I had to take a sidetrack from discussing the Susan Fast book and Dangerous to acknowledge this as a month of milestones for Michael’s two boys. Prince turned 18 today, and just a little over a week from now, Blanket will be turning 13.
There are a couple of things that can make me feel really old-well, maybe three. One is realizing that grunge music is now “classic rock.” Another is anytime I happen past a supermarket tabloid to see Prince William and Kate with baby George. Goodness, it seems like only yesterday that those same tabloid covers were filled with pics of William as a swaddling baby in Diana’s arms!
And the third thing…realizing that Michael Jackson’s firstborn is now an adult! And yes, just like with William, it seems like only yesterday that we were hearing the news that Michael was a father-to-be.
Michael’s three kids have been through a lot since that tragic day almost six years ago when they lost the center of their world, but they have weathered the toughest of those storms and have emerged all the stronger for it. Now, the day that so many fans have longed to see has arrived. Prince is a legal adult, and from this day forward, will be taking the reigns as his own man. Finally, at least some of those never ceasing concerns over the children’s welfare can finally be laid to rest. Prince can now take charge of his decisions and, I am sure, will continue to look out for his younger siblings’s best interests.
As Prince embarks on the road to adulthood, his baby brother Blanket will soon be reaching a milestone of his own: On February 21, he becomes a teenager. Since Michael was apparently so very much into planned parenting, and rarely did anything by happenstance (it seems he was as much of a perfectionist about parenting as he was with everything else in his life) one can’t help but wonder if he planned it this way on purpose, so that as his eldest embarked upon the throne of adulthood, he could help lead his little brother across that troublesome threshold of teenhood. For sure, becoming a teenager can be the most exciting time in a child’s life. But it also comes with its share of problems. In Blanket’s case, I can’t think of any better support system than what he has in his two siblings, Prince and Paris.
Lastly, I cannot feel completely right to rejoice in these milestones for Michael’s children while knowing that, as of this writing, Bobbi Kristina Brown is still fighting for her life. But for the grace of God, Paris could have ended up in a similar fate in 2013, and I am thankful every day that Michael’s beautiful baby girl is still with us. People tend to forget that it’s a tough life for celebrity children, and especially those who have lost their parents far too young. Imagine trying to grieve, and at the same time working your way through all the up’s and down’s of adolescence, beneath the constant, unforgiving glare of the spotlight!
We can be thankful that all three of Michael’s beautiful children have made it through that storm. That isn’t to say that troubles and dark times won’t lie ahead. But every milestone reached is another notch carved, a reminder that love and strong family ties can help to heal all wounds.
Here’s wishing a very happy birthday month to Michael’s two beautiful, young men (I can’t say “boys” anymore!) and a warm embrace to all three. We love you, PP&B!
Hi all! I am going to be on a brief hiatus for a little while, as I am very stressed with work right now and trying to get things caught up before we leave on an out of town trip for the weekend. To tide you over in the meantime, here is an article that has been buried for a long time in the old, pre-2011 Allforloveblog archives. I thought it would be worth resurrecting for two reasons: One, not many people saw it back when it was first posted, since the blog was still relatively new at that time. Secondly, I will soon be doing some important updates to this piece as I am planning my own on-the-road investigation into Michael’s Alabama roots (probably this spring). Now that I have access to the old archives and have copied most of the pre-2011 articles, I will be reprinting and updating quite a few of these classic posts as time permits. Enjoy, and I will be back with all new material, including the latest updates to the “Australian Conspiracy” soon!
While most people are aware of Michael’s roots in Gary, Indiana, not as much is known about Michael’s ties to Alabama. As a native and lifelong resident of Alabama, this is a subject that has fascinated me–largely because, like many Alabamians, I was totally unaware of Michael’s Alabama ties until after his death. After all, it was never something that was widely publicized. His mother Katherine was born here, and her family then moved to Indiana when she was a small child. In fact, to the end of his own life, Michael Jackson retained a slight Alabama inflection, obvious in his speech (but one that, for the most part, only a discerning Alabmaian ear would pick up on). I do remember that it was a huge deal in 1984 when The Jacksons came to Birmingham to rehearse for the Victory tour-a huge deal because it meant, at least for those few weeks, we in Alabama had Michael Jackson all to ourselves for just a little while.
