When an all-male social organization made up of Santa Barbara’s movers and shakers collided with one successful, liberal female Hollywood producer new to the Santa Ynez Valley, she knocked them off their horses. Quite literally. And about 800 of them in all.
As a result, the Rancheros Visitadores-with roughly 500 members and 300 support staff-will not be conducting their annual 15-mile horse ride from Mission Santa Ines to their final destination at Janeway Camp for the first time in 79 years. Instead, the Rancheros will go directly to Janeway Camp, which they own, without any of the public fanfare that normally accompanies their annual, week-long get-togethers. Nor will there be the traditional blessing of the Rancheros, which was scheduled for May 2.
Bringing all this amped-up tradition to a screeching halt is Hollywood mogul Gail Ann Hurd, who made her name producing such films as The Terminator, The Abyss, and Alien, among others. Last October, Hurd, who owns Valhalla Motion Pictures, bought a 50-acre ranch that abuts the Santa Ynez River. For at least the past 13 years, the Rancheros parked their vehicles on that ranch with the consent of its previous owner, Maria Murdock. This arrangement allowed the Rancheros-whose members include political and economic leaders from both Santa Barbara and the Western United States-to assemble at nearby Jackson Camp, parade through Solvang, then gallop off into the sunset for a week of alpha male companionship and serious partying.
When the Rancheros asked Hurd for permission to drive their vehicles across her property this year, she reportedly declined or set conditions the group deemed unacceptable. Consequently, Ranchero executive John Balch cancelled this year’s blessing and the public ride. “We ride where we can be seen and where we can show off to local people and visitors,” explained longtime Ranchero member J.J. Hollister. “We are representatives of the good old days, the old ranchers, the pastoral life, of open spaces and keeping the land beautiful. This is why we ride.”
Hurd has declined requests for interviews; her publicist indicated Hurd wished to keep her concerns private. But the Solvang rumor mill is buzzing with accounts that Hurd rebuffed the Rancheros’ offer of $25,000 to be donated to the charity of her choice. Some have suggested Hurd, who gave $75,000 to Democratic causes in each of the past two years, was turned off by the prospect of Republicans on her property and especially that of “drunken Republicans.” “I’m not going to confirm that. What she’s been told about us, I have no idea,” said Balch. “I would not say politics had any bearing on this,” he added, noting that the Ranchero membership includes Democrats. Nonetheless, the organization enjoys a decidedly conservative tilt. For example, when Republican icon Ronald Reagan was still president-and a Santa Barbara resident-he spoke at the Rancheros camp. And tales of the Rancheros’ partying have become the stuff of legend, despite members’ assertions to the contrary.
Whatever Hurd’s reasons, her decision surprised the Rancheros and many Solvang residents. “She certainly knew about the Rancheros at the time she bought the property, and she didn’t seem like it was any big deal,” recounted Claire Hansen, the real estate agent who brokered Hurd’s purchase of the property. Murdock said the Rancheros left her property in immaculate condition and conducted themselves “as complete gentlemen, always gracious, always appropriate.”
The cancellation of this year’s blessing and ride has elicited mixed emotions. After 79 years, the Rancheros have become enmeshed in Santa Barbara’s contradictory cultural landscape, and even some who have little patience with the Rancheros’ social attitudes are uncomfortable with a newcomer shutting them down. For his part, Balch is not making a squawk. “We’re sensitive to keep good relations with other property owners,” he said. “We couldn’t make it work this year. Maybe next year, we can work it out.”