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‘Haunted’ Waukegan theater home to Ray Bradbury storytelling fest

Charlotte Blake AstPhiladelphitells story 'Frog Legs' during Ray Bradbury Storytelling Festival Genesee Theater Waukegan. | Thomas Delany Jr.~Sun-Times Media

Charlotte Blake Aston of Philadelphia tells the story of "Frog Legs" during the Ray Bradbury Storytelling Festival at the Genesee Theater in Waukegan. | Thomas Delany Jr.~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: December 26, 2012 1:25AM

WAUKEGAN — Deep in the hallows of the Genesee Theatre, dust collects on immense generators with belt drives as wide as sidewalks. The floors are ragged and ash-colored, telling tales about the coal chutes that used to operate there. Steel doors slam shut without apology. One dark passageway leads to another.

“This theater clearly is haunted,” said Jim May, emcee of the seventh Annual Ray Bradbury Storytelling Festival, to some 700 students assembled for a Friday matinee performance.

As May shared some of the tales told about the Genesee — such as the ghost of a dog that was trapped in an upstairs apartment when its owner died — he reminded the students that the festival’s namesake would have chosen no other location or time of year for the annual event.

“Ray Bradbury loved ghosts. He loved the Genesee Theatre, which is the most haunted theater in Waukegan,” May said. “He asked that this festival be on Halloween weekend, (on) the weekend when the spirits were out, and the ghosts were out.”

An especially personal homage to Bradbury, who passed away on June 5, was paid by actor Bill Oberst Jr. — a supporting player in productions like “The Secret Life of Bees” and “True Blood” — who told the young audience that “when I was your age, (he) kind of saved my life and saved my childhood.”

“I was a lonely, lonely kid, because I was different from everybody else — I had really bad acne, which is why my face is so scarred up and why I play killers in ‘1000 ways to Die,’” Oberst said, describing his younger self as “the fat kid, the ugly kid and the sissy kid all in one kid — people beat me up all the time.”

But, he added, “when I read Ray Bradbury for the first time, I was 12 years old ... I found this little book in the woods called ‘S is for Space,’ a short-story book by Ray Bradbury, and I was reading it, and I realized that this boy who grew up to become this man had a gift, and he had used it.”

“My grandmother said to me, ‘Everybody has a gift. God gives you a gift. It’s yours and yours alone. Something that you can do better than thousands and thousands of other people on this planet,’” Oberst said. “I wanted to be an actor, (and) I remember reading that book and thinking, ‘If this kid could grow up in Waukegan, Ill., and become a famous writer and write this book, I’m going to try.’ ... Because of him, today, I’m an actor, and I make a living doing it.”

Oberst shared an essay written by a girl from New Jersey reviewing Bradbury’s semi-autobiographical “Dandelion Wine,” and was followed by Philadelphia storyteller Charlotte Blake Alston performing “Frog’s Legs,” a mystical tale of a runaway slave whose soul is trapped in the body of an immortal bullfrog.

The festival’s artistic director, Megan Wells, performed “The Emperor and the Kite” by Jane Yolen, and May wrapped up the matinee with “Uncle Einar,” a selection from Bradbury’s “October Country,” from which the 2012 festival took its theme. A second performance for more mature audiences was scheduled for Friday at 7:30 p.m.

Early arrivals to the Friday evening performance were invited to take a tour of the aforementioned sights in the Genesee basement, which featured a few theme rooms with Halloween decorations, but was largely left to tingle the spine with its natural feel.

Genesee Executive Director Gary Zabinski said the haunted basement tours could become an annual event at the theater, possibly being offered on multiple nights starting next October in advance of the 2013 Bradbury Festival.

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