Amid Wedding Hoopla, a Town Goes Hollywood

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

On the streets of this quiet Santa Ynez Valley village, something was clearly going on Sunday, even if the details were a little fuzzy to some. Taking notice of all the police, tourist JoAnn Killmer guessed crime.

“I thought somebody had been robbed,” the Los Altos woman said.

Lisa Stern, visiting from Whittier, was a little closer to the truth as she gasped excitedly into a pay phone. “Madonna’s getting married today,” Stern told her baby-sitter. “So we’re going to be a little late.”

Actually, the hoopla that turned Los Olivos into Hollywood North was the eighth wedding of Elizabeth Taylor, amid swans, doves and at least one giraffe on the secluded Neverland Ranch of singer Michael Jackson. The event had all the trappings of a Hollywood spectacular--except, perhaps, a leading man with marquee value.

Taylor married Teamsters Union construction worker Larry Fortensky, 39, a little after 6 p.m. in a $1-million ceremony. Wearing a wedding gown of three shades of yellow, Taylor had tears in her eyes during the ceremony in a gazebo by a swan lake on Jackson’s ranch.

More than a dozen helicopters and a paraplane hovering overhead nearly drowned out the ceremony, and a parachutist landed within 20 feet of the minister as the couple spoke their vows, reported New York Newsday columnist Liz Smith, who, along with fashion photographer Herb Ritts, had exclusive rights to cover the wedding.

Sheriff’s deputies and security officers quickly seized the parachutist and hustled him away.

“A parachutist has landed, but it’s being taken care of,” minister Marianne Williamson, who performed the ceremony, announced to the guests. Williamson, a lecturer and self-described “spiritual psychotherapist,” is considered a reigning Hollywood guru.

The marriage, conducted while hundreds of uninvited would-be spectators waited nearly a mile away, is a match made in a detoxification center. The couple met while both were residents at the Betty Ford Clinic in Rancho Mirage in 1988. Fortensky is the only one of Taylor’s seven husbands who is not a celebrity, socialite or political figure, and the only one likely to calculate his earnings in hourly wages.

A land and air assault force of paparazzi took to the surrounding roads and the skies above the 2,700-acre ranch in their own version of Desert Storm, determined not to be excluded from the celebrity carnival.

Jackson launched hot-air balloons over his sprawling estate in an effort to keep aircraft from coming close enough to photograph or videotape the ceremony, but that effort didn’t keep Scott Kyle Harris, 34, of Sun Valley, from parachuting in at about 6:30 p.m., said Santa Barbara County sheriff’s deputies, who set up a command post on the ranch. Harris was issued a citation and escorted from the property, deputies said.

Officers on horseback rode the hills on the lookout for anyone trying to sneak in from the neighboring Los Padres National Forest.

Among the celebrities who filed past guards onto the compound were former First Lady Nancy Reagan, actors Gregory Peck, Fess Parker and Roddy McDowall, producer Ray Stark, painter David Hockney, singer Jane Morgan and the designer Valentino, who designed the yellow dress Taylor wore. Former President Ronald Reagan sent his regrets, explaining that he was detained by “business.”

Wedding invitations asked guests not to wear yellow, so as not to diminish the star’s luminescence.

Some guests became restive after they were told they could not have a drink until after the ceremony, which was delayed for 45 minutes, Smith reported.

Taylor’s son Michael Wilding Jr. and Jackson escorted her to the altar. An effort to sing “Ave Maria” became an exercise in pantomime and the hovering choppers drowned out the song, Smith reported.

Even though neither Jackson’s house nor the wedding tent was visible from Figueroa Mountain Road, no parking was permitted for a mile on either side of the ranch.

Hours before the ceremony, television camera crews and still photographers began hiking toward the large wood and stone gate to Jackson’s ranch to take up positions.

Also on hand were representatives of KFC who said they were trying to deliver Kentucky Fried Chicken to Taylor’s new in-laws. Members of the Fortensky family reportedly had told interviewers that the fast-food chicken was their favorite dish.

