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Hailey's Comet

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.

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."

 

BUY HARD WITH A VENGEANCE

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.

 

"Buy Hard With a Vengeance!" urged the headline in the local paper, the Wood River Journal. Willis must have seen it. Saying in print that he loved Hailey, he began putting his money where his mouth was -- the first installments on $10 million to $20 million he would sink into local development over the next decade.

While he and Moore and daughter Rumer set up house in a $7 million home in the exclusive enclave of Flying Heart Ranch just outside of Hailey, Willis' first business forays were actually in Ketchum/Sun Valley, where he opened a bar, the now defunct Dyno-Mite Lounge, and had plans for another drinking establishment until the city quashed what Willis' company, Valley Entertainment, thought a crafty plan for two establishments to share one liquor license: a sky bridge between them.

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 Monkeys premiere 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.

"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."

PLANET HAILEYWOOD

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.

Some testimonials:

"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."

Demi, of course, didn't escape scrutiny. "She walks in with her little entourage," remembers Christopher Mydgette, a computer consultant, of a night he went to a piano concert at the Mint, "and they come all the way down to the front -- the baby sitter, the bodyguard and all the kids. And right in the middle of the concert, Demi gets on the cell phone -- right down in the second row in front of everybody at this concert that they paid to see -- and she's on the phone talking. That was so rude, that was so tasteless. I had to sit there and listen to her talk."

"They were people from out of state, they didn't know our local customs or people or culture or food, anything," explains lawyer E. Lee Schlender. "After going to Shorty's one time, you turn around and run. You can only eat hummus pinwheels so many times for breakfast . . . it was like he didn't really care about making money, it was more or less a big charade of some kind. Once the buildings were built, it was sort of like, I don't really need to run these, I just want to have something to do for six months and then I'm out of here."

 

HIS OWN PRIVATE IDAHO

IF PLANET HAILEYWOOD WAS BEGINNING to grate, Valley Entertainment's business practices were beginning to make enemies. By all accounts, Willis' business acumen was appalling; he let Joe McAllister ("He was big, he was loud, he was brash," says Karamargin) run the show. Having bought virtually every property available, in many cases Valley Entertinment sent agents to see if owners of properties not on the market were willing to sell. One holdout was the Wood River Journal, who nevertheless saw their offices bought out from under them, and were forced into a new space around the corner. Another was Toni Lanning, whose Wood River Furniture and Antiques sat inconveniently smack in the middle of a block where Willis was planning a huge "entertainment complex." Though Lanning refused to sell to Willis, a set of blueprints circulating at the time showed Willis already owning her property.

"How do you think that woman felt?" asks Hailey businessman François Paris. "This was their whole attitude. 'We have enough money to buy this town. Either you gonna sell it to us or we're gonna open a business next door that's gonna kill you anyway.'"

 

Indeed, Willis' operations reverberated badly for some local businesses. When Shorty's became all the rage, for instance, Hailey's two other diners, the Sunrise and the Hearthstone, went under. Some said it was because they couldn't compete with Shorty's low prices, others that the possibility of seeing a movie star over your morning cup of joe was just too compelling, still others that the old diners had been on the verge of bankruptcy anyway.

In any case, Willis didn't seem to know when to stop, or perhaps appreciate what effect his disregard for the bottom line was having. With his unlimited funds and a game plan designed around the concept of doing basically what he wanted, the playing field for everyone else became distressingly uneven. When the E.G. Willis Building turned out to be 10 short of the city's required parking spaces, rather than have Valley Entertainment pay a reasonable $2,500 fee per space, Moore plunked down $675,000 for an empty building across the street and turned its parking spaces over to the E.G. Willis. (A planned wellness center for the space never materialized.) This kind of "price-is-no-object" bulldozing drove property values up, while flattening the competition.

"There was a guy who tried to negotiate a deal to open a restaurant in one of [the E.G. Willis Building's] spaces," says Karamargin, "but the rent they wanted was completely exorbitant, plus they wanted a percentage of profit, and the guy couldn't swing it. He just couldn't make a go of it."

One businessman who did make a go of it with Valley Entertainment, but wishes he hadn't, is François Paris. "They [Valley Entertainment] are very quick to say in the newspaper how they employ 250 people and it had such a great impact on the economy, we're filling all these mouths," he says, "but I dare you to find anybody who worked for them that had a good experience."

When Willis opened the E.G. Willis Building, in 1996, Paris (who was then known as Gilles Parisot) eagerly moved his home-furnishing business, Primitive Design, from Ketchum to Hailey. "The reason I invest in that place more than another one -- which was more expensive than any place else in town -- is the fact of who was the owner," says Paris, a French expatriate who, owing to continuing paranoia about local Willis informants, chooses to tell his story inside his Volkswagen bug parked ã in front of a Tru-Value hardware store on the outskirts of town. "They tell you, 'Bruce doing this, Bruce doing that, everything he touch turn to gold, you better jump in, you're one of the lucky ones.' They make you feel so special. If I knew I was going to have to bring a jar of Vaseline, I would've done it that day."

