each page to be printed by hand. "Then a week or two later he found a mimeograph machine somewhere."

Ackerman, whose salary as a typist outweighed Bradbury's income as a newsboy, also bankrolled Bradbury's own mimeo fanzine, Futuria Fantasia. "It had stories, articles, and bad poetry, mostly by me," Bradbury says. "I got Robert Heinlein to write a story for me, and Henry Kuttner. We sold it for a dime apiece . . . and we all promised ourselves a great future."

Bradbury, of course, went on to become one of America's best-known writers. In novels and short-story collections like Something Wicked This Way Comes and The Martian Chronicles, he charted a distinctive course between visionary futurism and nostalgia, frequently using 1920s Waukegan as the model for mythical Green Town, Illinois.

Bradbury will return to Green Town this month, with Ackerman in tow, for the climax of the Ray Bradbury Play & Film Festival at Stage Two Theatre in downtown Waukegan. Located a couple of blocks from the Genesee Theatre, where Bradbury got his first taste of the stage at a performance by Blackstone the Magician, Stage Two is presenting a quartet of one-acts adapted by Bradbury from his short stories: The Veldt, The Pedestrian, To the Chicago Abyss, and Kaleidoscope. The festival also features 16-millimeter screenings of John Huston's Moby Dick, which Bradbury scripted, and two Bradbury-inspired films, Francois Truffaut's Fahrenheit 451 and Jack Smight's Something Wicked This Way Comes. Bradbury will lecture on the development of science fiction on Monday, April 19, at 7:30 PM ($5 admission). His talk will be followed by a book sale and autograph party to raise funds for the preservation of Waukegan's old Carnegie Library. But the festival's special drawing card is a reception on Sunday, April 18, from 2 to 5 PM, at which purchasers of $50 benefit tickets will hobnob with speakers Bradbury and Ackerman.

Now 76, Ackerman is less widely recognized than the writer whose career he helped launch. But to anyone who devoured Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine when he edited it between 1958 and 1983, "FJA"--or the Ackermonster, as he is sometimes called--is a beloved and influential figure. A combination of celebrity profiles, plugs for upcoming movies, and knowledgeable articles on the history and production techniques of classic horror and fantasy films, Famous Monsters interspersed fabulous photos with breezy, pun-filled writing ("Up and Atom!" proclaimed a headline over an article on radiation-monster movies); former readers who cite its influence include Stephen King, George Lucas, John Landis, and Joe Dante, who wrote a column, "Dante's Inferno," that profiled the worst horror movies ever made. By his own admission a kid who never quite grew up, Ackerman was part pen pal, part playmate, and part indulgent parent. And though its focus was movies, the magazine always stressed the value of reading, promoting the work of such authors as Poe, Wells, Verne--and, yes, Bradbury.

"I edited and published his first story," Ackerman says today. "A little literary skeleton in the closet called 'Hollerbochen's Dilemma.' Whenever he gets too rambunctious now we threaten to reprint it. . . . The night before Ray got married, he became a fireman right out of Fahrenheit 451 [Bradbury's story of a futuristic book-burning society]. He went to the fireplace and burned two million words' worth of his own manuscripts. You see, when H.P. Lovecraft died his well-meaning friends would find old scraps of his writings and publish them. Ray didn't want that to happen to him, so he destroyed work he didn't think was worthwhile--in case he died of ecstasy on his wedding night."

Ackerman, a widower, resides in his 17-room "Ackermansion" in LA, where he welcomes visitors eager to see his immense collection of "sci-fi" material. (It was Ackerman who coined that abbreviation in the 1950s, when he heard a radio announcer speak of hi-fi recordings.) His home is also the "Horrorwood" headquarters for an upcoming Famous Monsters convention, which will herald the magazine's anticipated return to a marketplace now glutted with glossy, pricy successors to Ackerman's original (including four or five titles devoted exclusively to Star Trek). (For information on the convention call 213-666-6326--that's 213-MOONFAN.) Bradbury, meanwhile, keeps busy with new writing, while his now-classic works continue to rake in royalties and readers. Not bad for a couple of guys drawn together by a fan club whose main appeal was that it offered sanctuary from the mockery of their peers. "I was the resident crazy in high school," recalls Ackerman. "We were all ridiculed by the world--we who thought men were going to the moon someday."

The Ray Bradbury Play & Film Festival continues at Stage Two Theatre, 12 N. Sheridan Road in Waukegan, through Saturday, April 17. For more information on the plays see the Section Two theater listings or call Stage Two at 708-662-7088.

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