By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
To its credit, the Ketchum City Council quickly said no to the bridge. "Willis was moving aggressively until he came up against this resistance," says real estate agent Tom Drougas. "Then it was kind of like, 'Well, I'm not going to spend my time and energy here if that's the kind of reception I get. I'll just work in Hailey for a while.'"
Top billing in a smaller market may have been another enticement. While big guns Arnold Schwarzenegger, Clint Eastwood and Jean-Claude Van Damme all maintained residences in Ketchum/Sun Valley, Willis would be Hailey's one action hero, with a field ripe for the picking. And pick he did -- quietly, at first.
"He set up IX-NAY Investment Trust," says journalist C.J. Karamargin, who for four years tracked the acts of Willis and Valley Entertainment for the Wood River Journal. In April of 1994, Karamargin traced IX-NAY's address to Willis' publicist in Los Angeles, and came out with a front-page story saying that the rumors were true: Willis was the one grabbing up lots and buying out businesses.
The movie star failed to appreciate the press coverage. "Bruce called up and asked to speak to me, and he was really angry," says Karamargin. "He understood the interest, but he also wanted me to understand that by telling people it was him, I was perhaps contributing to an inflation of prices. If you know that it's Bruce Willis and not Mr. Joe Schmoe, what happens to your asking price? It's gonna go up."
Not that Willis, whose business transactions were carried out by a childhood friend and sometime bodyguard named Joe McAllister, was tight-fisted. One of his first purchases was the Mint, an old, open-at-7-a.m. cowboy bar for which he paid longtime owner Wally Young over $200,000, and which he turned into a restaurant and nightclub of the same name. John Carson, the owner of the Liberty, reportedly took a walk with one of Willis' representatives, shook hands and parted with the old movie house he'd owned for 21 years. And so it went: A laundromat became a 1950s-style diner called Shorty's; ã a crumbling cornerstone structure was rebuilt as a large commercial building and christened the E.G. Willis Building (after the actor's grandfather). For Moore's 30th birthday, Willis paid $572,000 for a Victorian house off Main Street in which she could keep her collection of 2,000 porcelain dolls. Valley Entertainment snapped up almost every available lot, and drew up plans for a hotel, a wellness center and an entertainment complex.
Hailey was booming again, thanks to Willis. And it wasn't just real estate. There was the 12 Monkeyspremiere at the newly fabulous Liberty; the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the E.G. Willis Building was covered by Entertainment Tonight; and headline acts like B.B. King and Los Lobos were booked into the Mint. And tourists began stopping again. For the most part, Hailey's residents basked in this newfound spotlight, relishing their good fortune at having found a patron who brought them not only economic vitality but a kind of shared celebrity.
"You're suddenly the object of Bruce Willis' affections, and to experience that transformation was kind of heady," says Karamargin. "For the sleepy little community of Hailey to have Willis be their . . . not sugar daddy, because that sort of puts a negative connotation on it, but a one-man redevelopment agency; to [have him] come in and go, 'I love this town, I want to improve this town,' people thought, this is good, this is cool. I mean, what better way to promote the area than to bring glamorous people here from Hollywood to have their picture taken?"
While there are those who might have argued with that logic, for a while things were in fact good and cool. If Willis gave the town a little Hollywood flash, Hailey gave Willis something he and Moore apparently couldn't find in Malibu -- a sense of place, or what seemed like one. "It's like living in the 1950s," Willis would say of Hailey. "I'm not doing any of this to make money. My kids are going to grow up here, and I just wanted to make it a little nicer." The girls -- Rumer, Scout and Talullah Belle -- did in fact go to Sun Valley Community School; and their parents did try to pay the community back, sponsoring a scholarship, making contributions to spruce up the library and local parks, and paying for the Fourth of July fireworks extravaganza two years running. By most accounts, life in Hailey was one big party.
"Hell, I went to the Mint; it was fabulous" says Drougas. "I always had this feeling of extreme gratitude to Bruce, because I knew that I was seeing world-class musicians playing in a small venue, and that was just fantastic. My take on it was, thank you very much for doing this for us, this is a great gift to our town."
For Willis' 40th birthday, Moore rented out the bowling alley and flew in Tom Jones to serenade a crowd that included Woody Harrelson and Christian Slater. If any of this seemed slightly out of whack, no one at this point was saying so. Like those brain-zapping pen gizmos in Men in Black, the Willis flash had a way of making people forget just about everything.
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