SCOTT STEEPLETON, NEWS-PRESS CITY EDITOR
June 27, 2009 7:25 AM
The tiny screen of a security keypad off a driveway at what seems like the end of Figueroa Mountain Road features the greeting "Welcome to Sycamore Valley Ranch. Have a nice day."
To fans of Michael Jackson, this place will always be Neverland.
As the day the onetime King of Pop died turned into the day after, fans of the 50-year-old came to the place that, for years, he called home to ponder the reality of his never returning.
Indeed, Mr. Jackson said so long to this 2,800-acre ranch after being acquitted of all charges in his 2005 child molestation trial, moving first to Bahrain, then Europe. He recently returned to the U.S. to the rented home in Holmby Hills where paramedics arrived to find him in distress on Thursday.
He was pronounced dead at 2:26 p.m. at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center.
Mr. Jackson sold Neverland in 2008 for $35 million to a joint venture that included an entity formed by him earlier in the year. As part of the deal, the property went back to its original name, Sycamore Valley Ranch.
If the green screen of the entry sentry is not enough to convince a visitor that change has come to Neverland, then perhaps the Lolli Swings ride at the Lompoc Flower Festival will do it. Once a part of Mr. Jackson's Neverland amusement park, the ride is now owned by Butler Amusements and is, until Sunday, wowing young and old on the midway at Ryon Park.
But fans don't care about the name of the place that Mr. Jackson once called home as much as the feeling they get being there.
And as Thursday night turned to Friday morning by the light of an infinite number of stars, fans came and went, hoping to get in touch with that feeling.
Among those braving the chilling cold were Samantha Werk, of Los Alamos, and Sharlee Stone, of Lompoc, who were at dinner Thursday night when, from the bar, came Michael Jackson blaring over the speakers.
"Everyone started dancing to 'Thriller' in the middle of the bar," Ms. Werk, 24, told the News-Press moments after the clock struck midnight. "We went home and had a tribute dance party ourselves and remembered suddenly that he lived not too far away, so we decided to come out here and see if anybody else was paying their respects."
They were not alone. At least 10 people showed up in the midnight hour.
"Michael Jackson was such a presence and he is such a presence to so many people from my generation and from his generation," said Ms. Werk.
"He's definitely always been in my life soundtrack."
Like others, the women came bearing a gift for the makeshift memorials going up on either side of the gates.
"We brought a wine bottle from a local winery, stuffed with our backyard flowers," said Ms. Werk.
While some people try to quantify Mr. Jackson's impact on music, Ms. Werk said that's a difficult call.
"There are so many contemporary musicians that obviously are influenced by him and so many people that are indirectly influenced by him as well, that it's not worth even counting," said Ms. Werk.
"It's infinite," said Ms. Stone, 25.
Solvang resident Barbara Pedersen, who served as a juror in a 2003 civil trial in which a concert promoter sued Mr. Jackson -- and won -- after the singer pulled out of two New Year's Eve concerts in 1999, told the News-Press that her strongest recollection of the singer was his physical appearance.
"At the time I would have said he was frail," she said.
Upon learning of his death, "I was saddened of course," added Ms. Pedersen.
"What a wonderful talent and troubled person he was."
Celebrating Michael Jackson and his legacy takes on all forms. As word of his death spread, after the celebrity Web site TMZ broke the story, employees at American Apparel on State Street dealt with the initial shock and then broke into dance, with CDs they bought at nearby Just Play Music.
"We were dancing around the store," said Kayla Egberg, assistant manager. "We all loved Michael Jackson."
At the music store, several people came in to buy his CDs.
"This weekend is going to be pretty crazy," said floor manager Dini O'Brien, 17.
Just Play Music's CD catalog spans the Jackson 5 to the "Thriller" eras. A best of Jackson 5 CD was priced at $24.95.
The store sold out of its Jackson vinyl records and employees said they expect the same of the CDs.
At Salzer's Records in Ventura, sales of Jackson recordings have been "really intense," said employee Johnny Marston.
"We got in a shipment of like 50 CDs (Friday) morning and sold out in two hours," said Mr. Marston. "People are still coming in and asking for it."
Returning to Neverland, make that Sycamore, Sharlee Stone talked about being a young girl putting on a Michael Jackson song and letting go.
"I'd basically create my own choreographed dance steps to his music, mimicking him," she said.
A Santa Maria native, Ms. Stone formed, by way of her mother, a fondness for the place that many will forever call Neverland Valley Ranch.
"It was always such a huge deal that Michael Jackson chose to live where I lived. That was always incredible," she said. "I remember being 7, 8 years old and my mom would always tell me how beautiful and wonderful this area was because Michael Jackson lived here."
"That was like what it meant to live in this area," she added. "Michael Jackson's here, therefore it was amazing."
Samantha Werk recalled, as a young girl, taking several school field trips to the fabled Neverland.
"It was great fun. You pretty much were given free rein of the place, regardless of his presence," said Ms. Werk. "Family School and Dunn and the local high school, it was almost a regular thing at the end of every year, pretty much every local school was invited to come and play for a day."
As for his legacy, both women said locals prefer to think of him as a performer.
"Regarding Michael as the pop star and the icon that he was is much more of local affinity than it was to regard him as the tabloid star," said Ms. Werk. "We always prefer to regard him for what he wanted to be known for as opposed to what people subjected him to."
You can't talk to a fan without the conversation turning to music. For Ms. Stone, when she wants to dance, nothing moves her like "Billie Jean."
"To just kind of feel, it's 'Man in the Mirror.' It just makes me cry every time I hear it. It wells me up."
For Ms. Werk, "Billie Jean" is definitely a dancer.
"But 'The Way You Make Me Feel' is always a mover," she said. "And we played that on repeat a couple times before we came here."
Staff writer Dave Mason and correspondents Miranda Green and Morgan Hoover contributed to this report.