But what most of us Alabamians did not know was just how often Michael was in the state, usually lowkey and even incognitio, of course, to visit his mother’s relatives in Russell County and the small city of Hurtsboro (Katherine was actually born in nearby Barbour County, but her mother and stepfather later resettled in Hurtsboro). In LaToya’s autobiography, she states that Hurtsboro’s population is around 1,000. But a more recent census listed on Wikipedia gives the town’s population as 592.
The name of the town may be more than a bit appropriate, considering that Michael Jackson and my home state, unfortunately, did not always have the most cordial relationship. While I’m sure Michael may have had some happy memories of the state, it seemed later in life that coming to Alabama often spelled disaster for him. His string of bad luck in the state included everything from a racially motivated beating that landed him in an Alabama hospital, to a severe case of stomach cramps that nearly put an end to the Victory tour in ’84.
Of all the things I have learned about Michael’s comings and goings in Alabama, the beating remains for me the most disturbing-disturbing for two reasons, one being the fact that it occurred AFTER he was already famous (in fact, the incident occurred post-Thriller) and, 2: Why was it kept out of the local media and never reported? What were they afraid of? Or did Michael himself choose not to go public with it?
But before getting into all of that, let’s back up for a minute to get some more background on Michael’s Alabama roots.
After June 25th, 2009, a rash of local Alabama writers took an avid interest in educating the public about Michael’s maternal ties to the state. One of the more in-depth and interesting articles came from a colleague of mine, Joseph Margetanski. Margetanski and I both do freelance articles for the same local Alabama paper, “The Valley Planet.” Margetanski had spent a considerable amount of time tracing Michael’s family roots in the state. In his article that appeared in the July 23rd issue, Margetanski wrote:
Michael Jackson’s family ties to Alabama date back to the beginning of the 20th century. His grandfather, Prince Albert Screws, was born October 16, 1907 in Jernigan in RussellCounty, Alabama, just across the state line from Columbus, Georgia. He saw service in the First World War, but his main occupations were railroad work and cotton farming. He later moved to neighboring BarbourCounty. He married Martha Upshaw (from whose mother, Josephine, Michael received his middle name Joseph). Like her husband, Martha was also an Alabama native. And on May 4, 1930, Martha gave birth to Kattie B. Screws.
Kattie’s life was a challenge almost from the moment she was born. Shortly after her birth, the Screws family left BarbourCounty and their name behind. Prince changed their last name to Scruse, and changed Kattie’s name to Katherine Esther Scruse. As if getting three names wasn’t traumatic enough, young Katherine developed polio-all before she was four.
Katherine beat the deadly disease, but it left its mark on her. To this day, she walks with a limp. After her bout with polio, at the age of four, the Scruse family moved north, as did many African-American families. They settled in East Chicago, Indiana, not far from where her famous son would be born. It was there that Katherine met Joseph Jackson, a former boxer…
…As brief as they were, Katherine’s Alabama roots tugged at the souls of her children as well. Michael Jackson sang backup vocals for Kenny Rogers in the country singer’s 1980 hit “Goin’ Home To Alabama.” Four years later, The Jackson 5-brothers Jackie, Tito, Jermaine, Marlon and Michael-rehearsed in Birmingham for their “Victory” tour. They greeted fans from their hotel balcony, after a heartfelt request from the city’s mayor, Richard Arrington. At least two Alabama residents became intimately involved with the youngest, and most famous, member of the pop group. John Ray of Birmingham, founder of Just In Time Music, Inc., promoted three Michael Jackson concerts in Dallas. David Rowland of Summerdale was Jackson’s pilot for six months, , while the rising star was touring North America. Rowland flew Jackson as far as Niagara Falls and Vancouver…
Not only were the Jacksons in and out of the state many times through the years, but often, in times of her greatest troubles, Michael’s mother Katherine would return here (often on her own) simply to seek solace and to regroup spiritually. Of course, that would make sense. Often, in dark times, one can find the greatest comfort in getting back to their roots. In the early 80′s, when Joseph’s adultery had finally gotten the best of her, Katherine escaped for several weeks to the refuge of tiny Hurstsboro. Later, she would return on a search for her family roots. This was when she looked up a young local man, Larry Screws, who had no idea until that visit that he was actually Michael Jackson’s distant cousin!
