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The Eye by Barbara King

Back to Africa

A production designer re-creates his Zimbabwe childhood in the wilds of the Sierra, ostriches included.

September 18, 2003|Barbara King

We were surrounded by ostriches. Just stay in place, I heard Jeremy Railton tell me, let them get to know you. I raised my eyes from the bare brown earth to see seven long, flexible necks and seven wackily intense faces moving in on me with their rounded beaks. This was as up-close-and-personal as I'd ever been with a 7-foot-tall bird of prehistoric countenance.

Suddenly the pecking began, starting low and moving upward: hands, arms, shoulders, scalp, all of it relentless, generally painless and even, after a minute or two, kind of pleasurable in its rhythm and style. More like affectionate pokes, or pecking, as in kissing. Feathers puffed and fluttered. A female got fixated on my rings. A male slapped his beanpole legs forward and grabbed a few strands of my hair. Birds, it came to me, are really witty, so Monty Pythonesque; I felt dangerously close to bursting out in some embarrassing happy-face song -- Getting to know you, getting to know all about you, getting to like you, getting to hope you like me ...

Down at the horse corral, an Arabian nuzzled our backs, massage-like. Emus gathered for head strokes. Deer raced by. Dust swirled, heat rose. Frantic, two peacocks squealed: Their baby had escaped the pen. A male turkey of preening magnificence strutted and showed off in front of us and his "wife and girlfriend," as Jeremy referred to them. "He's got a good eye for a skirt, that one."

On his Three Rivers farm in the southern foothills of the Sierra Nevada, you can't escape intimacy with animals or the natural world, but you'd be a fool to be here if you had a problem with that. Intimacy, in all its raw, undisguised glory, is the essence of this place. You're not only here with Jeremy, the kind of man you can't remember ever not knowing even though you've just met him, but also with an irresistible array of dogs, cats, bats, horses, goats, pigs, ducks, geese, guinea fowl, chickens and, of course, his beloved ostriches, which bring him back in time to his homeland, Zimbabwe. "There are moments when the whole thing looks just like Africa," he said. And it does.

As it happened, Jeremy and I had Africa in common, farms in Africa, to be precise. For many years during my marriage I traveled back and forth to South Africa, where my husband and I had an apple farm in the mountains near Capetown. Jeremy, born in what was then Rhodesia, spent the early years of his childhood on a farm, later moving with his parents to their 25,000-acre game preserve. Growing up with lions and tigers has a way of making a fellow impressively nonchalant about the bobcats, bears and wild boars of the Sierra, I couldn't help observing during the two days I was with him.

Still, I had no notion of how familiar everything would seem when I drove up through the mountains and past mile after mile of citrus groves to visit the farm in Three Rivers, a village of 3,000 people and no mayor, with a tiny strip of businesses on the highway that barely qualifies as a Main Street. But almost as soon as I turned from the paved public road onto the bumpy private road and spotted Jeremy out in the lower gardens with clippers in hand, I felt curiously in my element. He jumped in the car and we bounced onward toward the farmhouse, tucked in a forest of 200 valley oaks. A huge, glittery painting was propped against the door of the barn, my first inkling that, despite the familiarity, this was not going to be a commonplace experience.

It should have come as no surprise. Jeremy is the owner and creative director of the Marina del Rey-based Entertainment Design Corp., and so varied are his skills, so numerous his achievements, so modest his manner that even he can't seem to keep up with everything he's done or explain it in a concise, comfortable way. I had to go to his Web site,, to get the full picture.

Here's what I found out: He has been a set and production designer for movies, TV, video, theater, awards shows, game shows, commercials, music tours, benefits, concerts, corporate events, the Olympics. Hundreds of them. His clients include Paramount, Disney, Universal Pictures, NBC, ABC, CBS, MTV, Fox, Caesar's Palace. He has won three Emmys, one of which was for the 57th Academy Awards. Most recently he has been doing what he calls "themed entertainment and themed architecture and theme parks" everywhere, from Las Vegas to Tokyo to Saudi Arabia.

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