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Of Wine and Rosy Summer Memories

Ray Bradbury revisits the boyhood chronicled in his novel-turned-musical, being restaged in Burbank.

August 20, 2000|DARYL H. MILLER | Daryl H. Miller is a Los Angeles-based entertainment reporter

Across piles of papers and books in his Cheviot Hills home, Ray Bradbury is describing a key moment of his boyhood, which, years later, found its way into his novel "Dandelion Wine."

He was about 13, he recalls, when he became aware one day of the hair on the back of his hands--a seemingly mundane part of himself, yet evidence of something pulsing beneath the skin's surface. And he suddenly realized: "I'm alive! Why didn't someone tell me?"

He raises his hands, now spotted and veiny with age, to look at them anew, and something miraculous happens--something right out of "Dandelion Wine," or any number of other Bradbury books. Time splits, the world realigns, and Bradbury's face turns suddenly young, transformed by a boyish expression of wonder.

The 79-year-old man is 13 again.

An instant later, the universe snaps back into place, and Bradbury is himself--a snowy-haired gent with a warm, open grin.

Bradbury is engaging in this cheerful bit of time travel because, across town, the Colony Theatre Company is reviving a musical version of "Dandelion Wine," which was a big hit for that company in 1981. Opening Saturday, the show will inaugurate the Colony's new home in Burbank's Media Center.

"Dandelion Wine," published in 1957, is a chronicle of the summer of 1928 in a small Illinois town, as seen through the eyes of the Spaulding family--particularly 12-year-old Douglas. (In the musical, he's slightly older.)

A collection of short stories linked into a novel, the book catalogs life's little celebrations and incremental losses. In the former category are such things as the taste of cold ice cream on a warm summer evening, the smell of fresh-mown grass, and the first wearing of bouncy new sneakers. In the latter are such events as the moving away of a best friend, the discontinuation of the town trolley and the death of a seemingly invincible great-grandmother.

For Douglas, the losses begin to accumulate too rapidly, and he becomes haunted by the opposite of his earlier realization--"that you can die," Bradbury says, "that your friends can go away, that some of the things you love are going to vanish."

"The whole book," he concludes, "is about learning to make do."

Bradbury adapted his book for the musical, and Jeffrey Rockwell, a regular collaborator with the Colony, wrote the music and lyrics. The company's founding artistic director, Terrence Shank, directed the '81 production, after having helmed the theater's productions of Bradbury's "The Martian Chronicles" (1977) and "Fahrenheit 451" (1979) at the Colony's former home, the Studio Theatre Playhouse in Silver Lake. Shank, who left in 1984 to pursue career opportunities in South Africa and then Orlando, Fla., has returned to stage the new production.

Anticipating an exhausting workload this year as the Colony shifted operations from the Studio Theatre Playhouse, producing director Barbara Beckley initially planned to open the Burbank theater with something small and simple. Then she happened to listen to a recording from the '81 production of "Dandelion Wine," and she realized no other show would do.

"Anybody can do something out of the Samuel French catalog," she says, "but this is what we do. We are the ones who have this unique relationship with Ray."

And so the company is readying the musical, with its 25-member cast and five musicians, while hurriedly applying finishing touches to its sleek, new home in Burbank's bustling shopping and entertainment campus.

"It's like laying track in front of a speeding train," says the weary but undaunted Beckley.

Memory suffuses "Dandelion Wine," the musical, as it does the novel. The title, for instance, refers to the Spaulding family's summertime tradition of making dandelion wine--liquid sunshine, which, when quaffed later in the year, restores summer's warm feelings.

Listening to Bradbury talk about hometown Waukegan, Ill.--his inspiration for the book's Green Town--is like sipping some of that wine.

Though present-day Waukegan has been subsumed by Chicago's suburban sprawl, Bradbury remembers it as a wild, free place. It was "a green town, half into the wilderness," he says. "There was a ravine that cut across the town. On my way to school every day, I went down through the ravine and up the other side--and along the way, I played Tarzan. All year long, I was down there, one way or another, skating on the ice, gathering leaves."

The ravine had its dark side, though. It was the place where "I got the hell scared out of me," Bradbury says.

That happened when he was 5, coming home at night after a showing of "The Phantom of the Opera." "My brother hid under the bridge and, when I crossed over, he jumped out at me," Bradbury recalls with a chuckle. "I ran home screaming."

Years later, he returned to the ravine with his own kids, "and I realized you could still scare me. I wouldn't want to go down there at night."

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