"Please be advised that per your inquiry, Sun International, owners and operators of Atlantis, Paradise Island are not engaged in any entertainment related projects whatsoever with Blackhorse Productions. Neither I nor my colleagues are familiar with this company in any way and I have referred the matter to our legal department for further investigation."
--June 28, 2001, letter from Sun International's Entertainment Manager Greg Calejo to Face Value.
"Dear Mr. Sanders: We have cancelled your membership in the Oregon Fairs Association.... A number of phone messages have been left for you that have not been returned.... It is disheartening to have this type of experience.... Blackhorse Productions has taken advantage of the Oregon Fairs Association and we do not appreciate that."
--March 30, 2000, letter from the Oregon Fairs Association to Nigel Sanders after Blackhorse Productions bounced two checks to the group.
Face Value honcho David Bentley Small is no stranger to controversy. In 1999, WW named him Rogue of the Week for failing to pay freelancers for Portland's Seen magazine. (See Rogue of the Week, May 12, 1999, or www.wweek.com/html/rogue051299.html).
In October, KOIN-TV did an undercover investigation showing that Face Value bilked gullible teenagers out of $300 for low-quality head shots processed at Costco. In January, angry parents picketed the agency.
It sounded like the chance of a lifetime. "160 people needed: Ages 18-60. Actors, actresses, and Stunt people. Move to Bahamas November 1st. Stunt/scuba training provided.... Studio pays airfare, cabana lodging. Meals provided," read the employment ad, which appeared in the June 20 Willamette Week and the June 21 Mercury.
But barely a week after scores of aspiring performers thought they'd clinched the role of their dreams, their sun-dappled Caribbean fantasy is dissolving in the face of an ugly dispute. As the production company, Blackhorse Productions, and the talent agency, Face Value, trade accusations, the Oregon attorney general is now investigating whether the Bahamas production was ever anything more than an artful illusion.
"It's a big scam," says Vince Arthur, a customer-service specialist for the Oregon Worker's Compensation Division who is convinced he was taken for a ride.
On Saturday, June 23, Arthur and hundreds of other would-be Charles Bronsons drove out to "Lot 3," a remote Aloha farmhouse, for an audition. Standing on the set of a Wild West town, complete with teepee and water tower, Blackhorse Productions maestro Nigel "Rio" Sanders--a veteran stuntman--painted an incredible scenario.
According to Arthur and other witnesses, Sanders explained that a casino on Paradise Island in the Bahamas needed stunt performers for three different live-action shows--a Wild West show, a pirate extravaganza and an underwater drama involving the lost continent of Atlantis.
Performers would earn a minimum of $2,500 a week, Sanders said. Benefits included accommodation, airfare, meals and health insurance. Performers could bring family members along--child care and school tuition would also be provided. The job would last as long as three years. "I have to admit, I thought it was really happening," Arthur says. He wasn't alone.
"I really wanted to believe it," says model Barb Peters, who held a garage sale in anticipation of moving to the Bahamas with her 5-year-old daughter.
The performers would have to make sacrifices, of course: They would have to undergo four months of rigorous training and post a security bond of $124. They would also agree to take part--for free--in two local charity shows Blackhorse would put on in the fall: a Wild West shootout and a Haunted Hollywood gig.
At the end of the audition, Sanders told the hopeful performers they were all going to the Bahamas. "People were jumping up and down," says Peters. "They were just ecstatic. They couldn't believe it."
Meanwhile, on the fourth floor of the Greek Cusina building in downtown Portland, David Bentley and Ronnie Mascarena were getting cold feet. Mascarena and Bentley (who is also known as David Small) run a fledgling talent agency named Face Value, which placed the ads on behalf of Blackhorse Productions and had a verbal agreement to supply the talent.
The Blackhorse deal was easily the largest in Face Value's short history. In salaries alone, the project would cost more than $20 million a year, from which Face Value could charge a 20 percent commission.
But Sanders seemed vague on key details, Bentley recalls--he didn't appear to know whether the Bahamas were a foreign nation, for example--and the talent agency wondered if he really had a contract for his show. "I didn't have to be a rocket scientist to figure this was thin," Bentley says.
As questions piled up, Face Value was already profiting from the deal. Lured by the Bahamas ad, roughly 60 people signed up to join Face Value's talent pool, each paying a $75 registration plus a "head shot" fee of $75 to $200. Altogether, Face Value pocketed roughly $5,000. (The rest of Blackhorse's cast was drawn from Face Value's existing talent pool, and from friends and family members who simply showed up at Lot 3).
Meanwhile, officials from the Atlantis casino--the only resort on Paradise Island--told Face Value they had never heard of Blackhorse.
In addition, Face Value was alarmed by reports from several female performers that Sanders had conducted private "measuring sessions" with them in the farmhouse adjoining Lot 3.
College student and nanny Regan Grube told WW that Sanders took her into the bathroom, locked the door and asked her to remove her shirt and bra so that he could take measurements for a mermaid costume. She says he also touched her breasts. During the next day's rehearsal, she says, he took her into the bathroom a second time and told her to pull down her pants and panties so he could take additional measurements.
