Lisha: Willa and I are thrilled to be joined once again by Brad Sundberg, a recording engineer who served as Michael Jackson’s technical director for the Dangerous and History albums. Beyond the studio, Brad designed and installed music and video systems in virtually every corner of Michael Jackson’s incredible Neverland Valley Ranch property. In addition to personal listening and dance studio systems, Brad created outdoor sound systems throughout the grounds with the exact same attention to detail.
At a recent In the Studio with MJ seminar, I was so intrigued by Brad’s description of Neverland and the work he did there, it left me wanting to know more! Thank you so much, Brad, for joining us again today for an in-depth look at Neverland Valley Ranch.
Willa: Yes, welcome, Brad. Thanks so much for joining us again! From everything I’ve heard about Neverland, it wasn’t just a home for Michael Jackson but also an extension of his artistic imagination. It’s almost like Neverland was a living work of art. So I’m really curious to learn more about this relatively unknown work of “art.”
Lisha: I have to say, Brad, your seminar gave me a sense of Neverland that I really hadn’t had before. We’ve all seen photos and aerial views of the property, but I don’t think I really had an idea of the true scale and grandeur of the property until I heard you describe it.
Brad: Ok, so what I want to try and do is give you guys a sense of the size of Neverland, and in a sense almost kind of walk you through it.
Lisha: Yes, being able to visualize Neverland from the ground level is what I think a lot of us are missing.
Brad: Right. Neverland was huge. You know, I’m not from Texas, and I don’t mean like Texas ranch huge, but it was 2,800 acres. To an American, that’s basically 2,800 football fields, if I’m not mistaken. It was big.
Lisha: There are many small towns that don’t have that much land!
Brad: Right. So when you went to Neverland, number one it was … I drove to Neverland countless times. I lived just outside of Pasadena, California, and Neverland is north of Santa Barbara. So you drive to Santa Barbara and get off the freeway, and then you start winding up the side of a mountain. And it’s like two-lane mountain roads. Bel Air and Beverly Hills are a million miles away. This is sagebrush and cattle and steep ravines, way, way outside of L.A. So it would take me about two and a half hours, two hours and twenty minutes, something like that, to get from the Pasadena area to Michael’s gate.
So when you drove down the road towards Neverland – and probably some of your readers have done this – I think it’s about seven miles down Figueroa Mountain Road, and it’s just a flat, pretty nondescript road. I’ll tell you one thing: that part of the country – this is going to creep some people out – there’s a lot of tarantulas. And I know about as much about tarantulas as I do writing an Italian opera, which is nothing. But tarantulas apparently live in the ground – and we’re way off topic but I’ll go fast – and I don’t know what month they come out, but I want to say it’s like March or April or something like that. And you’d be driving down Figueroa Mountain Road, and as you’re driving you would just hear this pop, pop, pop – and you’re driving over tarantulas, and they’re popping.
Brad: I don’t want to say that the road was covered in them, but there were times when I would be swerving because I don’t want to run over the little guys! But there were so many of them you couldn’t avoid them.
Willa: Oh no!
Brad: They come out of the ground, and they’re trying to warm up and find something to eat. I never really saw too many of them on the ranch, but it was always on that road out to the ranch. A few times a year they’d be all over the road, and it was really weird.
So you’d get to Neverland, and the first thing you come to is the outside gate – kind of the guard gate. And that’s where you’ve got to say who you are, and even me – and I’m not tooting my own horn – but man, every time I’d go to Neverland, I’d have to be on the list, and I’d have to be pre-approved, and I’d have to sign this three- or four-page release that I’m not going to talk about it – which of course I am.
Lisha: Every time? Every time you went?
Brad: Every single time. Every. Single. Time. Everybody in the car would have to sign this release. Whoever the guard was, they’d know me and they’d say, Hey Brad, how are you doing, and they’d get the release, and yeah. We would have to do it every single time.
So now you’re in, and it looks just like it does out. It’s sagebrush, and do you know what cypress bushes are? That’s kind of a California thing. Just kind of low, green – they’re not pretty but kind of desert-ish looking. And you drive up and over a hill, and I’ll never forget – now other people have written about this, I’m not the only one – but you would crest over this hill, and I think somewhere up there was a sign that said “Welcome to Neverland” with a cherub or a baby or something on it.
You’d come around a corner and over this hill, and then you’d start going down the other side. It wasn’t like a steep climb in the Alps or something – it was a just a road that went over a hill. And that’s when you’d start seeing the white fences and the green grass. And then you’d go a little bit further and you’d see the fountains, and the oak trees. And I think Michael kind of coined the phrase that it was like being in The Wizard of Oz where it goes from black and white to color. And it really was. It was very, very dramatic coming down that other side, and you’re like, Holy cow, I did not know this was here, because you can’t see any of that from the road. This is easily a mile or a mile and a half onto the ranch before you even see the ranch. Does that make sense?
