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There was Thriller, and there was Bad, and then there was Neverland. Michael Jackson was a pop star, but it was a fantastical playground – which has just sold to American billionaire businessman Ronald Burkle for $78m below its original asking price – that he became known for creating.
Throughout the Nineties, Neverland, the enormous 2,700-acre retreat nestled in the wilds of California’s Santa Ynez valley, became an integral part of Jackson’s image as an extraordinarily talented lost boy, a showbiz titan without a childhood who grew up to share his absent youth with the more needy.
In the wake of Leaving Neverland, the startling documentary on the alleged victims of Jackson’s child abuse, Neverland was presented as a construct that allowed Jackson to indulge his basest desires. The fantasy has been retold as a kind of warped prison, a white elephant destined to linger on the property market even a decade after Jackson’s death.
While the rich and famous have always indulged in preposterous homes, building themselves privacy away from the clamouring hordes that gave them success, Neverland was unique in its sheer childishness. There were a petting zoo and fairground rides; a 45ft-long train that pulled into a station before chugging around the gargantuan site; sweet stalls and arcade machines proliferated in landscaped grounds that were filled with statues of happy children.
Neverland had no basement disco or poker tables; instead of a swimming pool there was a water fort, equipped with a dunk tank and balloon cannons. Neverland was a supersized village taken from a Disneyfied dream. Those who went there said it smelled like “cinnamon rolls, vanilla and candy and sounds like children laughing. It’s just like heaven.” And in the middle of it all was Jackson’s mock-Tudor house, which looked like it could have housed the Seven Dwarves.
Jackson always justified Neverland’s childishness by pointing out that his own childhood was extremely short, stolen by the show business industry and a draconian father who made him into a star. “People wonder why I always have children around,” he said. “I find the things that I never had through them… Disneyland, amusement parks, arcade games. I adore all that stuff because when I was little it was always work, work, work.”
It was a line he stuck to religiously. In 2002, Jackson said that creating Neverland was “so easy, because it was me being myself, creating things that I love. And what I love, kids happen to love... It is so easy, because I’m just creating behind the gate what I never got to do when I was a kid.”
But in Leaving Neverland, James Safechuck, one of the two alleged victims of Jackson’s grooming and abuse, said that Jackson had told him that he had bought and remodeled the Neverland Ranch for him. He lists off all the places that he claims he and Jackson had sex, and it sounds like he’s reading the map to a theme park: in the teepees, in the movie theatre, in the model train station, in the castle.
In 2016 Wade Robson, the other alleged victim who appears in Leaving Neverland, filed negligence claims that Jackson’s companies, MJJ Productions and MJJ Venture were complicit in allowing Jackson to abuse boys like him.
The complaint claimed that constructs such as Neverland “served dual purposes. The thinly-veiled, covert second purpose of these businesses was to operate as a child sexual abuse operation, specifically designed to locate, attract, lure and seduce child sexual abuse victims.” Robson’s suit was ruled out by a judge, but it was the first public claim that Neverland, rather than being one man’s good-natured fantasy, was a “sophisticated child sexual abuse procurement and facilitation operation.”
Jackson bought Neverland in 1988, flush with the earnings from Bad, which sold two million copies in its first week. The property, formerly known as Sycamore Valley Ranch, cost $17 million and was difficult to reach: two-and-a-half hours by car from Los Angeles on increasingly winding mountain roads. Jackson’s neighbours were a considerable distance away; his property was surrounded by 67,000 sycamore trees. When the Neverland train was up and running, local resident William Etling wrote, “the lonesome moan of the steam whistle [could] be heard for miles.”
Over the following years, Jackson sunk time and money into this isolated plot, with the intention of making it like Disneyland. Only, Jackson’s property was five times the size of Disneyland’s footprint. In 1990, he poached Rob Swinson from Chance Rides Inc to build Neverland’s funfair and zoo. A ferris wheel was installed. All $215,000 of it stood, empty seats slowly rotating, 65 feet above the ground.
The zoo had the kind of menagerie enjoyed by the British aristocracy during the Victorian era. “We have elephants, and giraffes, and crocodiles, and every kind of tigers and lions,” Jackson gushed.
He had hired Dr Dinnes, a vet who had worked with magicians Siegfried and Roy, to fill the zoo and look after his animals, some of whom had been cast-offs from the famed Las Vegas entertainers having grown too large to perform. There was a reptile house with pythons and frogs and, according to Paul Theroux, who visited Neverland for a 2009 Architectural Digest story: “a cobra and a rattlesnake” who “smashed their fangs against the glass of their cage trying to bite me”. There was an ape sanctuary with an orangutan named Patrick, four giraffes and llamas.
