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
"Every town has a balanced situation," says Tony Evans, a Hailey resident who works at a Ketchum bookstore. "The balanced situation had been in place in Hailey quite a long time . . . then someone comes in from without, supplied with an enormous amount of money, power, charisma, and shifts the balance of power. We're really talking about an unofficial balance of power. This is not about business, it's about something much more primal, about the desire to be able to get out on the dance floor with the big guys and dance. And for a while, anyone with the chutzpah and the rhinestones could get out there and dance."
CELEBRITY, LIKE ALL DRUGS, CAN CAUSE A PARADOXICAL reaction. You embrace it because you think it's going to make you feel better; often, it has the opposite effect. As those Haileyites who lacked the necessary chutzpah and rhinestones, those who simply couldn't dance with the big guys, soon learned.
"I always wanted to feel comfortable around Bruce, and I really thought that, over time, I would," says Sallie Hansen, president of the Hailey Chamber of Commerce. "I remember sitting behind him at a softball game once, and I thought, I'm just going to say hello, just 'hello,' but I couldn't. I wanted to be able to go up to him and say, 'You're one of us.' But was he really? No. He was always a movie star."
Willis was a very busy movie star. During Hailey's real go-go years (1994 to 1998), he starred in several hits (Pulp Fiction, Die Hard With a Vengeance) and, despite several more flops (Last Man Standing, The Fifth Element, The Jackal), was commanding $20 million a picture, a pecuniary fact which meant that seeing a return on his Hailey investments was not of paramount concern. (Moore's mega-income didn't hurt, of course.) The combined effects of this increasing stardom -- and the requisite ego -- began to take a toll in town. Cracks appeared in the façade Willis and Hailey had constructed together.
Tom Drougas admits that, while enjoying the world-class music acts at the Mint, he found himself wondering, "Can this possibly be supporting itself?" And Karamargin says that as much as the locals were into Willis and his good works, there was "always the subtext concern of 'Well, do we really want all our eggs in one basket?'"
The answer to the second question could be found ã in that to the first: No, none of Willis' investments saw a profit. But wasn't that how he said it would go, that it wasn't about making money -- or "putting potatoes in the bank," as he told In Style? Regardless of the bottom line on his many projects, he was doing what he set out to do, which was to make things "nicer" for everyone. But for a lot of folks in Hailey, that spin was slowing.
"Hailey wasn't hanging by a thread when Willis got here," says Tony Evans. "It had been schlepping along since the turn of the century, when the mining boom and the whorehouses closed down. I think Willis found himself living out this hero archetype, and probably saw problems where they didn't exist, or rationalized his desire to own things by saying he was 'saving' certain things."
"I think Bruce Willis, with his good intentions and positive interest, opened some good places," says Christopher Roebuck, owner of a jewelry store in the Willis Building. "The problem was, they were places he wanted."
And if his economic failures, or potential failures, were a concrete reason for concern in Hailey, in a funny way it was Valley Entertainment's primary success that, after a time, proved the most troublesome. What Willis did manage to do was turn the town into what locals had come to call "Planet Haileywood," a personal playpen for Willis and his friends, who could party in the Mint's VIP Room, eat a late-night burger at Shorty's or watch one of his own films at the Liberty. The incongruity of all this glitz in working-class Hailey (coupled with the fact that Willis, often on location, was seen less and less around town) began to be seen less as a sincere effort to buoy the community than as a novelty act -- a slick, even selfish, sideshow.
"He comes in and says, 'Yeah, I'm really humble, but you're gonna do it my way,'" says Ric Lum, a local artist. "And I mean, having that whole band shit. [Willis' band, the Accelerators, used to play at the Mint.] Bruce really sucks. His band is great, but as a singer, he really sucks."
"There's a lot more powerful and rich and influential people here that could've done what he did," says Barbara Barry, owner of the Ketchum restaurant Otter's (and a close friend of someone suing Willis.) "Herbert Allen, Steve Wynn, there's more money than God [in Ketchum], and they all give things to the community, but the neat thing about living here is that it's very understated. These are not people who care about Bruce Willis and his VIP Room and [the] club harlots. Like when he opened the Mint he hired only the most beautiful people. It was so L.A."
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