In this interview, Big Al answers questions posed by some our team members and volunteers, giving us a rare insight into his time at Neverland, and his relationship with Michael.
Big Al: I got involved in the amusement business shortly after high school. Most of that time was in the safety and maintenance end of the business. When Mr. Jackson purchased the ranch, I was working for a Risk Management Consulting company that specialized in amusement rides. This company was recommended to the MJ representatives by the amusement ride broker in regards to, how to take care of the equipment. I would visit Neverland two or three times a year, either for a safety inspection or to address maintenance issues.
During the first two years Neverland was in operation, I developed a great professional relationship with Neverland as well as a good friendship with the ranch manager. During one of my closing meetings, I informed the ranch manager that I was getting tired of all the travel (300 days a year) and was thinking of looking for a job at an amusement park. I then told him of two parks I was interested in. His reply shocked me. He said, "What do you think about working here?"
At this point in time I had no idea what all went on at Neverland as far as all the charity work. I thought this was just a place for Mr. Jackson to have some fun. I was not a Michael Jackson fan, but I was into music enough to know he was an incredibly talented entertainer. I had seen enough of Neverland to know that this place had some serious class, but I really thought working there would be ... well ... boring. I decided that I should hear what the MJ people had to say about my possible employment at Neverland. This turned out to be a very wise decision on my part.
Valmai: What was a typical day like when Michael was at home?
Big Al: When Mr. Jackson was home or if we had guests, my day would start around 5.00am with the alarm clock going off. I would clock in at 7.00am, and head to the steam train. There were only two of us at the ranch that could fire up and operate the steam train. One of us would come in early to fire up, and the other would come in around 2.00pm and stay until closing.
Valmai: We know that Michael loved to play jokes on people for fun. Did he ever play one on you? What were some of his funniest pranks?
Big Al: I had only worked at Neverland for a few weeks. It was a very warm day. I was in my suit (and thinking to myself it was a bit hot to be wearing a suit), standing near the front of the amusement park grinding ice for the snow cone machine with my back to the road that runs in front of the park. I see a golf cart full of people out of the corner of my eye; the golf cart stops right behind me. I keep grinding ice and I hear, "Sure is hot today, isn't it?" I slowly turn around and agree then go back to grinding ice. Then ... WHAM, a water balloon hits me in the middle of the back. As the golf cart speeds off I hear Mr. Jackson say, "It wasn't me". I realized that I was feeling much cooler and a thought ran through my mind, "I have never had a boss throw a water balloon at me, I think this is going to be a fun place to work.”
This incident really sticks out in my mind because I had only been working at Neverland for a few weeks and had not had any contact with Mr. Jackson yet, other than running a few rides for him.
Big Al: The only free time I can comment on is his time at Neverland. I believe he enjoyed everything about Neverland; riding on the rides, watching movies, visiting the zoo and without a doubt, water balloon fights!
Neverland gave Mr. Jackson, as well as all his guests, a chance to relax, a chance to escape the everyday stress life gives us. Even if he was on tour or in the studio, he would want to hear all about the day that the guests had at Neverland. It was very important to him that they had the time of their life.
Valmai: Did you ever have any personal interaction with some of Michael’s most famous friends, such as Elizabeth Taylor or Lisa Marie?
Big Al: During my years at Neverland, I believe I meet them all. The one that really stands out is Gregory Peck. He was in the park with some of his family. He and I were sitting under a big oak tree while watching his family ride some rides. Mr. Peck asked me how I got my start at Neverland and over the next half an hour or so I told him my life story. When he got up to leave he thanked me, and told me I was a fascinating person. He said it with a level of sincerity I will never forget. I was telling myself, “here is a guy who is an absolute icon ... a legend ... and he is fascinated by my life as a Carny ... WOW!”
Valmai: Can you speak about the impact that a day at Neverland had on the children who visited there? What, if any, miracles did you witness?
Big Al: It is hard to explain what a huge impact a day at Neverland had on the inner city kids and the kids fighting life threatening illnesses. You would almost need to hear it from them. I know that we would receive letters from doctors, nurses, counselors and family members that would absolutely make me cry. Some of those kids were so sick; I think it was a miracle, if only for that one day, that they forgot about their illness. And for the inner city kids, some who had never been out of their neighborhood, the miracle was that they got to see that there is hope.