The elephant, called Gypsy, had come from Elizabeth Taylor. Theroux recalled that he “seemed to be afflicted with the rage of heightened musth [a hormonally induced change in the behaviour of male elephants]. ‘Don’t go anywhere near him’, the keeper warned me.”
Taylor was one of the few of Jackson’s adult friends who visited Neverland. She married her seventh husband, Larry Fortensky, in the “sky pavilion” on the site. Other eyrie-like features of the ranch included a treehouse, where Jackson wrote much of Dangerous, the album he released in 1991.
Some of the stories that emerge from the wide-eyed visitors who were invited to Neverland – one of the site’s much-publicised functions was as a venue where ill, vulnerable and underprivileged children and their families could enjoy a day of Disneyland-style fantasy on Jackson’s dime – reveal a project that indulged even the most bizarre whims. “At Neverland,” Yvonne Doone, a cook who worked at Neverland for nine months in 1990 told Vanity Fair, “there's a special room filled with dozens of $500 dolls, because Michael so much wants to have a little girl someday.”
In one of the buildings there was a crystal chandelier filled with precariously balanced Easter eggs, which were filled with $1,000 in cash. One 13-year-old boy nearly killed himself leaping off a balustrade to get hold of one.
Much as Neverland was a construction of fantasy and dream in the reality of Santa Barbara, it was pure smoke and mirrors. The generators that powered the rides were planted under oak trees and two-storey treehouses. Loudspeakers that mixed Jackson songs with Disney classics were disguised as rocks.
Neverland also contained plenty of secluded places for Jackson to enjoy complete privacy. The Teepee Village wasn’t a concrete compound for games of Cowboys and Indians, but a kind of luxurious set-up where the teepees had underfloor heating and were fitted out with carpet – perfect for an al fresco sleepover.
The movie theatre that accommodated children in wheelchairs or with suppressed immune systems also had, as Theroux wrote, “an upper room with a double bed behind a vast window, so that one could loll in bed and watch the big-screen.”
Even in 1994, a year after Jackson paid $23 million to the family of 13-year-old Jordy Chandler in a sex abuse case, Neverland was described as “a perfect situation for a paedophile” by a former porn star and police informer Paul Barresi. “Michael Jackson is able to have that fantasyland and could overwhelm kids from dysfunctional families,” he told Vanity Fair. “They're perfect prey.”
Wade Robson’s unsuccessful 2016 case argued that Jackson’s staff were complicit in his alleged abuse. But accounts suggested that while Jackson employed dozens of staff – as many as 150 at its peak, whose salaries contributed to estimated annual running costs of $10 million – he kept his distance from them.
“Life at Neverland appears to be that of the court of a scared and isolated child emperor who has no idea whom to trust, and to whom no one ever says no,” Vanity Fair journalist Maureen Orth wrote in 1994, describing security as being so tight that “employees are not allowed even to take a walk on the grounds – whether or not Michael is in residence.” Staff were told never to look Jackson in the eye or engage him in conversation.
Even when Elizabeth Taylor or Marlon Brando visited, they barely saw Jackson. Celebrities’ children would visit the ranch but have the place to themselves. Kim Kardashian celebrated her 14th birthday there. “When I was young, I would go up there all the time,” recalled Nicole Richie. “I would just go for the weekend and go hang out. It’s really big, really gorgeous. It’s like a big amusement park…When I was there, I went with people whose parents were friends of his. It was a group of us who grew up together. I never saw random kids there.”
For all of Jackson’s chatter about sharing Neverland with “bus loads of kids”, everyone aside from Jackson had to use a separate, more workaday gate to enter the site. The famous gilded one was saved for the King of Pop alone. Above, in medieval French, read the motto: “Honi Soit Qui Mal y Pense” – “Evil to him who evil thinks”.
The gulf between the guest house, where the families of Jackson’s favourite boys would stay, and Jackson’s main house, where they would sleep in his bed, is telling: “paparazzi cannot get the two in the same telephoto lens,” wrote Orth.
Jackson’s house sat “at the end of a winding road” and between Neverland’s two lakes. It was shrouded by “a thick lining of trees… and a circular driveway”. Contemporary reports make much of the library, which is filled with leather-bound tomes that have never been opened, the gleaming kitchen and the games room, which, like the rest of Neverland, operated for free: “it was a child's dream of endless play on demand, music, bells, gongs and flashing lights,” recalled Theroux.
