Saturday, 31 October 2015

THE GREAT PUMPKIN & MR MOUNDSHROUD

In only a few years, Halloween in Britain has gone from being a totally American and utterly un-British (and therefore inexplicable) holiday to being up there in the UK marketing and merchandising league with Christmas, Easter and Valentine’s Day.

There was a time when the only glimpse those of us on this side of the Atlantic ever got of the trick-or-treat world of Halloween was in Charles Schulz’ annual Peanuts strips in which Linus vainly waited in the pumpkin patch for the arrival of his own mythical invention, the Great Pumpkin!


Even though our stores are now annually full of Halloween paraphernalia, there is precious little cultural knowledge in Britain about the Catholic feasts of All Hallows (or All Saints) and All Souls celebrated on 1st and 2nd November,  or of the European traditions, superstitions and amusements that preceded them on October 31, known as All Hallows’ Eve – or Hallowe'en…

Those who would like to understand more about the origins and multi-faceted accretions that comprise the dark festival of the turning year can look them up in on-line or on-shelf encyclopedias...

But, if you'll take my advice, you'll, instead, hitch a ride with the mysterious Mr Carapace Clavicle Moundshroud in The Halloween Tree. First published in 1972, this is an autumnal conjuring trick by that literary magician, the late Ray Bradbury, with haunting tombstone-black-and-white illustrations by Joe Mugnaini.

The cadaverous Moundshroud leads a group of youngsters on a frantic time-travelling jaunt through the “deep, dark, long, wild history of Halloween,” beginning within the shadow of the Halloween Tree…
The pumpkins on the Tree were not mere pumpkins. Each had a face sliced in it. Each face was different. Every eye was a stranger eye. Every nose was a weirder nose. Every mouth smiled hideously in some new way.

There must have been a thousand pumpkins on this tree, hung high and on every branch. A thousand smiles. A thousand grimaces. And twice-times-a-thousand glares and winks and blinks and leerings of fresh-cut eyes…

By wing and kite and broomstick they fly on the winds of lost centuries from the darkness of the cave before the discovery of fire, via the rituals of Druid England with its scythe-wielding October God of the Dead, to the gargoyle-encrusted towers of Notre Dame; from the bone-and-mummy-dust tombs of Ancient Egypt through the Grecian Isles to the City of Rome and away to South America and the candles and sugar skeletons of El Dia de los Muertos, The Day of the Dead...



It is a journey that memorably explains how light and darkness, faith and fear have shaped a festival now more widely celebrated than understood…

So, maybe when the little terrors come around knocking our knockers tonight, we should slip a copy of Mr Bradbury's classic into their Trick or Treat bags - then they might know why they were doing what they were doing and, if nothing else, at least it wouldn't rot their teeth!

Re-reading The Halloween Tree is an annual invitation to allow a bony finger to stir and prod among the leaf-mould and mummy-dust of my memories...

I travel back in time thirty-five years...

It is 1980 and, after six years of corresponding with Ray Bradbury, we met for the very first time when I interview him at the offices of his London publishers.

The book that I take with me on that occasion to ask him to inscribe is the first UK edition of The Halloween Tree...

Six years later, I am in Los Angeles and we meet for lunch in a restaurant on Rodeo Drive. Ray is there first and has has a Halloween treat awaiting me.

Under the napkin by my plate is a book...


It is an American edition of the The Halloween Tree with a new, macabre cover design It is inscribed with a golden Halloween Tree drawing by the author, studded with grinning pumpkin lantern stickers!


No wonder this book has always been special to me...

In 2006 came another gift from Ray Bradbury: an e-mail in which he recounted a short history of how the Halloween Tree came to be planted and how it grew and put forth its unique autumnal fruits...
The Halloween Tree came about because I had lunch with [legendary Bugs Bunny animator] Chuck Jones forty years ago; he had just become a new friend.

The night before, an animated [Peanuts] film - The Great Pumpkin - had been on TV. My children disliked it so much that they ran over and kicked the TV set, along with me, because the whole idea of the Great Pumpkin supposedly arriving and then not arriving was incorrect to me. It was like shooting Santa Claus on the way down the chimney!

