The Sideshow Magician Who Inspired Ray Bradbury—Then Vanished
March 17, 2023 7:25 AM   Subscribe

I'm weirdly reminded of something Stephen King said once - that writers often have a habit of instinctively embellishing their "true" stories , because there's a corner of their brain always thinking, "Well, it didn't happen exactly that way, but it makes a way better story."

King was a huge fan of Bradbury, so I'm sensing a kinship.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:14 AM on March 17 [10 favorites]

Electric chair circus acts were a thing even in the 1920. Here is a link to The World's famous Penitentiary Portrayal ... presented by "Dr. H.B. Danville Noted Criminologist and Psychiatrician".
posted by mfoight at 8:22 AM on March 17

Doctor MegaVolt is new to me. Very cool act.
posted by doctornemo at 8:26 AM on March 17

He “brushed an Excalibur sword over the heads of the children, knighting them with fire. When he came to me, he tapped me on both shoulders and then the tip of my nose. The lightning jumped into me. Mr. Electrico cried, ‘Live forever!’”...

“We’ve met before,” Mr. Electrico told Bradbury. “You were my best friend in France in 1918, and you died in my arms in the Battle of the Ardennes Forest that year. And here you are, born again, in a new body, with a new name. Welcome back!”

What an amazing story.

(And I can't help but note the WWI aspect)
posted by doctornemo at 8:27 AM on March 17 [3 favorites]

It's a predestination paradox. They should be focusing on Bradbury's adult friends and associates for someone who fits the description and might have had access to a time machine.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 8:28 AM on March 17 [4 favorites]

Bradbury always said he saw Mr. Electrico perform on Labor Day weekend in 1932, after his uncle’s death. But Moberg was shot more than a month later, on October 17. He died from his wounds on October 24. When Weller confronted Bradbury with this discrepancy, the author couldn’t explain it. The Labor Day connection had passed into family lore, with other relatives similarly misremembering the date of his death.

This sort of thing is very interesting to me - how memory and reality can be so different from one another.

For example, I have strong memory of my 12th birthday party -- me and a few friends saw "Supergirl" at a movie theater and then had pizza. One problem: Supergirl was released on November 21, 1984, and I turned 12 in November 1987. I'm certain that I didn't see Supergirl on my 9th birthday, because the movie-and-pizza party felt very grown-up to me and was what I recall as my last real birthday party as a child (which means it had to come after the sleepover I had for my 10th birthday in 1985). It's possible that I'm misremembering what movie I saw on my 12th birthday, but I checked the box office for November 1987 and nothing strikes me as something I can recall seeing with a handful of 8th-grade boys.

My parents, of course, don't remember any of it. For my own kids, everything is documented, either in a digital photo or a Facebook post, so these questions will always be answerable for them. For me, I just have to live with the inconsistency.
posted by Ben Trismegistus at 9:28 AM on March 17 [6 favorites]

I've seen Dr. MegaVolt a couple of times at Burning Man and like many of my coolest Burning Man memories it really did come down to trusting the person performing the routine to know what he was doing because watching him perform very much did feel like I was in mortal peril.
posted by Parasite Unseen at 9:49 AM on March 17 [1 favorite]

Ray Bradbury spoke at my college in late 1994 and recounted how he had recently been electrified... by Newt Gingrich. Went on and on about how great the election results were, Contract With America, etc. This encounter affirmed my interest in pretty much nothing.
posted by staggernation at 10:09 AM on March 17 [5 favorites]

Yeah, Bradbury did not age well, unfortunately. He went all cranky and lost his shit over stuff getting copied on the Internet, and was generally not who you hoped he would have been if you met him.
posted by Naberius at 10:31 AM on March 17 [3 favorites]

Thank you, staggernation!