Though the Willis Building, which has been billed as a retail mall, opened with much fanfare (including Willis cutting a red ribbon for TV cameras), there were few actual occupants; within several months, Paris saw the spaces next to his rented out as offices, something he found extremely distressing.

"No one with two grams of brain will open a retail space surrounded by offices," he says. After being promised a different space at street level (". . . where all the Japanese tourists are stopping to take pictures"), only to be told later that the move had been "overruled by Bruce," Paris sued to recoup his original investment of $30,000.

"I decide to serve Bruce with papers while he was shooting a movie in Twin Falls [Breakfast of Champions]. They try to say that he couldn't miss a day of work, because it cost him $128,000 a day to do that. Which was quite insulting to myself and the court system, that his time is worth more than anybody else's."

Through his Ketchum attorney, Ned Williamson, Willis denied having anything to do with E.G. Willis leases in general, or with the Parises specifically. He countersued for the remaining amount of the lease, asserting that should Paris lose the case, he would be responsible for all of Willis' legal expenses, as well as the actor's transportation costs, including the fuel in his private jet.

"They didn't pay anything for my time, and I never made a big secret that, if I didn't win that case, I was gonna have to file for bankruptcy. So the fact that he was gonna add another $100,000 for his private jet, mostly I don't care."

Paris did care deeply, however, about the browbeating he says Williamson and colleagues gave his wife in court. "They went totally after her, tell her that she is just lazy, just after the deep pocket of Bruce, and implied that she should get a job instead of try to get free money. I was looking for my money back that I invest down there, I never ask for one dime more! To go after my wife because she doesn't work and stay at home is a total disgrace."

 

Though the jury rejected Paris' claim, it also rejected Willis' counterclaim, meaning that Paris was responsible only for his own legal costs.

"These people will go to any lengths, not even to win, but to diminish the person they're dealing with . . . If I was at any time asked, 'How can we work this out?' I would have. But it was never the situation. It was more 'I dare you to speak out. I have unlimited amount of money and I can drag this out for as long as I want.'"

Which Willis' lawyers are in fact doing: Despite the jury's finding for neither side, Williamson recently filed a motion to recoup Willis' legal fees. (Williamson did not return the Weekly's calls or fax, and Willis' publicist said the actor had no interest in being interviewed for this article.) Paris has since filed for bankruptcy.

 

HURRAH FOR ME, SCREW YOU

MAYBE HAILEY SIMPLY NEEDED A REALITY CHECK. THAT Willis' born-in-L.A. methodology -- his "hurrah-for-me, screw-you attitude," as one local put it -- should take anyone by surprise is the real mystery. Hadn't they seen his movies? Hadn't they ever marveled at the balls of his alter ego, Bruno the harmonica player, feeling entitled to share the stage with real musicians? Could they honestly expect a man who, on Access Hollywood, expressed the opinion that "There are, I think, three countries left in the world where I can go and I'm not as well-known as I am here. I'm a pretty big star, folks -- I don't have to tell you. Superstar, I guess you could say" to roll up his sleeves and work in earnest with the little guy? To actually become "one of them"?

Maybe he simply tired of trying. Or maybe he was sick of dealing with French antique dealers. Or maybe it had something to do with his apparently troubled marriage. Or all of the above. Whatever it was, on New Year's Day, 1998, Willis walked into the Mint's restaurant and fired everyone. Five months later, the Mint nightclub and Shorty's were closed, abruptly and without explanation. Though it's impossible to find any employees to speak of this on the record, as all were required to sign a confidentiality agreement pledging that they would never discuss their personal or professional dealings with Willis or Moore, several reports have Willis dropping the ax himself, screaming at people, "Get out!" But Shorty's general manager, Tina Quarles, says that Willis "was not even around that night" and that she and a Willis associate named Ken Hendrickson sat the employees down and explained that the businesses were closing due to slack -- the local term for seasonal drought.

In retrospect, the signs seem fairly obvious. In early 1997, according to newspaper reports, Joe McAllister, on Willis' behalf, introduced development plans for what was to be a $50 million entertainment-and-retail complex in Willis' hometown of Penns Grove, New Jersey, a place Willis did not want to see die and which inspired his redevelopment of Hailey. But in May, McAllister reported that Willis "had lost interest" in Penns Grove, and pulled out all development moneys. Then Willis yanked all his advertising -- $15,000 worth -- from the Wood River Journal over an uncaptioned photograph the paper ran of a house Willis owned on Forest Service land.

