Birthdays are a time for celebration and remembrance and actor Joe Mantegna has done both in this video message noting Ray Bradbury’s 101st birthday. Mantegna needs little introduction; his appearances on stage and screen, his long association with David Mamet, and his role as FBI agent Rossi on Criminal Minds have made him instantly recognizable. But the origins of his relationship with Ray Bradbury might be less known. He grew up in Chicago reading Bradbury but his special connection to the author is rooted in his performances for the stage and movie adaptations of The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit, a story that showcased so much of Bradbury’s joy in life and belief in the transformative power of friendship.
To Bradbury, this story of five men who pool their money to buy a hundred dollar white suit and share its magical properties was less foreign and fantastical than it might seem. Sharing clothes was something friends and family of modest means did in the hard times of the Depression that shaped Ray’s youth: Bradbury famously wore the suit his uncle had been shot in–a bullet hole in one side and out the other–to his high school graduation. The Waukegan of his boyhood had also been a destination for Mexican workers seeking jobs in local industry and when he moved to Los Angeles he found himself living in the midst of the strong ethnic culture that suffused the area around Figueroa Street. He tapped that experience in works like the touching 1948 New Yorker short story “I See You Never,” the 1950 Collier’s “ The Window,” (renamed “Calling Mexico”) and the exploration of Dia de los Muertos in the enduring favorite, The Halloween Tree. But nowhere does Bradbury’s personal vision of the resilience of the people he knew shine as it does in the magic realism of “The Magic White Suit,” originally published in The Saturday Evening Post in 1957 and then adapted in 1958 as “The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit” episode for Charles Drake’s TV series The Rendezvous, starring Peter Falk. Bradbury finally reworked it into a play for his Pandemonium Theatre Company.
In 1974 Stuart Gordon, artistic director of Chicago’s Organic Theater Company, mounted a production of The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit starring young actors now famous for many other roles: Joe Mantegna, Dennis Franz, and Mensach Taylor. Twenty-five years later, Mantegna and Gordon would reunite to translate the play into film with the help of Roy Disney—a fan of the story ever since he had seen it performed in Los Angeles. Ray Bradbury wrote the screenplay himself, relocating the story to the Boyle Heights area to reflect the blossoming of a vibrant Hispanic community on the Eastside of LA by the time the film was made in 1999. He was present on the set every day: it was a labor of love and a way to ensure that his vision of the friends he first met in junior high would live forever. Mantegna’s birthday remembrance reminds us of who Bradbury was as a friend, and of the gifts he left behind for everyone to enjoy.
Along with Joe Mantegna, The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit stars Edward James Olmos, Esai Morales, Gregory Sierra and Clifton Gonzalez-Gonzalez and features inspired moments of broad comedy from Sid Caesar, Howard Morris, and Pedro Gonzalez-Gonzalez. Mantegna and Bradbury, two sons of Illinois, remained friends and it is clearly through such friendships, as well as his writing, that Ray Bradbury continues to live on at 101.