Occasionally, the universes collide.
Like a million kids of the fifties and sixties, I was seduced by Ray Harryhausen, spellbound in my theater seat, watching cyclops and centaurs, bold heroes and master villains, my Saturday afternoons indelibly drenched in fantasy. When I grew up, I couldn’t wait to introduce my son to the world of Harryhausen and he quickly became a fan, as well.
Along the way, my wife and I channeled our passions into a bookstore and a gallery of illustration art. One day, as the fates allowed, we were asked to host one of the first book signings in America for Ray Harryhausen’s biographical, illustration-laden opus, An Animated Life -- to be held just prior to a mini-festival of his filmed work.
Upon my first perusal of Ray’s book, I found my gallery owner’s eye caught by the stunning Dore-influenced production art that was reproduced in the pages. In addition to being the special effects avatar of my favorite fantasy films, Mr. Harryhausen was a distinctive and compelling illustrator, as well. I immediately had a cause: I wanted the world to know Ray Harryhausen as a true artist, that his production designs could stand alone and be appreciated as fine art.
Finally, the day came and the Genie and Master of Majick of my childhood entered our little gallery. Tall, genteel, dressed in tweeds, he was the very image of an English gentleman - despite his Los Angeles origins. I like to think we hit it off. Almost immediately, I began calling him “Commander” -- a title which I think he enjoyed; he certainly was deserving of that elevated position. When the opportunity arose, I began to drill him with questions about his artwork. Do you have the originals? Will you sell them? Can we do a show? Ray’s response was polite, but firm: he possessed all of his original drawings, but he did not sell them and furthermore, they almost never left his home in London.
I began to hatch a plot worthy of Sokurah. Perhaps...we could plan an exhibition and even allow a few of the originals to be reproduced as limited edition prints. Ultimately, Ray agreed: Come to London, he said and see what you want. That invitation, to the 12 year old inside of me -- the kid who spent an entire day at the Granada Theater in Chicago watching The 7th Voyage of Sinbad over and over again -- was the Golden Ticket or perhaps...the Golden Fleece.
I flew to London in the summer of 2005 and was graciously welcomed into the residence of Ray and Diana Harryhausen. After lunch and conversation, I followed Ray up an endlessly winding staircase to Ray’s fantastic workshop.
He took me on a life-changing tour of his models and artifacts -- the tiny armatures of dragons and dinosaurs that once roared off the screen were now quietly resigned to shelf-life in Kensington. As I stood in awe, Ray opened a closet, stretched his long body up and began to pull down boxes of artwork. Each was inscribed with the name of one of his classic films -- or one that had never come to be. I sat spellbound on the floor looking at one masterwork after another -- the drawings painstakingly created out of his imagination, the better to demonstrate to the Hollywood powers-that-be the movie he would make for them.
With extreme reservation and reluctance, Ray allowed me to escape with a clutch of his timeless art. I would have the pieces digitally scanned, we would create limited edition prints and make plans for an exhibit. That first show we did with Ray in Santa Monica was a tremendous success. Harlan Ellison had written a stirring introduction for our portfolio and the event was attended by many fans and friends, including John Landis, J.J.Abrams, Frank Darabont and Ray’s oldest friends, Forrest J. Ackerman and Ray Bradbury.
I noted that Ray’s English demeanor seemed to dissipate when he was with Forry and Bradbury. They became the giggling, mischievous teenage boys they had been growing up together three quarters of a century before - cracking each other up, oblivious to all around them.
Our gallery would continue to publish new signed, limited editions of Ray’s art and continue to host special events with Ray -- at our shop, at the Motion Picture Academy and at Comic-Con. I remember one warm afternoon in San Diego when Ray, being pushed in a wheelchair, got stuck on the train tracks. As we pushed and pried at the wheels of the chair, Ray got the chuckles. “Imagine the headlines,” he bellowed. “Harryhausen killed by train at Comic Con!” Needless to say, we moved the chair before the express came through. The world wasn’t through with Harryhausen yet.
Ray, so under-appreciated during his career, so modestly billed in many of the films he, almost singlehandedly created, lived to see his name above the title on those movies, to receive a Hollywood star, an Oscar and many other awards. To be appreciated as an author and lecturer and an illustrator of note.
Of course, some of us always knew who was behind the Hydra and Gwangi and the Ymir and all the others. Those of us who grew up watching. And for those of us who got to know -- just a little --the kind, gentle, welcoming force that was Ray Harryhausen, we are grateful he was here.
The universe of my childhood and the path I chose as an adult never came together more perfectly than in the person of Ray Harryhausen.
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December 13, 2020