Chuck Jones and I agreed that we didn't like The Great Pumpkin, though we did admire Charlie Schultz, the cartoonist, very much. Then Chuck said, "Why don't we do a really good film on Halloween?" I said, "I think we could. Let me go home and bring something."

So I went home and brought Chuck a large painting of a Halloween Tree that I had painted down in the basement with my daughters a few years before.

Chuck took one look at it and said, "My God, that's the genealogy of the holiday. Will you write a screenplay on this?" I said, "Yes, hire me!" So Chuck Jones and MGM hired me to write a TV script called The Halloween Tree.

Several months down the road, MGM decided to turn its back on animation, so they closed their unit and fired Chuck and me. I had nothing to do then so I took the script and wrote the novel of The Halloween Tree.

Later I wrote a second script for the final animated film, which was done by Hanna-Barbera a few years later, for which I received an Emmy Award for the script.

About three years ago I produced Something Wicked This Way Comes at a theater in Santa Monica and on Halloween night my biographer, Sam Weller, drove me to the play and then home again at around 10:30 at night and on the way, in four different yards we saw that people had placed pumpkins, real ones or papier mache, lit with candles in trees in their front yards.
Now, there are Halloween Trees beginning to appear all over the United States and I realized that with my story and that picture that I painted down in the basement with my daughters more than forty years ago, I've changed the history of Halloween in the entire country.
I've discussed this with the Disney people and suggested that they invite me to Disneyland on Halloween night and put up a tree full of papier mache pumpkins and have me there to turn on the whole thing. They would make themselves and me part of the future history of Halloween because no trees existed forty years ago – they began to appear only after my book and my film.
The Disney people haven't reacted so far because, I believe, the notice is very short. If we don't do it this year I'm hoping that Disney will invite me out next Halloween and initiate the birth of the Halloween Tree and the history of the holiday.
It's been an interesting experience for me and it thrills me to think that 100 years from now there will be Halloween trees all across our world...

Happily, from 2007 onward, Disney have honoured Ray and his Halloween Tree in Disneyland.

And here's what it looks like...




Since last Halloween I've acquired two new reminders of Ray and his Halloween Tree.

The first is this – a signed artist's print by Joe Mugnaini, which I bought last year from the sale of Ray's estate.

I love the stunning design: the sweep of Moundshroud's great bat wings, the cadaverous features, the way in which he powers his way across the inky crosshatched night sky blistered with stars...


Devotees of the book may be surprised to notice that Moundshroud is flying from right to left, when in the published book, he flies in the opposite direction.

Alas, too late now to ask either Joe or Ray why the orientation of the picture was altered, although one answer might be that, in the book, having him fly towards the page-turning made more sense and carried the reader towards the next part of the story...

Well, that, at any rate, is my theory!


Also this year, comes new edition of The Halloween Tree with illustrations by Gris Grimly, best selling illustrator whose previous books have included Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Poe's Tales of Mystery and Madness and another Halloween tale, Washington Irving's The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.


The somber monochrome text illustrations and the pumpkin-hued colour plates are perhaps (for someone who grew up with the book in its original form) less enthralling than Mugnaini's vibrantly black-and-white visions, but there is no doubt that Grimly's cartoon grotesques will readily capture the imaginations and make new Bradbury fans among today's young readers – and that is something to be greatly celebrated!

Inevitably then tonight, my thoughts will turn to my late, dear friend.

Trick or Treat, Ray?

What do you say?

You can read more about Ray Bradbury and his books in my profile of him The Bradbury Machine.

You will also find many pages of information about the author and his work on the excellent internet site, Bradbury Media.

And, if you haven't heard it already, here's a radio programme I made in 1998 featuring an interview with Ray...



Some parts of this post first appeared on blogs from a few years ago.

Thursday, 22 October 2015

FLIGHTS OF FANCY

This is the story of something memorable that happened 33 years ago, today…


The invitation was rather grand…


It was also unexpected.

Of course, I knew the event was happening and I also knew that my friend, the science fantasy writer Ray Bradbury, was going to be there…


Incidentally, I love the proprietorial way in which Ray refers to Spaceship Earth as his building! With justification, of course, for he had helped create the journey through a history of communications that was recounted to guests riding its interior.


