One billion people tuned in to watch the memorial services for Michael Jackson on July 7, hoping to feel some sort of connection to the pop icon. Since his June 25 death, the news has been plastered with his face. All Jackson, all the time.
But Tony Urquidez of Los Olivos doesn’t have to watch old music videos to remember the superstar in his prime. Twenty years ago, he and the King of Pop forged a bond that started with business but ended in friendship.
Urquidez met the crotch-clutching singer in 1988, shortly after Jackson purchased the 2,500-acre estate in the Santa Ynez Valley that he would come to call Neverland Ranch.
“It’s funny, when I first started working for Michael, I didn’t know who I was working for,” Urquidez said. “I was just building a gate house.”
Urquidez was told that price wasn’t an issue for the client, so he instead focused on turning in a bid with the shortest time frame. Originally scheduled to take a few weeks, Urquidez said he impressed Jackson by completing the project in six days.
“After that, he called me to set up a meeting, and I just heard this quiet, kind of high-pitched voice come through on the other end,” Urquidez said. “I had to ask who the hell it was.”
Jackson invited him to a meeting at his sprawling estate, where Urquidez was given a tour of the property.
“We drove around in his little golf cart for an hour or so,” he said. “And he was telling me all the things he wanted. And twenty years later, we’ve done a lot of them. Not all of them, but most of them.”
Jackson envisioned an amusement park, train tracks, a petting zoo, a theater and “a whole host of crazy ideas,” Urquidez said. “Michael would say he wanted something, and it was my job to get it. We’d sit and talk about what he wanted, sketch a bunch out stuff out. Some of it worked out and some of it didn’t, but it was always on a grand scale. It was real hard to rope him in sometimes.”
But Jackson knew what he wanted. He often called Urquidez and explained his concepts to him in extensive detail. Urquidez said that sometimes Jackson called him in the middle of the night with ideas.
“If something was on his mind, he didn’t want to forget,” Urquidez said. “And I’d keep a pad and pencil by the bed so I didn’t forget.”
Urquidez’s wife, Julie, said Jackson “had this incredible imagination, and he knew down to the little details what he wanted. He and Tony have a really interesting connection, and they both have very vivid imaginations. They’d picture everything and then just talk each other through these design elements and then Michael would pretty much turn us loose.”
But some of the more elaborate projects required a great deal of time and effort on the contractor’s part. If Jackson saw something that fit into his overall concept, he’d send Urquidez to investigate or purchase the key items.
“I remember one Easter weekend Michael had me fly out to this country club in New York where he was staying, and it turns out that the emergency he had dragged me out there for was just a gate,” Urquidez said. “He saw a design on a gate and he loved so much, he wanted me to base Neverland’s emblem on this gate. And so this boy in the moon seal that you see everywhere at the ranch actually came from a golf course in New York.”
Urquidez was sent across the continent – and sometimes further – to scout for Neverland’s new attractions. For instance, he found the ranch’s steam-powered train engine buried in snow on a mountain ridge in Vermont.
“He’d send me places to get things that were just ridiculous,” Urquidez said. “He saw things all over and just adapted them to Neverland. He took ideas from theme parks he went to, movies, books – he was a big reader. I remember I had to find him all these rides for the amusement park. And he wanted permanent rides, not the carnival version of the rides that break down to be portable. I mean, we had to lay foundation for these. They weren’t going anywhere.”
The rides stayed where they were put – until Jackson found himself in financial trouble and was forced to sell the ranch in 2008.
“He would spend money whether he had it or not,” Urquidez said. “I never looked into his finances, but people were always saying he was broke. What’s broke for a guy like him, though – $20 million, $100 million?”
Jackson defaulted on a $24.5 million loan backed by the ranch last year. Los Angeles-based Colony Capital bought the loan for $23 million and put it into a joint venture with Jackson. Colony Capital said it wouldn’t comment on the status of the property.
“Ownership [is] not disclosed,” Owen Blicksilver, a spokesman for Colony Capital, told the Business Times. “Any discussion about property is premature.”
Earlier this year, the Wall Street Journal reported that Colony undertook an extensive renovation of Neverland Ranch. Crews removed the amusement park rides that Urquidez installed in an effort to turn the ranch into a lucrative asset, the newspaper reported.
The net assessed value of the ranch is $27 million, according to county assessor’s records.
Things started to go downhill for Jackson after 2005, when he was acquitted by a Santa Maria jury on child molestation charges and left Neverland for good.
“After the trial, he just wanted to distance himself from [the ranch],” Julie Urquidez said. “He didn’t know who to trust, and he just wanted to forget. I wouldn’t have wanted to be him. But when we knew him, he was just such an amazing guy. I don’t know … it was just a waste, such a waste.”
Urquidez said he made many late-night trips to the singer’s bedroom to fix things – sometimes when children were staying the night – and he never saw anything suspicious.
“It was like a big slumber party,” he said. “Everyone was fully clothed and running around, all sugared up, watching movies and playing games. I never saw a kid look frightened. My only thought was that the kids should have been asleep at 3 in the morning! It never entered my mind. That’s how innocent everything looked. I still don’t think anything ever really happened.”
Even so, Urquidez wouldn’t let his own children spend the night at Neverland.
“My kids knew him, they had spent time at the ranch, they even asked me a few times if they could stay over,” he said. “But I always said no. Not because I thought anything about it, but just because I didn’t want my kids up all night, running around, eating sugar and coming home with an attitude.”
Urquidez said Jackson loved opening his ranch to underprivileged, inner-city and local children. He particularly liked to spend time at the amusement park, the 49-seat movie theater or the petting zoo. Urquidez said he had to bring these amenities to Jackson because the singer couldn’t go out in public.
“Somebody’s always got something bad to say because he stepped on the curb wrong. They’ll always get you,” Urquidez said. “So he’d be up there alone sometimes, and he’d call me. He’d have people come to him because he couldn’t really go out. I brought these things to him because that’s what he needed.”
Now, some of Urquidez’s projects are being sold off piece by piece to pay off Jackson’s debts, and the features that made Neverland so recognizable are showing up in auction houses.
“It was just so bizarre to see all the stuff we made on the auction block, like the clock and the signs, the water fountains,” Julie said. “I just wanted it all back. It’s so eerie to see pictures of the empty house.”
The Urquidezes aren’t fretting too much; they still have boxfuls of Jackson memorabilia. Some of it is prominently displayed in the Los Olivos office, like the white fedora from the “Smooth Criminal” music video released in 1988.
“There’s this part in the video where Michael leans forward,” Urquidez said. “I had to cut a chunk out of the floor so he could hook his feet into this contraption he made so he could do his leaning thing.”
That “leaning thing” was actually patented by Jackson in 1992 as a “method and means for creating anti-gravity illusion.” Jackson’s special shoe had a hitch designed to slip into a peg on stage, allowing the performer to lean forward beyond his or her center of gravity.
Jackson still has exclusive rights over the patent until 2012.
“When you’re talking about this kind of thing” Urquidez said, motioning to schematics and concept renderings of Neverland Ranch, “you’re not really thinking about who this guy is. You don’t really realize who he is until he starts singing or dancing or something. You know who he is then. You go ‘wow, that’s this guy right here.’”
Though Urquidez lost touch with Jackson after he moved away from Neverland, he said he always felt like the singer was a friend – even though they did business together constantly.
“He was never my only client – never,” he said. “He kept us really busy, but we still had other business. I had other people to deal with and he wanted me to jet off to Europe with him, but I was still running a business. I probably could have shut my company down for a while, but you never know when the roller coaster’s over. It’s sad to see him gone.”