Jackson’s bedroom was the most elaborately built. The floor outside it was wired so that a bell would sound if someone came within five feet of the entrance. But it also had another way in, from a special guest room, known as the Shirley Temple room, which was connected to Jackson’s bedroom by a secret staircase. Boys were invited to sleep in the Shirley Temple room but, staff said, they would often find the bed untouched.
Jackson, the boys he invited to stay and their families were all open about them sharing a bed. When asked if it seemed odd, a man in his thirties sleeping with prepubescent boys, those involved would claim that Jackson was just a big kid. In 2003, Jackson told Martin Bashir what he sleepovers entailed, painting a picture of innocence that was accepted by many: “I tuck them in and put a little like, er, music on and when it’s story time I read a book and we go to sleep with the fireplace on. I give them hot milk, you know. We have cookies. It’s very charming. It’s very sweet. It’s what the whole world should do.”
A decade later, producer Mark Ronson was one of a number of high-profile celebrities to talk about his own experiences of having a sleepover with Jackson: “He was super cool. You're 12 years old and he's the world's most famous overgrown kid, who's running around your friend's apartment with you. It was pretty wild.”
Yet Wade Robson and James Safechuck allege in Leaving Neverland that other things went on under the covers, away from the parents and staff that Jackson engineered to keep out.
Jackson left Neverland for good in 2005. In a second police raid, in 2003, authorities seized a collection of pornography that included photographs of children’s faces superimposed on adult bodies and material police said could be used to de-sensitise young children in order to groom them. After that, Jackson said, Neverland had been “violated” – he would never go back.
That year, Jackson was also found not guilty of all charges in a well-publicised child molestation trial, in which Robson testified in support of Jackson’s innocence. He also checked out of the responsibilities he had over the place, where a staff of 30 were still working. In 2006, Californian authorities ordered Jackson to close Neverland; he was fined $169,000 for failing to pay staff wages for two months and allowing their insurance to lapse. By 2007, most of the staff had been laid off and many of the facilities were closed. Jackson avoided any legal punishment.
Neverland’s debts, however, continued to rise. In 2008, it was served with an official foreclosure notice – there were outstanding payments of more than $24.5 million. Neverland began to be stripped of its assets; with rides winding up in other fairgrounds and zoo animals rehoused (zookeeper Dinnes had filed his unpaid bills – to the tune of $91,602 – to the courthouse several years earlier).
For a small window of time, Neverland became the holy grail of abandoned building hunters. In between the property being deserted and bought by investment company Colony Capital, it was difficult – but possible – for some to see Neverland for themselves. Photographer Scott Haefner and his friend Jonathan Haebner hiked through surrounding farmland under the light of a full moon to enter Neverland without attracting the attention of 24 hour security. Most of the rides lacked the patina of age that Haefner usually hunted for in his urban adventures; a stopped supersized version of Captain Hook’s pocket watch read 2.55am – eerily, the very time the photograph was taken.
Neverland fell into a state of disrepair once Jackson died in 2009. Over the years, various people have voiced their desire to return it to its former glory: Paris, Jackson’s daughter, wanted to restore it into being a place of refuge for ill children, with a Zen garden. But by 2015 the dream was over: Neverland had been re-named and sanitised, returned to its former title of Sycamore Valley Ranch and put up for sale for $100 million. A year later, the price had dropped to $67 million.
More years passed and no buyers came forward. It was re-listed once again, at the distinctly reduced price of $31 million. Manicured lawn still lay where amusement rides once stood, the zoo stood empty, but “NEVERLAND” was still spelled out in flowers in front of the train station. The estate agents previously promised that the land is “well-suited to provide high quality wine grapes.” A rival agent told The Wrap that the Leaving Neverland controversy could only help with the sale: “They just got free PR and the world is looking at Neverland once again."
Now, finally, Neverland has sold – to Ronald Burkle, the billionaire co-founder of the investment firm Yucaipa Companies. It sold for $22 million – $78 million below its original asking price. A spokesperson for Burkle said the investment will be a land banking opportunity.
One can’t help but wonder what will become of Neverland, this lasting legacy of the now-disgraced King of Pop, souring in the sun. Many believe his music should no longer be heard. Perhaps this, Jackson’s final, twisted creation, will soon be erased, too.