Along the two-lane country road to Jackson’s ranch, hundreds of sightseers in cars, trucks and on motorcycles drove up and down vainly trying to peek into the long, winding driveway.

Students at the neighboring Midland Prep School held a large sign reading: “Hey, Madonna.” They had heard the pop star was attending the wedding.

Gary Mason from Lompoc arrived with his wife and two sons. He said he was there because “it’s the Super Bowl of marriages.”

Said Lisa Anderson from North Carolina: “I love Michael. I just wanted to see where he lived.”

In town, the day began normally enough. Bicycle riders moved through the tree-lined streets and an occasional horseback rider trotted through. Even though some tourists had no idea what was taking place, residents watched mostly bemused at their town’s transformation.

Ahmad Parsa, a retired doctor from Palos Verdes, allowed as how he knew Taylor was getting married and sat on the shaded veranda of an art gallery hoping to see the star.

‘I’d like to see Elizabeth Taylor and her husband but unfortunately I haven’t had a call from her yet,” the 85-year-old joked.

On the Jackson property, acres of flowers and a firmament of balloons and twinkling lights adorned the lavish, tented setting near one of Jackson’s swan-filled lakes.

The ranch sits in the Santa Ynez Valley in Santa Barbara County, an area of rolling hills studded with oak trees. From the air, his emerald green oasis, lakes, carnival rides, and the animals in his zoo stand out among the surrounding dry grasslands, cattle and horse ranches and vineyards.

Until 25 years ago the valley contained only working ranches. But in the last few decades the land has been increasingly subdivided into luxury home sites, known to long-timers as “ranchettes.” Among celebrities who have bought there are actors Bo Derek and Parker, whose ranch and winery sits near Jackson’s spread, and movie director Herb Ross and his wife, Lee Radziwill, the sister of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

Hollywood’s invasion of Los Olivos for the Taylor-Fortensky nuptials was signaled when a pre-wedding dinner at the town’s Grand Hotel turned the small community into a “madhouse” of celebrity-chasing photographers and elusive guests, said 19-year-old Rochelle Hardy.

Hardy works in the local food market but pitched in as a hostess at the party. “I was told if I took a picture I’d be fined $2,000 and fired on the spot,” she said.

The Grand, a wood frame Victorian building, was taken over for the weekend by wedding guests and closed to the public, as one local couple discovered when they tried to take some Canadian friends there for lunch.

Until recently, Los Olivos was little more than a post office and a gas station. Now, perhaps in response to the influx of nearby upscale landowners, there are 11 art galleries in quaint, wood frame buildings lining the short main street.

Many local residents said they took the day in stride.

“Us locals are inured to this because we see them all the time,” said Linda Sale-Paich, owner of the Pony Tracks gallery. “Michael Jackson was in here one Sunday afternoon and no one paid any attention.”

In return for being granted exclusive rights to cover the wedding, Smith will donate to AIDS research an undisclosed portion of the money she receives from selling the story. In recent years, Taylor has raised several million dollars on behalf of AIDS.

Taylor’s previous husbands were hotelier Conrad Hilton Jr., actor Michael Wilding, producer Michael Todd, singer Eddie Fisher, actor Richard Burton and U.S. Sen. John Warner.

Fortensky is a member of Teamsters Local 420 in Los Angeles, where he is classified as a “construction driver,” a job that pays $18.50 an hour. He still works, according to Taylor, who told Smith in an interview last week that he is employed by a “large engine-equipment company.”

The pair dated for four years, after meeting at the Betty Ford Clinic in Rancho Mirage in 1988. Taylor went there for drug treatment, and Fortensky after a 1987 drunk-driving conviction in Orange County. Fortensky’s stay at the clinic was reportedly covered under his Teamsters insurance policy.

Fortensky still faces possible arrest on a bench warrant issued after a 1987 conviction. Taylor’s lawyer, Neil Papiano, called it a “paperwork situation.” An Orange County Municipal Court judge ordered Fortensky to participate in an alcohol-rehabilitation program, but has no record that he ever did so.