Small Fla. town embraces Travolta during tragedy

January 7, 2009 7:34:18 AM PST
This small central Florida town is about as far from Hollywood as you can get. Maybe that's why actor John Travolta moved his family here. The town square features a fondue restaurant, the social scene revolves around ranchers' soirees and horse riding is one of the main pastimes. Mobile home parks, peanut farms and moss-covered oak trees dot the landscape. There is little pretension or glitz.

Travolta and his wife Kelly Preston seem to fit in: They appeared on the cover of this month's Ocala Style magazine with big smiles, wearing jeans and sweaters.

Now, with the death of their 16-year-old son Jett, this is where they have come to grieve. On Monday night - four days after Jett was found unconscious in the family's vacation home in the Bahamas - Travolta and Preston flew back to Ocala.

The city is welcoming them quietly and respectfully.

Mayor Randy Ewers said the city sent the Travolta family condolences and would give them space and privacy.

"They're fantastic people, really family oriented," Ewers said. "We want to respect their privacy as much as possible."

Doctors in the Bahamas performed an autopsy on Jett on Monday but did not release results. A Bahamas undertaker said the teen's death certificate had "seizure" as the cause of death. The teen had a history of seizures; his body was cremated Monday and flown to the U.S. the same night.

A memorial service for Jett will be held Thursday for family and close friends in Ocala, his publicist said.

The Travoltas, who have been together since 1991, bought their unusual $8 million property in Ocala in 2003. The reason had nothing to do with the area's famed thoroughbred horse farms: Travolta, an avid pilot, was looking for a home where he could fly his many planes, including a Boeing 707 airliner, right to his front door.

The estate, located in a subdivision that boasts the largest private residential runway in the country, was featured on the cover of Architectural Digest in 2004. The style was inspired by Morris Lapidus, the architect of the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami, famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright and Eero Saarinen, designer of Washington Dulles International Airport.

"If I can look out the bedroom and see the planes, I am happy," Travolta told The Associated Press last year.

His eldest son, Jett, and daughter, Ella, played happily around the mid-century compound.

"We've got a big pool, a slide and a golf course," Preston told Architectural Digest. "We're a family who likes to play a lot."

And although that family traveled often for work - Travolta's latest movie, "Bolt," in which he does the voice for an animated dog, was just released - they also spent time in Ocala and the even smaller village of Anthony, which is right down the street from their home.

"I love rubbing elbows with life and real people," Travolta, 54, once told the local newspaper, the Star-Banner. "I don't like living in ivory towers. I want to enjoy life the way everybody else does."

"He's just, I don't know, a normal person," said Barbara Pound, a waitress at the Saddle Rack Cafe. She served him his favorite breakfast - a $6.49 western omelet - on a handful of occasions. "Nobody bothers him here. We let him have his peace."

Travolta once brought his son into the cafe and the boy "wouldn't stop smiling," said manager Jackie Gomillion.

Others have spotted Travolta and his family cruising around in his classic Thunderbird or just shopping at the Gap in the local mall. Twice, Travolta hosted charity fundraisers around movie premieres at the local movie theater in Ocala where thousands of local fans showed up.

Brent Johnson of Ocala once saw him at the gym at 5:30 a.m.

"I thought to myself, I'm not going to harass him, but he came up to me and said, 'Hey, how are you doing?'" Johnson said. "He asked about my kids and family. I think there's a sense of pride here in Ocala that someone like that would want to live here."

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Associated Press Writer Lisa Orkin Emmanuel in Miami contributed to this report.


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