Willa: It does. Rabbi Boteach talks about that a bit in his book. He has a quote where Michael Jackson says,
You know, it’s almost an act of psychology. . . . I was gonna have people swing them [the gates] open and really kind of have them funky and tattered, just so psychologically you really feel like you’re coming to a ranch, so that when you go around the bend I want it to change to Technicolor, like The Wizard of Oz does.
So that’s exactly what you’re describing!
Brad: Yeah. I mean the guard shack and the gate, they were nice. But it wasn’t until you got to the second gate – the ornate gate – that it really started to make a statement.
Willa: So the gates he was talking about in this quote, that’s the first gates? And then there’s a second set of gates?
Brad: Yeah, there’s the security gate out by the road, and then there’s what he called the “ornate gate” inside. So when you got to the second gate – like I say, I’m estimating – but it had to have been a mile, or maybe even a mile and a half, from the first gate to the second.
Then there was a huge parking lot that was on the left-hand side of that gate. And they did that because when we had a lot of guests, most people were not allowed to take their cars or buses into the ranch itself. You would stop at that second gate and park there. And then you would generally walk through the ornate gate. People have seen all the pictures of the black ornate gate with the gold crest and everything. And so at that point, that’s where we would unload the buses. You know, there might be kids coming in from L.A. or Santa Barbara or someplace, or Make a Wish kids or different things. That was kind of the staging area. Then they would walk through that gate. And that’s where the little train was waiting for them.
So when people would get out of their cars and buses, Michael wanted to welcome them to Neverland in a very grand way. So he asked me to build an enormous sound system right at that gate. So up to that point, there was no music, there were no lights. I remember leaving Neverland at night and, man, after you left that ornate gate, it was dark. There was just nothing up on that hill.
So our guests would show up to the gate, the gate would open up, and we would just flood them with music. And I don’t just mean a couple speakers hanging from a chain. I mean, if I’m not mistaken, we probably had 20,000 watts of power.
Willa: I don’t know much about electricity, but that sounds like a lot.
Brad: That’s a small concert system. So they actually built us a small building, kind of a shed next to the gate – I mean, not a shed, nothing at Neverland was ever a shed – but they built it just for equipment because we had so much power. Michael’s words to me were, “I want it to be loud enough to shake a bus.” So we built just this monster system. And that’s what would welcome people in. So they would walk through that gate, music is playing, and now they’ve kind of entered into Michael’s world.
Lisha: Amazing. Were there any light designs there?
Brad: Yeah, I’m glad you mentioned that! I didn’t put the lights in but we had a fiber optic guy, and at night that sign would just explode in lights. I cannot remember if it was just white lights or color. I seem to think it was just white lights. But you’ve seen fiber optic lights – you know, very Disneyesque – where they flutter from left to right. So there’s thousands of fiber optics in that sign.
Willa: This is the Neverland sign up above the gate?
Brad: Yeah, this is the big black Neverland sign, and it has the big gold crest above it. That whole thing at night was just outrageously beautiful.
So then you would walk through, and there’d be one of the staff or a couple of staff members to meet the guests there. And there’d be the little train there. Michael was very big into costumes – you know, he kind of took a cue from Disney where just about everybody at the ranch was in costume. You know, not silly, but the guys who worked on the train and the rides, they kind of had that formal kind of a conductor’s look with a conductor’s hat and a black jacket and the whole thing.
So this is an experience. You’re stepping into a different world.
Lisha: And I’ve seen maids in uniform, right? At the time, it wasn’t fashionable for wealthy people to have their employees wear uniforms, but I’ve seen pictures of the Neverland staff in maid costumes – that kind of Hollywood look?
Brad: Yep! All the security guys were in uniform. Back in the horse ranch, it was very much cowboy attire. The firemen wore firefighters clothes, and they were real. So yeah.
Lisha: And these are all elements of theater, right? We have wardrobe. We have sound. We have lights. We have these dramatic entrances and so forth. It’s very theatrical, wouldn’t you say?
Brad: Absolutely. And very planned. There was nothing at Neverland that was by accident or overlooked.
So there was a small train station right next to the big gate, and there’s something I talk about my seminars and that’s the details of Neverland. There’s that train station, and it’s smaller than a very, very small house – you know, like the size of a southern porch, maybe, or a very big gazebo. But this thing has a slate roof and architecture, and the railings and the pillars are just beautifully turned.
I’m trying to think of the word, but there’s almost like plaques or little things on the pillars – little paintings and etchings and things. It’s just gorgeous, and this is just the first train station!
