“Behind the Gates of Neverland” (published November 2017) is a book that Michael Jackson fans will devour in little more than an hour. It’s easy to read, respectful of Michael and provides an opportunity to gain insight into the day-to-day running of Neverland Valley Ranch. It fits comfortably alongside other slim volumes of first-hand stories about Neverland, i.e. “Private Conversations in Neverland with Michael Jackson” by William B. Van Valin II MD and “Michael Jackson In Search of Neverland” by Gloria Rhoads Berlin.
Some things just seem to be destined to happen – and what at first appeared to be bad news for Ray Robledo in 1989 when he lost his job without warning, paved the way for an exciting new job – as a security officer at Neverland. At first, he didn’t know where or for whom he would be working. The interview, the location, everything, in fact, was surrounded in secrecy until he turned up for the job.
Then he met his boss, “Mr. Jackson” of whom he says, “There was an undeniable sincerity about him.”
Through Ray Robledo we meet others who work at the ranch, including Marvin and Linda who looked after the animals in Michael’s zoo, and the animals themselves – the giraffe, the lion, the chimps and more. From the time he takes over care and control of the amusement park, Robledo is told by his boss to “Call me Michael, please.” And that is when their friendship began, says Ray.
Many of the staff did not acknowledge Michael when he was out and about on the property, and this seemed to bother him. Ray knew that his boss was happy to have his employees say hello to him. Robledo suspects that the problem lay with Michael’s so-called “inner circle” – people who thought they were in control of his life, and the staff handbook employees were given that instructed them not to talk to him.
Nevertheless, to Robledo, Michael spoke excitedly of his ideas for new features for the amusement park – like the water fort and the dunk tank. Robledo writes that Jackson had a human side that was quite simple, “which was opposite to the strange portrayal of him by judgemental media.”
There were always a lot of preparations by the staff when Michael had guests, like the day the Jackson family arrived for patriarch Joseph’s birthday. Michael had Robledo erect a banner that said, “Happy Birthday, Joe.” Ray writes “I never heard Michael refer to his father as dad… always ‘Joe’.” This comes as no surprise to Michael Jackson fans, I’m sure.
Robledo shares his feeling that Michael and his family, or certain members thereof, weren’t close, except for his mother, “but it was none of my business,” he writes, but “I still felt a sense of sadness for him.”
Later, Robledo told the story of his own childhood to Michael and eventually Michael opened up about his personal feelings and about what he wanted in life. Robledo realised there was so much more to Michael Jackson than even his own family knew.
Anyone well versed in Michael Jackson’s life will have no trouble at all visualising many of the anecdotes Ray shares throughout his book. And yes, we know he liked his music LOUD! That included on the amusement rides, it seems.
Robledo relates his memories of visits from Elizabeth Taylor and Larry Fortensky who arrived by helicopter, and their subsequent wedding at the ranch. Ray says Michael referred to Elizabeth as “Liz” which surprised me when I read it, as I had never heard of him using this derivative of her name. He always seemed too respectful of her to do that, although calling her Liz doesn’t denote any disrespect by any means. It just surprises me.
Ray Robledo worked at Neverland from 1989 to 1996, which puts his recollections in a timeline most fans are familiar with. Some dating of events he relates would have helped these memoirs, and perhaps avoided what look to be – in the eyes of a fan, at least – obvious errors.
For example, Ray tells of a fan named “Billie Jean”, an African-American woman who managed to sneak onto the ranch and hide herself away before Ray spotted her. Her name really was Billie Jean, we are told, “and shortly after Michael’s hit song topped the charts.”
Well, the song “Billie Jean” topped the charts in 1983 (having been released as a single in January of that year) and Michael Jackson bought his ranch in 1988. Ray’s employment at the ranch began in 1989 after the amusement park had been built. So, it’s not possible for Michael’s hit song of the same name to have post-dated the visit to the ranch of the fan named Billie Jean. (Or, perhaps I’ve misread this part of the text.)
Another timeline problem comes with the story of Michael leaving early one morning on his “Bad” world tour. Details of the tour are provided that read like they could have come straight from Wikipedia. However, the mention of this tour comes after the story of Elizabeth Taylor’s wedding to Larry Fortensky at the ranch, which was in October 1991. Michael’s “Bad” tour was September 1987 to January 1989.
Unless we’ve gone back in time from one chapter to the next, and unless Ray commenced his employment at the very beginning of 1989, it would have been the “Dangerous” tour (1992-1993) that Michael had set out on while Robledo worked there. Later, we read about changes at the ranch and the staff being spoken to about the rumours circulating in the media about Michael (1993). Then the Oprah Winfrey interview is mentioned (also in 1993). So again, it seems it must have been the “Dangerous” tour that Michael had embarked on.
I don’t expect a former employee to have all of Michael’s tour details, hit songs and interview dates down pat – but some easy research by his co-author Lori Armstrong and editors/proof readers of the final text would have provided the correct information.
The changes that came to Neverland, and to Michael’s demeanour, following the false allegations that surfaced in 1993 resulted in some unfortunate changes at the ranch. People were concerned for their jobs now that the “greedy ‘Yes’ people” from Michael’s “inner circle” of “corporate royalty” were running things. As for Michael, Robledo reveals that “Where there was once a face of joy and hope, displaying a bright smile, there was now a face of utter sadness.”
But the trouble in paradise had been brewing even before the false allegations arose, with some of Michael’s property disappearing and some employees talking to the tabloids for big dollars. It was no longer a happy or harmonious place when Michael Jackson wasn’t there. And saddest of all, after the allegations, he wasn’t the same when he was there.
Nevertheless, it is blessedly reassuring to read the memories of one of the former Neverland employees who is so appreciative of his time at the ranch and especially of having known Michael Jackson. He’s certainly not the only one, but we’ve been subjected to so much tabloid rubbish over the years, one could be forgiven for being cautious at first. But, I happily forgive errors like those mentioned above when the important message has been put across so emphatically, which is “I had only experienced and witnessed a pure heart in Michael. There was nothing I knew about Michael that would ever harm his genuine reputation.”
There is a list of Michael’s philanthropic activities over the years at the end of the book, and a list of awards that Michael received for his humanitarian work. It’s a nice touch in line with Ray’s feelings about his former “boss”.
Review by Kerry Hennigan
14 November 2017
“Behind the Gates of Neverland” ebook for Kindle is available from Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Behind-Gates-Neverland-Conversations-Michael-ebook/dp/B0752DC9HY
Photo at top by Harry Benson (1993) does not appear in the book, but is used as an illustration only for this review. No infringement of copyright is intended in its use in this not-for-profit, educational exercise.