I was in Florida, making a BBC radio documentary about the soon-to-opened EPCOT Center. Earlier in 1982, I had spent a couple of weeks filming in both Florida and Los Angeles for another EPCOT-centric documentary – this time for BBC TV's 'Everyman' series.

The plan had been that I and my producer, Norman Stone, would return with a crew to film the finished project when the park debuted in the October. In the intervening months, however, the BBC ran out of programme funding and were unable to send us all back to Orlando to capture the opening ceremony and the necessary wrap-up interviews with our contributors.

Disney offered to fly us out and take care of us, but since such a gesture might be thought to compromise the independent editorial voice of the BBC, the Corporation declined. Norman, it was decreed, would have to make the trip alone and work with a US film crew.

Then, while in Florida during EPCOT's preview weeks, making my radio programme (separate division, separate funding), Disney in true fairy-godmotherly fashion waved a magic wand by telling me that I was going to be invited to the opening events as their guest and the BBC, with an example of dubious (but gratefully accepted) reasoning, argued that whilst it would have been unacceptable for Disney to fly me out to cover the opening, if – 'as a guest' who just happened to be there anyway – I chanced to meet up with Norman and his US film crew and was able to record a few interviews (unpaid, of course!) then honour would be satisfied.

And that is what happened.

Which is why, on 22 October 1982 – against all expectations – Ray and I found ourselves chatting in the shadow of his wonderful, iridescent Spaceship Earth and I came away with a now treasured souvenir of the occasion...



Later that evening EPCOT was closed to the public for the black-tie Spaceship Earth Gala Party. The press contingent (of which we were, nominally, a part) were not invited to this posh bash, but were, instead, bused off to enjoy an evening at the well-known Orlando night-spot, Rosie O'Grady's Good Time Emporium –– except, that is, for Norman and I…

Through the generosity of the friendships we had made with the folks at Disney Imagineering, we were handed that posh invitation at the top of this blog…

There was champagne and food and there was music from some of the all-time greatest American dance-bands: all of which meant that the celebrity guests had more than enough to occupy them during the evening without actually riding Spaceship Earth which, for most of the evening, had empty cars spiralling up through its geodesic structure. That was when Norman and I bumped into Ray and his daughter Bettina.

Two meetings in one day –– wonderful!

"Have you been on Spaceship Earth?" Ray asked excitedly.

Well, yes, of course we had – a couple of times, in fact.

Ray looked totally crestfallen.

"Damn!" he said, "I was going to ask you to ride it with me."

There wasn't a moment's hesitation from Norman and I!

"Of course we'd love to ride it with YOU!" we exclaimed.

And we did. No one else. Just us. Ray and Bettina in the front seats, Norman and I, in our hired tuxedos, behind.

There was Walter Cronkite's narration coming out of car's speaker system, while Ray provided his own unique commentary over the top – adding detail and explanation about why he had chosen this or that moment in the history of communication to be part of the Spaceship Earth story.

Unforgettable!

When a few days later, while waiting at Orlando airport for my flight home, I picked up a copy of Time magazine and was astonished to see a photo of Ray sitting in an airplane. How could this possibly be? Everybody knew that Ray never flew: the man who had envisioned the age of space travel, the man who had written The Martian Chronicles was afraid of flying! And yet, there he was – on a plane!

What had happened was that his cross-country train had been cancelled. Needing desperately to return home to work, he acquiesced to his aviophobia, telling his Disney hosts to buy him an air ticket, give him three double martinis and “pour him on the plane.”