For Willis, the party was clearly winding down, if not over. For Hailey, it was confusing. While residents found these developments alarming, they didn't know exactly how to address them. Were the Valley Entertainment businesses really closed for slack? Or had Willis abandoned them, and if so, what in the world had they done to offend him? Bemusement gave way to amazement at the level of hostility Willis clearly felt.

"If you're worth a billion dollars, why on God's green earth leave behind a trail of tears and fights over unpaid bills?" asks Lee Schlender. "And there was a rudeness to his leaving, an 'I don't like you guys anymore.' It ã became very personal." Schlender has sued Willis on behalf of two clients, including heating contractor Jim Lovey, who filed against Valley Entertainment after the company allegedly refused to pay for work Lovey's company had already completed on the E.G. Willis Building. Willis denied owing Lovey any money.

"Bruce Willis said to me he never walked out of the house with less than $10,000 in his wallet," says Lovey, a soft-spoken man who's lived in Hailey for 11 years. "I'm eating macaroni and cheese for two years, and working two jobs to pay off my debt -- we had a $54,000 debt to our suppliers -- and he's bragging to me that he carries $10,000 around in his pocket. He owes us $120,000, and we went to court, but taking on Bruce Willis in court is like taking on a giant, it's almost impossible to do. I mean, how do you do it?"

 

Adding insult to injury, says Lovey, was Valley Entertainment's attitude that the contractor "should be honored to be working for Willis at all."

"We're not starstruck, we're in business to make money. And I don't make a lot of it. I made that point very clear to them in court: You don't see a Mercedes-Benz in my garage, nor do I own a garage. I was just asking for a living."

Not only did Lovey lose his initial case (an appeal is now before the Idaho Supreme Court), but he was made to feel small, something he attributes to Willis' juvenile refusal to be held accountable.

"Bruce showed up and acted like an idiot -- laughed, giggled, smirked, disrupted the whole deposition. He acted like a clown, and he proved to me that day what he really is. My feeling was, let's act like adults. I had a $54,000 debt to pay off, and it's a big joke to him."

Having been in Hailey 31 years, and represented "just about everybody in the Valley at one time or another," Schlender doesn't regard Willis' presence as incongruous to the area. "I used to represent Steve McQueen when he lived up here, and the craziness -- the spending money and buying ranches and stuff -- everyone loved it! They love it if you bring money and glamour, and they want celebrities to build the biggest houses and be the most riotous people they can possibly be. People are drawn like magnets by the thousands to see where these people go and how they live."

Schlender claims to have a problem with none of this. "Hailey was eager to have some of that identification, with someone of his name identification . . . and everybody was so proud Willis lived up here. But when the thing went to hell, the shakeout was not what you would expect from your classy actor or actress. It came to an end in a rather nasty way, in that he just disappeared, things closed, his new restaurant in effect ran most of the other restaurants out of business, now they're all gone and there's no place to eat. [Note: Last month, Shorty's reopened under lease to a former Ketchum restaurateur.]

"And the way he acted in my office [during the Lovey deposition], I was rather appalled. He sat down and glared at everybody and made snide remarks . . . he kept making strange noises and glaring at everybody, and I thought, good Lord, he's acting like it's a scene in a movie."

Well, wasn't it? Hadn't Willis already given Hailey 10 years of his life and millions of dollars? Hadn't he in effect created the location, and weren't all these people just extras? Didn't they realize who was in charge? The lawsuits and public devaluation of his image smacked of betrayal and, far worse, rejection, something that simply wasn't scripted in a Willis drama. As producer of this saga, he would exit how and when he pleased. And if reality wasn't going to give Willis his usual down-to-the-wire third-act victory, he wasn't going to ã stay around to see it.

Fin. The End. But unlike the letting of cinematic blood, the hurt in Hailey was real. People were out of work -- construction jobs that had been counted on were lost, the hundred-plus service jobs in Willis' establishments were gone, and the tourists were no longer stopping. And though many held out hopes for a year that Bruce, the last action hero, would return to pull off an 11th-hour miracle, it didn't happen.

The town's official reaction was to poke the corpse for a while, in hopes of coaxing a sustained interest if not an actual presence. "The Chamber of Commerce wrote him a letter of support late last year," says Sallie Hansen. "A letter to say that we do appreciate what you've done -- the fireworks, the streetlight. We wanted to let him know that we appreciated him, though I think it was too late at that point."

Hansen wrestles with the concept that perhaps the town unknowingly showed less than obsequious obeisance and that this may have driven Willis away. "Maybe a movie star sometimes feels they have a right to expect things. I think he felt the town didn't give him enough gratitude, and maybe the town didn't."

 

Still, having received no response after repeated entreaties, Hansen has had to accept the fact that not all responsibility rests on her shoulders and entertain the notion that the "neighbor" she and fellow Haileyites idolized may have feet of clay.