Valmai: Did Michael appear to be a happy person at Neverland?
Big Al: Extremely!
Valmai: What was one of Michael's happiest moments?
Big Al: That one I cannot answer. I do believe that seeing the sick and inner city kids having the time of their lives’ at Neverland made him very happy.
Valmai: When you look back on the time spent at Neverland and with Michael, what's the one thing you'll never forget; the memory that stands out in your mind the most?
Big Al: That is one tough question; there are so many incredibly happy memories. I guess if I had to pick one it would be the time I made Mr. Jackson laugh the hardest. (Side Note: I did get to make him laugh several times.) I have to stop here and ask if you can recall the video for “Speed Demon?” The opening when Michael runs into the two fat twins on scooters? If not, stop reading and go watch it. Okay, are you back?
I am in the amusement park area when I get a call on the radio, “Mr. Jackson would like two scooters at the park in a few minutes.” I grabbed Dan, and we jumped in my golf cart and headed to the barn where the scooters were. Now Dan is about 5 feet 6 inches and weighs about 130 pounds. I on the other hand, am 6 feet1inch and weigh 320 pounds. By now you may know where this story is going.
Dan and I are heading to the park on the scooters, and when we were about 200 feet from Mr. Jackson, I notice he is looking at me and laughing. I pull up about 6inches from his feet and the words just came out, "Hey Mister, want to autograph my belly?" He started laughing so hard I thought he was going to cry.
Big Al: Absolutely! I know there has been talk, both good and bad, about that possibility. There have been reports of Mr. Jackson saying he hated Neverland and would never live there again. Given the acts of the DA, the sheriff and 'that family', I do not doubt those reports. I believe eventually Mr. Jackson would have re-opened Neverland. Why do I believe that?
During my 15 years at Neverland, sitting at a picnic table under a huge oak tree, I had several long conversations with Mr. Jackson about Neverland. Looking into his eyes and hearing his voice, there is no doubt that the charity work done at Neverland was one of the most important things in his life. In time, I believe the importance of those magical days for those sick and inner city kids would have found its way back into Michael’s heart. The letters from all the doctors and nurses from children's hospitals, and the letters from parents who hung onto the memory of their child and that trip to Neverland, make it very clear how important Mr. Jackson’s charity work through Neverland was.
I became very good friends with a kid with cystic fibrosis (number 1 genetic killer of children). Jeff visited Neverland once with Children's Hospital of Los Angeles and twice as my guest during the annual employee family day. One day after taking it (Neverland) all in, he looked at me and said, "I don't know if I like Michael Jackson the entertainer (Jeff was a Lollapalooza kind of kid) but I am sure I like Michael Jackson the person.”
Jeff truly understood Michael and the importance of Neverland, and as I write this, and hang onto those happy memories of Jeff at Neverland, I understand its importance. If Neverland were brought back to its 'Heyday' condition, and opened to the public part of the time to support itself, and part of the time for invitation only charity events, it would be a win-win situation.
Valmai: When was the last time that you and Michael spoke, and what did you talk about?
Big Al: My last conversation with Mr. Jackson was during the trial. It was not much of a conversation. Sometimes I would see him in the morning before he left or in the afternoon when he came back. The conversation was more of acknowledging each other. I hope he saw in my eyes how I cared and how much I wished I knew what to do, what to say. This is the first time in a long time that I actually recalled that last conversation. I have a plethora of much happier times I concentrate on.
Valmai: What do you feel is the greatest gift you received from Michael? How did he change your life?
Big Al: After spending some time around Mr. Jackson and getting to better understand what he was about; I learned how to be more charitable, not to be judgmental, to do whatever I can to help people less fortunate than I, and to be more courteous and polite. I am a better person, thanks to my time at Neverland and with Mr. Jackson.
Valmai: What would you say is Michael's most profound legacy?
Big Al: I am sure that most people would say his musical career. I, on the other hand, would say his humanitarian accomplishments both known and unknown.
Valmai: If you could have one more day with Michael, how would you spend it?
Big Al: After reading that question, it took me a long time to get my composure back. I would spend the day thanking him until he made me stop, then I would do my job, entertaining the “Entertainer.”
Big Al: If I only knew how ... I would like to let the world know what a truly genuine person Mr. Jackson was.
Thankyou, Big Al, for sharing your special memories with us.
© Valmai Owens, 2011