I have tried and tried to like Bradbury but never been able to stomach even the shortest story. Now I can finally let that go and stop feeling uneasy about my visceral and almost instinctive contempt.
posted by jamjam at 10:33 AM on March 17

Also thanks, staggernation, for the opposite reason-- I love early Bradbury, often rereading October Country and Dandelion Wine, and others, but I'd rather know where the road ended and keep the forms apart. I feel he lost his touch in later writings, relying too heavily on wordcraft and losing the ingenuity.
It's happened to me with other authors, like Vonnegut, and Thurber; reading about them as people reveals a great deal more in their work (especially Thurber, the man really resented women). I knew about some of the formations of Bradbury as a young writer; his brother's death for instance, his screenwriting. I dunno, it's almost as if old white dudes are gonna yell about how it's all different now, and their muse just withers away.
posted by winesong at 12:03 PM on March 17 [2 favorites]

I always remember Something Wicked This Way Comes as the first of the "boys behaving badly" books we read in middle school (Lord of the Flies, A Separate Peace, Monkey) because that feels true; however, according to one of my sporadic attempts at keeping a reading journal, it came earlier, after Where the Red Fern Grows. I loved it, but all my eleven-year-old self wrote down was, not as good as Lord of the Rings, but shorter.

It is doubtful that Mr. Electrico existed in this world in the form Bradbury describes, but there probably was an electric act once, and a boy who watched from the audience, and at a certain point, after polishing and refining through retelling, it felt like something that happened.
posted by betweenthebars at 12:16 PM on March 17 [1 favorite]

I don’t think his conservatism is terribly surprising given some of his preoccupations - many of his stories are an expression of broad crankiness about social change. He’s still my favorite of the big names of that generation because I like the more poetic, less hard-sf approach, and because he’s easily the best prose stylist.
posted by atoxyl at 2:35 PM on March 17 [1 favorite]

And sometimes he was right!
posted by atoxyl at 2:37 PM on March 17

Oh yes 100% don't meet or even learn about your heroes-- you'll be disappointed almost every time. (Still aghast at what a rotten person H. Beam Piper was.)

But also, I don't care if Mr. Electrico was a real person or not. Bradbury wrote fiction, and that essay is my favorite work of his and has been a decades long touchstone for my own unsettled life and source of inspiration during some pretty dark times.

And none of you can take that away from me.

So what if he was a grumpy crank? So was my Dad at the end of his life, his brain filled with Fox poison and Trump worship. He's still the guy that changed my diapers as a baby and held me when I had nightmares and was the best example I had of how to be a decent human being. The one doesn't cancel the other.

I accept that one of the features of this age is the need to tear down public figures, but I also get to have my own reaction to the eternal art vs. artist debate, and in this case, I've decided that if a fiction writer fictionalized a memory to tell a story, and that story gave me decades of hope and perseverance, I'm OK with that. I'm also fine with others who take a different stance-- this is a cultural conversation that has been going on for millennia.

Wow, I guess I had feelings about this. Thank you for reading my hot take. It helped to get that out of my system.
posted by seasparrow at 4:02 PM on March 17 [3 favorites]

Also, if you've never read the original interview that is the source of this story, and don't care to look behind the Paris Review's paywall, here is an excerpt that has the whole thing.

Additionally, here is a terrific memory of the interview itself by the intern assigned to do the fact checking on Ray Bradbury. And to me he really captures what is good about Bradbury's writing, calls Mr. Electrico proof a whole cottage industry that is the "holy grail" of Bradbury scholarship, and ends his reminiscence with the following sentence, which I agree with wholeheartedly:

"It’s so clearly too good to be true, isn’t it? And I was the fact-checker. And yet, if they’d cut a word of it, I would have invented a source and put it all back in."
posted by seasparrow at 4:21 PM on March 17

I met him a couple times, at book signings, when I lived in LA, and people in line had all kinds of neat stuff for him to sign, about which he was very generous and kind; good-natured, just as I expected him to be, from the photos of him on the back of his books. Once I got to attend a little performance he gave, probably billed as a reading, at a restaurant there, in Venice, where he told his Mr.Electro story. Very entertaining, and he made a good point about visiting Cape Canaveral. Where is the Sound and Light Spectacular? Every night, they should be doing a simulated launch there, for the visitors. He also described riding his bicycle around Hollywood getting autographs. Guy had a charmed life.

I think my timing was good, this was the early 90s, just before he got cranky; couldn't believe it was the same person of the early 2000s. Doesn't matter, I'm glad I met him, his stories and writing had a huge impact on me. And I treasure my signed copy of 451°F.
posted by Rash at 4:34 PM on March 17 [1 favorite]

Mr Electro was detained and confined by the SCP foundation and erased from public records following revelations about his act.
posted by interogative mood at 8:24 PM on March 17 [1 favorite]

...someone who fits the description and might have had access to a time machine.

Well, that narrows it down.
posted by y2karl at 12:06 PM on March 19

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