Ray Bradbury and the Search for Mr. Electrico

The mysterious magician who inspired Ray Bradbury on Labor Day in Waukegan, 1932—Cairo native, defrocked minister, and veteran of the Ardennes—remains lost in a nest of circuses that converged on the city that day.

I won’t lie: I don’t read books about space, so the work of Ray Bradbury didn’t touch me in the way it influenced and entertained so many others. It’s not a matter of personal preference, such as not liking sushi; it’s more like the inability to taste cilantro. I’ve tried everything from wild pulp to McArthur-granted Octavia Butler, whose Bloodchild and Other Stories marks the least far I have ever gotten into a book, around two or three pages.

But I do like mysteries, and the baroque oddities of the past. And Mr. Electrico, the carnival magician who inspired Bradbury on Labor Day in Waukegan in 1932—his favorite childhood story, according to biographer and Columbia College prof Sam Weller—is both: despite his importance to Bradbury, no one’s been able to prove the existence of Mr. Electrico, making him the “Holy Grail of Bradbury studies.”

Weller, himself a Lake Forest native, has gone as far as anyone in tracing the mystery of Mr. Electrico, the defrocked minister and World War I veteran from Cairo (Illinois). Yet in the records of the World Circus Museum, the memories of Waukegan natives, and the U.S. Presbytery historical archives, he remains just out of reach:

The Downie Brothers Circus, a very popular national touring show, set up on the west side of Waukegan, at the corner of Washington Street and Green Bay Road. This was about a mile west of Ray’s house. Buck Owens was the main draw, along with George Hanneford and the famous Hanneford family of riders. There was also a street parade around noon on Saturday that wound through downtown Waukegan (shades of Something Wicked!).

The plot thickens…this was not the only circus in Waukegan on Labor Day Weekend, 1932. The well-known Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus also lumbered into Green Town (arriving by truck), and pitched tents at Grand and Martin Avenue. Hagenbeck-Wallace featured hundreds of live animals as well as noted animal trainer Clyde Beatty and The Great “Wilno,” a human cannonball. It’s amazing! It seems as if the center of the big top universe that weekend was in Ray Bradbury’s hometown of Waukegan, Illinois!

[snip]

But wait, there’s more! The American Legion Festival was also on the lakefront that weekend and it included a carnival. In a typical twist of Bradburian fate (something I found to be mystically sewn throughout Ray’s life), I located the permit request for this festival and it was granted on August 22, 1932, Ray’s 12th birthday! It is this very festival that Ray Bradbury recalls. All of this is covered in my book. I found other Waukeganites who remembered this carnival. According to Fred Dahlinger, Jr., Director of Collections at the World Circus Museum, this carnival, which is mentioned (but not by name) in newspaper accounts at the time, was likely “a 40-miler” – something very small, and very local and, consequently, off the radar screen of most circus and carnival historians.

(The only encouter with sleight-of-hand I remember from the circus was being tricked out of a dollar by an older kid, which explains a lot.*)

“Clean up your language,” Mr. Electrico told the carnies, and invited the boy into the tent. Bradbury returned, determined to live forever. Mr. Electrico, the magician, vanished back behind the curtains.

* The closest I’ve ever come to enjoying fantasy, sci-fi, or comic books is Osamu Tezuka’s manga Ode to Kirihito. A doctor, Kirihito is infected with a disease that slowly turns him into a dog—like Spiderman and Batman, taking on the properties of another creature. Unlike Batman and Spiderman, turning into a dog doesn’t give him any special powers or skills. He just looks like a dog, which makes being a doctor increasingly difficult. This struck me as a much more realistic than “superpowers,” and thus marks the outer limits of my imagination.

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