"I would welcome him back, but . . . there is a minority [in town] who think, hey, screw it, he let us down."

At a cocktail party in the exclusive hamlet of multimillion-dollar homes in Gimlet, six miles north of Hailey, a casually dressed, ruddy-faced group of baby boomers talk heartily about the slopes, Democratic politics and the merits of pinot noir over petite syrah. These are not Enquirer readers, and yet, within minutes, the conversation around the butcher-block island in the sky-lit kitchen falls to Bruce and Demi: The writer saw her in The Gold Mine (a thrift store in Ketchum that's been known to receive a donation of a Range Rover), sorting through costume jewelry. This includes a description of Demi's outfit ("a ratty coat, and urban jeans like a snowboarder"). The developer of a golf resort remembers his first Demi sighting: sitting at the counter of Shorty's on a Sunday morning, wearing "a skin-tight brown cashmere dress that left not one millimeter of the flesh beneath in question . . . I was impressed." This segues into a ponderous discussion of a frozen confection called Gisé, which Demi had Shorty's stock. When asked what it tastes like, someone offers that it's like frozen yogurt, but airier and less substantial; something that gives the oral simulation of eating, but is in reality mostly air. "Now, listen to what you just said," the writer caws. "That's what her acting is. It's like junk food!"

When they're not dumping on Demi, they're eager to let it be known that they've shared the same oxygen with the Willis clan: A city planner divulges that daughter Rumer has the chickenpox; a firefighter remembers being kicked off the dance floor by Willis, after taunting the actor over his former position as pitchman for Seagram's wine cooler; a ski instructor remembers seeing Willis and his perennial entourage on the slopes.

It's clear that these have-it-alls harbor a subliminal need to fetishize Willis and Moore. (They're not alone. "We love to see Hollywood marriages break up," Time magazine wrote rather caustically last July, when the Willis-Moore split went public. "It makes us feel better to know the stars' glamorous lives are actually empty, solipsistic nightmares.") And yet for all the schadenfreude masquerading as table talk, there also appears to be a genuine ã concern for the integrity of Willis and Moore's marriage. Not salacious or vicarious peeping, but a tenderhearted and personal involvement.

"We're talking about our neighbors. I mean, don't you care what happens to your neighbors?" asks Karamargin. "It's the same reason why people have that feeling almost of betrayal, by being able to put the face on the person who may have misled them. Bruce and Demi are our neighbors, and there is that sense that we're all here together. We're a small, isolated community, and our sense of community is acute, regardless of status or job. It's as if Joe and Cindy down the street were going to get a divorce."

 

BROKEN MAIN

AFTER A FEW FINAL MONTHS IN THE limelight in mid-1998, when the global media descended upon northern Idaho in hopes of getting the inside poop on the rumored Willis-Moore divorce, Hailey became very quiet, even depressed, leaving the tangible signs of what had once signified such glorious possibility spent and broken in the middle of Main Street.

"When Bruce first came, he said he didn't want this town to die, like his hometown had in New Jersey," says Hansen. "But Hailey wasn't really dying. Now, when you come into my town, what do you see? Empty buildings. Does it make you want to stop? For what?"

As important is the way the people of Hailey appear to one another, and to themselves.

"I think of [Willis and Moore] as being on the order of the celebrities who've taken full advantage of the naiveté of their audience," says Tony Evans. "I mean, look at these cinematic lounges he's building all over the world, Planet Hollywood. That's smart business, it's good, it's great, and, let's face it, it's far beyond the level of art this man is creating . . . it has much more to do with groupie activity than it does with any conscious examination of the work he does and the response to it.

 

"I believe that when Bruce left, when he really rolled up the carpet and took his ball and went home, only then did people realize the impact he had -- not on the town of Hailey, which is too general -- but upon themselves, upon their personal lives. I think each and every person is coming to terms with that, some slowly, some quickly. Some are having garage sales and moving to Shoshone . . . and they'll always have these stories of having worked for Bruce Willis."

The romantic idea of Willis as an annuity plan, even an evanescent one, is not unlike those images of the Virgin Mary that pop up in elm trees every few years. Can this salvation be real? Well, it is if you believe it is. But when the image goes away, it takes a mighty faith to keep believing. While there are those in Hailey trying to hold faith, most realize the futility of such devotion. Real estate prices are flat, and with a dearth of operating businesses, there's really no reason to stop by.

"Bruce came in, rejuvenated downtown, and it brought people in," says Sallie Hansen. "Tourists stopped, they wanted to see Bruce's Mint, they wanted to see Shorty's, they wanted to go to the theater, and they wanted to drive by his house, they wanted to see Bruce walking around town. There was change.

"And now, I don't get as many phone calls . . . People come in here, they stand around, and then they say, 'Well, how's it going?'"


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