FANS OF SCIENCE FICTION first flocked together in the 1930s. They connected through letters written to the magazines they cherished—Amazing Stories, Wonder Stories, Astounding Stories. They exchanged correspondence, formed groups and began to issue their own amateur publications. Prominent among the early clubs were chapters of the Science Fiction League (SFL), an association founded in 1934 by pioneering publisher Hugo Gernsback. Los Angeles became home for chapter #4 of the SFL (LASFL) in November 1934.
Shep’s Shop — a bookstore on Hollywood Boulevard — drew young fans hungry for science fiction. Used bookstores played a vital role in fueling young fans’ passion. They offered access to current and back issues of pulps, both the core genre organs and others such as Argosy, that periodically carried science fiction yarns. Pre-owned copies could often be acquired for as little as a nickel.
Imagination! v1n7, April 1938
In 1937, among the eager young patrons of Shep’s was 17-year-old
Ray Bradbury. There he met members of the LASFL, was invited to join and first attended the club’s regular Thursday meeting on October 7. About this period, longtime Bradbury friend and fellow member T. Bruce Yerke wrote:
LASFL meetings convened at Clifton’s “Brookdale” Cafeteria, 648 South Broadway in Los Angeles. This establishment wasn’t what one might imagine from its name. Founded in 1931, Clifton’s has endured (with interruptions) as a Los Angeles landmark to modern times. Images from the 1930s portray something like a Disneyland of cafeterias. It was a venue with a purpose, openly promoting Christian faith and a generous philosophy that included the “Multi-Purpose Meal (MPM)”—priced at a nickel, but free to those who couldn’t pay.
By the late 1930s, Clifton’s was already a notable institution. At its peak, the restaurant could seat 15,000 people. Hunter Oatman-Stanford describes the venue’s unique, progressive model in a marvelous article in Collector’s Weekly:
“In the thick of the Depression, Clifford Clinton built his restaurant as a place of refuge for those unable to afford a hot meal (one of the neon signs out front read ‘PAY WHAT YOU WISH’). Soon after the first Clifton’s opened, customers began referring to it as the ‘Cafeteria of the Golden Rule.‘
“Long before the Civil Rights movement allowed black Americans to freely patronize white-run establishments, Clifton’s restaurants were integrated. In response to a complaint about his progressive policy, Clinton wrote in his weekly newsletter, ‘If colored skin is a passport to death for our liberties, then it is a passport to Clifton’s.’ Regardless of income or skin color, Clinton wanted everyone who ate at his restaurants to be completely satisfied, so the phrase ‘Dine free unless delighted’ was printed on every check. Though many patrons ate for free, enough customers gave significantly more than they were asked to keep the business afloat.”
In contrast to the overall grandiosity of Clifton’s, the “little brown room” on the third floor, which hosted the LASFL’s Thursday meetings, was decidedly nondescript. In a wonderful 2009 interview with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Bradbury described the LASFL meeting room:
“There was nothing in there … When we met there on Thursdays, they’d put a double row of tables in the middle of the room, and twelvechairs on one side, twelve chairs on the other side. We sat facing each other. It was very social.”
In those days, Bradbury earned his living — about nine dollars a week — selling newspapers at the corner of Olympic and Norton in Los Angeles. In Surround Yourself With Your Loves and Live Forever, edited by John L. Coker III, Bradbury’s friend Ray Harryhausen later recalled:
“In the mid-1930s when I was still in high school, Forry told me about the little brown room in Clifton’s Cafeteria, where the Los Angeles chapter of the Science Fiction League would meet every Thursday. Robert Heinlein used to come around, and a guy named Ray Bradbury. We were a group who liked the unusual.
“Ray would arrive wearing roller skates. After selling newspapers on the street corner he would skate to the meetings because he had no money. He used to go meet the stars at the Hollywood Theater where they did weekly radio broadcasts.”
In later years, Bradbury recalled his involvement with the SFL in Tales of the Time Travelers: Adventures of Forrest J Ackerman and Julius Schwatrz, edited by John L. Coker III:
“I was in high school when I joined the Science Fiction League in October, 1937. I remember poking my head into the little brown room in Clifton’s Cafeteria. Forry invited me in and immediately gave me a job writing for his hectographed fan magazine Imagination. I did some terrible covers for it and I wrote some awful articles.”
Bradbury’s cover illustration for the March 1938 issue of Imagination! (v1n6)
Over the years, Bradbury and other LASFL alumni would periodically reunite at Clifton’s.
Bradbury was inspired and mentored by fellow fans he met in the Little Brown Room — Robert Heinlein, Leigh Brackett, Henry Kuttner, Hannes Bok and others. Bradbury’s first science fiction writings appeared in the LASFL’s fanzines, including Imagination!, The Damn Thing, Sweetness and Light, and his self-published Futuria Fantasia. Many of these rare works can be found in The Earliest Bradbury, now available from First Fandom Experience