Lisha: Unbelievable. Here’s the first train station as it looks now on the Sotheby’s website for Sycamore Valley Ranch:
Do you remember the name of the architect or designer?
Brad: Well, Tony Urquidez was the contractor. I don’t know who the architect was, but Michael was really good about using local guys.
Lisha: Do you think that he actually helped design it?
Brad: Oh, I’m sure Tony did. I’m positive Tony did.
Lisha: Do you think Michael Jackson also contributed?
Brad: I’m sure he might have done some rough sketches or something, but I think he was probably a little bit more involved on the concept. He would send Tony on trips. He and Tony would travel together and go to different parks and different cities and just look at architecture and get ideas. So yeah, Michael was very specific about what he wanted. But then he also kind of got a kick out of surrounding himself with creative people, and seeing what they could bring to the table. So I think the combination worked.
Willa: Brad, you mentioned earlier that everything was very carefully thought out for effect. So how would you describe the overall effect of the first gate, the drive, the ornate gate, the little train station? What I mean is, what effect or experience do you think he going for with that?
Brad: Well, I never like to try to crawl inside his head, but it was very theatrical. And you’re setting the stage. You know this is kind of the introduction – the song is beginning. And so you don’t want to flood people with everything at once. They just got off a two-hour drive, they parked, they’re finally here, and you know, it’s almost like the excitement is building.
So at that point the guests would get on the train. And it’s not that every day was the same, but the way that we designed it was they could get on the train there, and the train would, in essence, bypass the house. The house is kind of his private residence. But the train is going past the lake, and the swans, and the swan boat. And we’ve got music playing, and these gorgeous oak trees, and that’s slowly taking them up to the theme park.
Willa: And there are actually two separate trains – is that right?
Brad: Yeah. So other guests, depending on who they were, Michael might just meet them there with a golf cart, or different things would happen. You could walk to the main house, but I’m telling you – getting from one point at Neverland to another on foot, you were hoofing it! It was a good little walk to get from the ornate gate to the house. But the house is kind of the first thing you come to. There’s pastures. There’s guest housing – I think there are five or seven guest villas. I forget. And then you get to the main house.
But then from there, you can walk further to the left, and again, it’s going to be a hike, but you’re going to go past security and past the video library, and Michael had some memorabilia upstairs. Then you keep going up the hill, and you’re coming up to the big train station. And people have seen pictures of that with the flower clock and the moving figurines. That was another just absolute piece of artwork. We had music playing there. We had cricket sounds and classical music, and all kinds of things.
Lisha: What were the cricket sounds?
Brad: Well, up in that part of California, believe it or not, it’s really quiet. Michael wanted to always be creating ambience of some sort. So we would have speakers tucked away in hedges and things just playing cricket sounds that we recorded. And there would be music playing so there were all these layers of sound. We’d have birds chirping in trees. It was funny, when you would shut everything off it was almost eerily silent. Michael always wanted something – even if people didn’t really notice it – something that just added to the ambience of Neverland.
Lisha: So there was an outdoor sound design at Neverland?
Brad: Yeah. We had these rock speakers that we got from a company called Rockustics in Colorado. They sound really good, but you know, instead of having two of them or four of them or six of them, we probably had close to 300 of them, just all over the ranch. We’d use them for music, and we’d have birds. Well, we had our own bird houses that we had built with speakers in them.
But then you would walk up to this massive train station, and this is just, I’m not quoting anybody, but I’m sure you guys have read stuff about Walt Disney. Walt used to have an expression he would use when he was building Disneyland, and it sounds kind of funny to say it, but it would be like when you go to a county fair or something, there needs to be a “weenie.” There needs to be something to get people’s attention. So at Disneyland, that’s the castle. At Epcot, it’s the giant golf ball.Well to me, at Neverland, it was that big train station. It was so beautiful and you could see it from so far away.
In fact, if I’m not mistaken, when you came over that first hill, I think you could see the train station almost right away. That thing was gorgeous. You’d go in there, and that’s where the big train would go.
So there were two trains at Neverland. There was the little train that was used to carry people really for transportation. And then the big train was more of an attraction. It was an actual steam engine, The Katherine, and that was really, really beautiful.
Willa: So it was a steam engine? It was actually powered by steam?
Brad: Oh yeah.
Willa: Wow, I didn’t know that. That’s wonderful!
Brad: Yeah, the big train was an actual refurbished steam engine. They sent a bunch of us out to, I think, it was Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, and that’s where the train was refurbished. It was an old functioning steam engine, steam train, and they rebuilt the whole thing in Mt. Pleasant. So we were out there for, I don’t know, two weeks.
Lisha: Were you working on the sound system for the train? Is that why you were sent out there?