She complied on both occasions because she wanted to be cast as a mermaid and go to the Bahamas. "I got tricked into it," Grube says. "It's absolutely unreal."
Peters told WW she observed Sanders taking between five and 10 female performers into the bathroom, one at a time.
Contacted by WW, Sanders admitted he had measured female performers for mermaid suits but denied locking the door. Then he hung up the phone.
The Face Value honchos decided it was time to get something in writing. On Tuesday, June 26, Bentley and Mascarena drove out to Lot 3 and delivered a letter of intent, stating Blackhorse's promises so far.
Sanders said he'd run the letter past his lawyer. But as soon as Bentley and Mascarena left the scene, Sanders told the performers they had been scammed by Face Value--he had never signed a contract with the agency, he said, and he objected to their charging fees for the casting call.
The next day, June 27, Face Value held an emergency meeting for its talent pool, which WW attended. "We don't want any part of this deal," Bentley told an anxious group of roughly 25 performers. Bentley shared his doubts about the project and announced that Face Value was henceforth releasing its talent and forgoing its 20 percent commission. (As WW went to press, Face Value said it would not refund its fees to disgruntled talent. It will, however, offer free photo shoots.)
Despite the uncertainties, roughly 100 people showed up the next day, June 28, for a rehearsal at Lot 3, which WW also infiltrated. "Don't give him any money," shouted one performer, who was quickly ordered off the compound. Then Sanders took the stage.
Tanned and blue-eyed, with an actor's looks and a showman's poise, Sanders gave a masterful performance. Face Value was mistaken, he said--the show was not going to be performed at the Atlantis casino, but at another resort in the Bahamas, which he did not specify. Meanwhile, he warned his performers that continued challenges would spell curtains for their future with Blackhorse. "Attitude is everything with me," he said. "If you question this after today, you're out of here."
A few moments later, he warned the performers not to cross him. "You stab me in the back, I will make sure you never get an acting job in this town again," he said.
Referring to the "gag order" in their contracts, Sanders warned his troupe not to disclose anything about the show--even its existence. "I will prosecute to the full extent of the law," he intoned.
In response to continued questions, however, Sanders reiterated the terms of the deal: Cast members would earn $2,500 a week, receive six round-trip tickets, accommodation for themselves and their families--arrangements would even be made for their pets.
In a June 29 telephone interview, Sanders, who didn't know WW had snuck into the previous day's rehearsal, denied mounting a production in the Bahamas. "I don't have a Bahamas connection," he said. "I have not promised people to go to the Bahamas." He had no contract, although he was seeking contracts in the Bahamas and elsewhere. As for the details he had mentioned to his cast--the $2,500 a week, the free accommodations, the round-trip tickets--those were simply items he intended to include in any contract he eventually signed. He also said he had dropped the $124 bond requirement.
Sanders proceeded to elaborate a "solid track record" of local charity shows and concluded the telephone conversation by asking a WW reporter to meet him face to face the following day. "I've got nothing to hide," he said.
The next day, Sanders' attitude was rather different. "I am who I say I am, and I have no comment," he said during a brief encounter at Lot 3, surrounded by 50 performers with the gleam of azure water in their eyes.
According to public records and former associates, however, Nigel Sanders is actually Roger James Sanders, who has twice filed bankruptcy papers, and who has a history of gulling performers into joining his charity-show casts--for free--with the promise of lucrative gigs, which never materialize.
"He's just a bad apple," says stuntman Scott Hill, who trained with Sanders for several months last year in the hope of performing in a Las Vegas spectacular that never took place.
Although Sanders' motivation remains unclear, several former associates said the extravagant promises were simply a hook to get free talent. Blackhorse Productions has put on charity shows, including "A Day in the Wild West" and "Haunted Hollywood," a live-action drama that ran for three weeks last October in the parking lot of the Beaverton Mall.
One former associate says that Haunted Hollywood, promoted as a fundraiser for the Beaverton Police Activities League, Shenandoah 4-H Riders Club and Loaves & Fishes, drew hundreds of people a day at $5 a ticket, generating thousands of dollars in revenues. "He raked in the money," the source says.
Where did the money go? Rocky Smith of the Shenandoah 4-H Riders Club says that Blackhorse contributed two tons of feed--worth about $700. Moira Green of Loaves & Fishes says the organization received some cans of food. But Jill Showalter, the executive director of Beaverton PAL, says her organization received no money from Blackhorse. "I was greatly disappointed," Showalter said, in part because police officers had promoted the show in school appearances.
Local casting agent Danny Stoltz says the entertainment industry simply does not hire hundreds of amateur stunt performers at $500 a day for three years at a stretch. "Get real," he says. "That is ridiculous. That is absurd. No. I've never heard of a deal like that--ever."
Despite his opinion, however, it seems clear that several dozen cast members still have faith that Sanders can pull off the biggest stunt of his career--and that they will soon be flying to the Bahamas on the adventure of a lifetime, all expenses paid.
--WW interns Trisha Miller and Kirsten Flagg contributed to this report.
"You stab me in the back, I will make sure you never get an acting job in this town again."