Which they did, as witnessed to in Time magazine with its photo of an air-hostess helping Ray buckle his seat belt and the witty accompanying story:
TIME Monday November 8, 1982
People b
Flushed of face, a little white in the knuckles and after a send-off of what appeared to be one tee many martoonies, Science Fiction Novelist Ray Bradbury, 62 (Fahrenheit 451, The Martian Chronicles), nervously strapped himself into his seat.
The master of intergalactic fiction was embarking on his first airplane flight. (He doesn't even drive, a rare feat for someone from Los Angeles.) Bradbury, who set out by train and limousine, was returning home from Orlando, Fla., where he had taken part in the opening ceremonies of Disney's new Epcot Center.
After over 40 years of earth-bound travel, how did he like it aloft? "The stewardesses petted and smoothed my feathers," he said happily. Will he go up again? "No, not often." 
Fast forward to last year’s sale of Ray’s estate at auction. There, among the myriad lots, was a piece of cartoon art commemorating that memorable event with a depiction of Ray enjoying one of those "tee many martoonis" in company with Mickey Mouse!


The auctioneers were unable to give more than the briefest of descriptions. The artist’s signature was, they noted, indecipherable… But not to anyone who knew their Disney names!

The signature reads: ‘X Atencio’.

Veteran Disney artist and Imagineer, Francis Xavier Atencio (left) had designed the ‘Spoonful of Sugar’ nursery sequence in Mary Poppins with its cavorting toys, clothes and furniture; had animated on Fantasia and the acclaimed 3D cartoon, Toot Whistle Plunk and Boom; was one of those responsible for Disney’s brief dalliance with stop-motion animation in the experimental short, Noah’s Ark, and title sequences for, among other movies, The Parent Trap and The Misadventures of Merlin Jones.

Atencio, whose company ID badge simply read ‘X’, went on to do legendary theme-park work for Disney Imagineering: helping to design the Disneyland Railroad's Primeval World diorama and writing the scripts for two famed attractions: Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion, for which he also penned the lyrics to their respective theme songs, 'Yo Ho (A Pirate's Life for Me)' and 'Grim Grinning Ghosts'.

The surrounding mount is inscribed and signed by some of the senior members of Imagineering team responsible for the creation of EPCOT Center, including Marty Sklar, John Hench, Randy Bright and Pat Scanlon – all of whom had appeared in my BBC documentary.


It was Marty Sklar who had given me the title for my programme – ‘Waltopia’, which had been Marty's playful suggestion to Walt Disney as an alternative name for Walt Disney World.

With so many personal associations, I decided I really ought to give Ray and Mickey a new permanent home! So I did...

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

BIRTHDAY BEAR!

So Owl wrote... and this is what he wrote:
 

HIPY PAPY BTHUTHDTH THUTHDA BTHUTHDY.
 

Pooh looked on admiringly.
 

"I'm just saying 'A Happy Birthday'," said Owl carelessly.
 

"It's a nice long one," said Pooh, very much impressed by it.
 

"Well, actually, of course, I'm saying 'A Very Happy Birthday with love from Pooh.' Naturally it takes a good deal of pencil to say a long thing like that."
 

"Oh, I see," said Pooh.
On the 14 October, 1926, the publishing firm of Methuen & Co., published a  new book by A A Milne featuring a Bear of Very Little Brain named ––– yes, of course! Winnie-the-Pooh.

So, today is Pooh Bear's 89th birthday! Who would have believed a diet of Hunny and regular games of Pooh sticks could keep a Bear so young in heart?



As it happens, today is – for me – a equally important milestone. From the earliest days of childhood, Pooh was my boon companion: I love him and his hums – and his friends in the 100 Aker Wood: nervous Piglet, gloomy Eeyore, bossy Rabbit, punctilious Owl, fussy Kanga, excitable Roo and, of course, the ever-bouncy Tigger –– all perfectly depicted in the incomparable illustrations of E H Shepard.


I kept my affection for Pooh and company across the years and when, 39 years ago, I sold my very first radio programme to the BBC, it was a celebration of Winnie-the-Pooh's 50th birthday.

Three Cheers for Pooh was broadcast, on this day, in 1976. The programme was presented by actor (and Teddy Bear aficionado) Peter Bull (with whom I had become friends some years earlier) and featured veteran BBC actor, Norman Shelley (the BBC's original voice of Pooh) and another dear friend, the talented singer, pianist and broadcaster, Anthony Miall.

It's very old but it still has some charm (I think) and I'm very fond of it because it launched my radio writing and broadcasting career. Not only that, but it's about Pooh!