Brad: Yeah. We were doing all the sound and lights, the generator, and the whole thing. Michael had no patience, in a good way. When a new attraction would come to the park, he would want to ride it that day. So they would actually send us away to work on stuff off site, so when the new thing would show up, we could just basically hook it up and he could jump on it and start playing. He didn’t want to wait two weeks for us to put music on the train. He wanted us to go away and put music on it and have it show up just ready to go.
Willa: That’s great that he was so excited about it. Like a kid getting a new train set, only it’s a real train!
Brad: Oh, absolutely.
Willa: Did he have a water tower to fill the steam engine with water?
Brad: Oh yeah. Right by the big train station on the back side to the right, there’s a water tower. It was legit.
I believe the heat source was propane. They weren’t shoveling coal – it wasn’t quite that authentic. But no, there was nothing artificial about it. It was the real deal. They had two or three guys who were trained – no pun intended – to operate the train. It was not something where you’re going to have some 12-year-old kid jump in there and start pulling levers. There were places at the ranch where you could have all the fun you wanted, but there was stuff like that that was real deal.
Willa: That’s incredible.
Brad: So once you were at the big train station, it was basically, for lack of a better word, almost like a huge hourglass, where there was a loop on either end, and then a long path in the middle that would take you past the theater. There was a stop at the theater, and you could jump off there. And this was on what I would call the high side of the valley. If you’re in Neverland looking all the way down the valley, the big train was on your left and the little train was on your right. They both took you all the way to the back side of the valley.
So on the big train you could jump off at the theater or keep going into a giant loop back by the zoo and the chimps and giraffes and all that. So when you’re at the train station, you could either take the train or you could walk to the theater, if you really wanted to burn some calories. I didn’t have a smart phone with a GPS on it back then, but I’m guessing it had to have been the better part of three-quarters of a mile from the train station to the theater.
It was just big. When we were working up there, we always had our trucks or cars on the property because we weren’t usually there with guests, or it would be a small group of guests. It’s pretty hard for us to be there if there were going to be three buses of people up there. But you would jump on a golf cart or something to get around.
Now go back to the little train, over on the other side of the house – way on the other side – and that’s where the teepee village was. The teepee village and the waterpark. That was one of the only places where we did not put music. We wanted to keep that really authentic.
Willa: In the teepee village?
Brad: Yeah, there was no electricity back there. It was just the teepee village and the waterpark. And it was the coolest waterpark ever, because when kids would go back there, only at Michael Jackson’s ranch are there just barrels of water balloons that have already been filled up, and they’re all set to go for you. And you can just go crazy. So they had firehoses back there, and water cannons. Of course, California has been in a pretty vicious drought for a while so now it might be frowned upon just a little bit, but back then that wasn’t quite as big a deal.
Willa: I’m just imagining being the person whose job it was to fill water balloons!
Brad: Well, I’m told that at its peak, Neverland had something like – I don’t want to exaggerate, and there’s people who have done more research than I have – but I’m told there was somewhere around 100 to 110 employees. Now about 60 or 70 of those were gardeners. The landscaping was just gorgeous. They had nurseries and fresh flowers all the time.
So yeah, I’m sure they had somebody who just filled water balloons for special event days. They had ride operators and zoo keepers and gardeners and housekeepers and cooks, and then just the ranch staff – I mean, the ranch manager and maintenance, and those kind of people behind the scenes. It was a full-blown operation. I’ve worked in some pretty astounding homes in my life, but this was on a whole different level. Really not like anything else.
Lisha: It sounds more like a hotel in that there were so many employees 24/7, right? It’s not like all the employees went home at night.
Brad: It was scheduled very well. It’s not like they had ride operators out standing by the bumper cars at 4 in the morning, wondering if someone is going to show up. It wasn’t quite like that. It was very scheduled where, if a big group was going to come on a Saturday, then they would have all the ride operators there, and the rides would be open for maybe six hours or something. If there were VIP guests there, then yeah, you could get spaghetti at 3 in the morning if that’s what you wanted. I don’t think a lot of people would do that. I mean it wasn’t that big. There weren’t that many guests. But yeah, Michael wanted his guests to be pampered to the nth degree.
Willa: Like a resort.
Brad: Yeah. So, I kind of treat the ranch in thirds. I’ve kind of taken you through the first third, which is the guard gate, the ornate gate, the pastures, the main house, the waterpark, the big train station. If you picture Neverland almost like a surfboard or something, the bottom third of it is what I have described.
Lisha: Ok, so for our readers, here’s a map of Neverland that illustrates the surfboard analogy quite well and how the ranch was divided in thirds:
Also, here is a link to some recent drone photography of the property, now called Sycamore Valley Ranch, for those who might not have seen it!
Stay tuned for Part Two of Brad’s description of Neverland, and thank you again, Brad, for being so generous with your time and walking us through Neverland Valley Ranch!