Under the radar, Michael Jackson's Ferris wheel rolls across Midwest

Monday, September 21, 2009 | 4:16 p.m. CDT

MOUNTAIN HOME, Ark. — From the top of the Ferris wheel, one could once see acres of Michael Jackson's Neverland Ranch, the ride's 5,000 lights aglow in a carnival-like frenzy fit for a performer who never quite grew up.

At the bottom of the wheel rest allegations of child sex abuse, bankruptcy and ultimately a drug-induced death for the 50-year-old King of Pop.

A liquidation sale scattered many of Jackson's rides from his ranch in the oak-studded hills 120 miles northwest of Los Angeles. Now the Ferris wheel that offered glimpses of Jackson's incredible wealth is quietly touring the Midwest in the hands of a Missouri amusement company that bought it only because it needed another one for its stable of rides.

"We ourselves really didn't advertise it," said Theresa Noerper, co-owner of Archway Amusements Corp. "When he died, it kind of blew up. There's no keeping secrets then."

The ride offers no reference of Jackson to casual passers-by; a metal stamp shows it was made by the Eli Bridge Co. of Jacksonville, Ill. However, metal molding around the seats remains a very specific color, supposedly specified by Jackson when he ordered it from the manufacturer — pinot noir red.

Archway Amusements doesn't go out of its way to publicize the Ferris wheel's ties to Jackson; it leaves it up to local fair organizers to decide whether to make them known. But word of mouth has gotten to some hardcore Jackson fans.

Jackson reportedly purchased the Ferris wheel for $215,000 in 1990 and took the first ride on it when workers installed it at Neverland. It stayed there as Jackson was accused of molesting a 13-year-old cancer survivor at the ranch in 2003. He was acquitted two years later, but the scandal drove him from Neverland forever. Over the next four years, the property fell into disrepair, and at one point it was weeks from being sold at a public auction.

Noerper said Archway Amusements bought the 65-foot-tall Ferris wheel last year. The company repainted its supporting arms green and began taking it on the company's seasonal fair and carnival circuit. Then Jackson died June 25, raising concerns among local police that the ride might be mobbed by mourners.

That didn't happen.

"They come to take pictures, a couple tears and everybody likes to ride it," Noerper said.

The Ferris wheel made an appearance last week at the annual Baxter County Fair. It will move on to the Northeast Arkansas District Fair in Jonesboro this week, competing against stomach-churning rides like Pharaoh's Revenge, the Sizzler and the Hot Shot.

Alaina Dyce, 13, of Mountain Home, said she looked forward to the spinning "squirrel cages" rather than the staid Ferris wheel. Michael Jackson's name didn't add much for the Led Zeppelin T-shirted teen.

Still, something draws riders to the wheel, making them willing to hand over three tickets worth $4.50.

"They're not big moneymakers anymore, because they're so slow and you have to load them," Noerper said of Ferris wheels. "It's more of a nostalgia piece than anything."


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