Jackson Is Los Olivos' Famous Stranger

Times Staff Writer

There was a day when Clark Gable would tramp through the hills on hunting trips and Bing Crosby would lounge in the dining room at Mattei's Tavern, crooning "Where the Blue of the Night (Meets the Gold of the Day)."

As in other places frequented by stars, folks here long ago learned to shrug off the big-deal aura of celebrity.

Bo Derek buys her groceries and David Crosby pumps his gas just like everyone else. But even the hardest-to-impress locals have a tough time figuring out how to react to the biggest of the big stars who have made their home in the Santa Ynez Valley.

"In a lot of ways, Michael Jackson is a stranger," said William Etling, a local real estate broker. "The only way we know he's home is when he hops on his train and starts tooting the horn. You can hear that lonesome sound all over the valley."

Not that the King of Pop lacks for company. He frequently opens his ranch to charity fund-raisers. Dozens of staff members drive to Neverland Ranch each morning to tend Jackson's zoo animals, service his carnival rides and do the chores that have to get done on a rolling spread of 2,676 acres.

But even with his army of helpers, Jackson lives in self-imposed solitude.

"There's a lot of secrecy about what goes on up at Neverland," said Patrick Rand, owner and executive chef of Patrick's Side Street Cafe in Los Olivos.

Rand said that drivers who deliver food to the Neverland kitchen have told him that each time they go through the gates, they must sign a pledge not to disclose anything they see on the grounds.

With about 1,000 residents, Los Olivos -- just off U.S. 101 above Solvang -- is the closest town to Jackson's hideaway. Rand likens it to a kind of upscale Mayberry, with neighbors watching out for each other and pitching in to help when necessary.

"It's a small place," he said. "When you sneeze in Los Olivos, they say, 'Bless you,' in Buellton."

That may be why some of Jackson's neighbors are miffed, contending he has not involved himself with local causes the way other famous residents have. Where Cheryl Ladd lent her star power to a fireworks show at Santa Ynez High School, Jackson is more apt to send a check.

Local historian Jim Norris, a retired teacher, said Jackson was noted for keeping his distance.

"I don't know of anyone in the valley who's had a personal relationship with him. You don't deal with him directly. He's got an office in Los Angeles."

Still, when Jackson glides the five miles from Neverland to Los Olivos in his black Bentley limousine, it's a bit of an event. Sometimes, he will stay in the car and send an assistant in for a quick purchase at the general store.

But last May, he showed up at the Solvang office of Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley) to ask why there were so few fast-food places in town. He was wearing a Spider-Man mask at the time.

Later, he signed autographs and chatted with fans at a Taco Bell in Buellton.

Jackson often wears a surgical mask in public, but locals are not put off by that.

"My friend saw him at the Toys R Us in Santa Maria and he was real nice," said Traci Guggia, corporate secretary for a restaurant chain. "Maybe that's why he likes it here; we treat him like an ordinary person and not a freak."

Nowhere was that attitude more evident last week than in the weekly Santa Ynez Valley News. While Jackson's arrest made global headlines, it garnered only a few inches at the bottom of the paper's front page. The top stories were Solvang possibly violating an open-meeting law and Buellton delaying funding for its skate park.

Many stars have lived in the valley over the years, drawn by the prospect of natural beauty and clear air just a couple of hours from Los Angeles. Jimmy Stewart ranched here. Noah Wyle and Jimmy Connors live here, and Fess "Davy Crockett" Parker, now a developer of vineyards and hotels, features a sing-along Thursday nights at his Wine Country Inn.

Los Olivos popped up in the 1880s as a stop for the Pacific Coast Railroad but went into a decades-long slumber after the railroad shut down in the early 1900s. Now, its neo-Victorian main street is lined with art galleries and wine-tasting rooms, and its name suddenly has been etched into datelines around the world.

Bob Whitmore, a civic-minded old-timer and the closest thing the unincorporated Santa Barbara County town has to a mayor, doesn't much like it.

"I wish we had no relationship with Jackson at all," he said. "Would you want him in your backyard?"

Other area residents are more sympathetic.

Teresa Pigott brought her 6-year-old granddaughter to a recent fund-raiser at Neverland.

"She was there all day and had the time of her life on all the rides," Pigott said. "But when I asked her what the best thing was, she said, 'Meeting Michael.' There was just something about him that drew her."

Still, Pigott was struck by a quality she didn't expect in her famous neighbor.

"I saw it in his face," she said. "He just exuded sadness."

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