Hailey's Comet 

How Bruce Willis Romanced and then Jilted a Small Idaho Town

Wednesday, Jun 9 1999
Photo by Alec Byrne
Digital Editing by LA Weekly Art Dept.
THE PREMIERE OF THE PSYCHO-THRILLER 12 MONKEYS was in most respects a typical Hollywood event. TV cameras followed the film's star, Bruce Willis, and his wife, Demi Moore, along with such guests as Jean-Claude Van Damme and billionaire Steve Wynn, as they moved through the renovated landmark theater sampling fresh lobster and the caviar-filled crepes called beggars' purses that are Willis' favorite hors d'oeuvre. But this opening differed in a couple of significant ways: Sipping champagne alongside the stars were construction workers and small-business folk, and the ground outside was covered in snow -- not unusual for a cold March night in Hailey, Idaho.

What Bruce Willis wants, Bruce Willis tends to get, and what he wanted in the spring of 1996 was to have the opening of his new movie at his new movie house in his new hometown. Having moved his family to Hailey six years earlier, he had systematically purchased half the properties on Main Street, including the 60-year-old Liberty Theater, which he and Moore then renovated with the help of decorator-to-the-stars Colin Cowie. It was all part of a bid to give something back to the town where he and Moore could "just be regular people." But it was also the fulfillment of a childhood -- some might say childish -- dream: a world premiere of a movie he starred in, in a theater he owned. Willis stood in the Liberty's front door, surveying the abeyant crowd, and shouted, "You can all come in now! The Hershey bars and Baby Ruths are free!"

This wasn't the first time enormous wealth and notoriety had swooped in to transform a Wood River Valley town. Sixty years earlier, railroad tycoon Averell Harriman developed the area around the defunct mining town of Ketchum, 12 miles to the north of Hailey, into an exclusive ski resort he called Sun Valley. Harriman invited Hollywood cognoscenti like Gary Cooper and Claudette Colbert to frolic for the cameras, ensuring the resort's reputation as winter playground for the rich and famous. Though Hailey had once enjoyed its own decade in the sun -- in the 1880s, more than $60 million in silver and lead were unearthed from the area then known as "the Denver of Idaho" -- the boom eventually went bust, the brothels and gambling parlors packed it in, and Hailey was left little more than another Western ghost town.

After Harriman's makeover, things got decidedly better, but with no ski slopes to offer, and a typically down-at-the-heels Main Street, Hailey possessed neither the tools nor the civic initiative to compete for the many millions of dollars visitors brought into the area each winter. So it settled for being the bedroom community to Sun Valley, a place where the carpenters and wait people and ski instructors who serviced the resort town could afford to buy homes and live, if not in luxury, at least in its proximate shadow. And then, in 1988, Willis arrived.

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It was as if someone had shone a klieg light down a gopher hole.

Or, as one local would later say, "It was a definite case of 'before' and 'after' -- like you see in those magazine ads for plastic surgery."



YOU PROBABLY KNOW THE STORY: WILLIS IS BORN IN Germany, in 1955. His dad's in the service, and by the time he's 2, he's moved to New Jersey. He gets a job straight out of high school at the local DuPont plant, quits after witnessing an industrial accident, gets a different job as a security guard at a nuclear generating station on an artificial island in the Delaware. But he wants to be an actor, or a musician, so he moves to New York, does a few commercials and, in 1984, gets his big break, replacing Ed Harris in an off-Broadway production of Fool for Love. The following year, he beats out a thousand other guys for the male lead in Moonlighting, brandishing a bad-boy sex appeal that makes him a national heartthrob. In 1988, Die Hard makes him one of the world's biggest action heroes, he marries a sexy movie star, and becomes a partner in Planet Hollywood, a worldwide chain of celebrity hamburger joints. Then he has a kid and decides to ditch Hollywood, to go in search of a place where he can give his growing family a regular life. "My wife and I realize it's going to be difficult enough for our daughter, growing up with two famous parents," he tells Vanity Fair. "As much as we can I would like to shelter her from all the horseshit . . . We want to raise her someplace other than Los Angeles." Cut to Hailey.

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