But in a county as small and rural as Russell County, Alabama, it doesn’t take much asking around for anyone named “Screws” for one thing to lead to another. Eventually, Katherine was directed to Larry Screws,who of course was delighted to learn he was actually related to the King of Pop. He says it was the “glitz and glamour” of Michael’s life that kept them apart. (Note: I was not able to embed it, but if you click on the link for the below article, there is an interesting local news video on Larry Screws and Michael’s ties to Alabama).
“We were just proud of knowing that they were related to us.” said Larry Screws.
Larry Screws was a distant cousin to Michael Jackson, but he didn’t know it until he was in his early 20’s.
“I guess the thing that strikes us most is that we didnt know of them until she came to us.” said Screws.
Katherine Jackson, Michael’s mother’s decided to search for her relatives.
The search lead her back to the place she was born, Alabama. She was born in Barbour County and moved up to East Chicago, Indiana when she was four.
Her maiden name Katherine Screws.
Larry says that’s all she needed to say to find her way to her them.
“Russell County is a county where everybody knows everybody.” said Screws.
Larry says the life of glitz and glamour is the reason he never had a chance to meet his cousin.
“I guess because of the celebrity status we never became close.” said Screws.
Of course, given the frequency of Michael’s visits here, it was probably much more likely that Michael simply did not know of his cousin’s existence. The Screws/Scruse are a large, extended family, scattered throughout the neighboring counties of Russell and Barbour. And every day, it is almost impossible to not find someone claiming to be kin to Michael, claims that are nearly impossible to either verify or disprove with any certainty. But given the proliferation of Scruse/Screws in the area, it’s usually far more logical to assume they are probably being truthful than not.
Michael’s family ties to the state have for sure been played up more since his death. Even in 1984, when The Jacksons spent several weeks in Birmingham rehearsing for Victory, I didn’t recall hearing that much about his family ties. However, as I said, I do recall that his residency here was a HUGE deal. The biggest superstar in the world was right here in Alabama, rehearsing for a tour, and you’d better believe, the local media made the most of it! If he ventured out of the hotel to go to the park, we heard all about it. If he went shopping at a local mall (which he did, in disguise, of course) it made the local papers even as far north as where I live, approximately eighty-two miles away. When he went Witnessing, it was all the talk on the local radio, though of course they did not reveal to the public that he had gone Witnessing door-to-door in the Birmingham suburb of Trussville until the next day.
I remember at the time the reaction of many locals was that they thought it was a little bizarre. Back then, a lot of people weren’t aware that Michael was a Jehovah’s Witness, so it kind of struck people as odd-the idea of this mega-celebrity going door-to-door, in disguise, to talk to locals about Jehovah and to pass out copies of The Watchtower. We didn’t know back then that Witnessing played a huge role in Michael’s faith; it was something he had done for years, even after he was famous, and something he would continue to do for several years thereafter.
I’m sure there were more than a few very surprised Birmingham residents who, after the story broke, were thinking back to that “nice but rather nervous acting, young man with the afro and mustache” who knocked on their door, and thinking, “Was it…could it have been….?” In interviews, Michael always said that one of the things he enjoyed about Witnessing door-to-door was the rare glimpses it gave him into normalcy; an excuse to see how average, ordinary people lived their lives. Usually, his disguises worked well enough, but he said that while it was easy enough to fool the men of the household, the women were much more challenging-and the kids even worse. They would see right through the disguises. “Mommy, it’s Michael Jackson!”
(Note: The original “Alabama News” link I posted with this article in 2010, which detailed some of the stories from the chauffeur who took Michael on that Trussville Witnessing venture, has since disappeared. Among his stories included an incident with a vicious dog, and how he tried to park the limo insconspicously on a residential street while Michael walked on foot throughout the neighborhoods. I am hoping at some point I will be able to track this driver down-he apparently owns a limo rental service in Birmingham-and interview him).
Here is what is apparently the only remnants of that story still available online:
1984: Michael Jackson left Birmingham after concluding rehearsals for his “Victory” tour at the BJCC. He was largely unseen during the time here, save for a balcony appearance and a Sunday morning when Jackson, a Jehovah’s Witness at the time, disguised himself and went door-to-door in Trussville for about two hours. He wore a mustache, afro wig, hat and black suit while he handed out materials about his religion. No one knew it was him, until it hit the papers the next day.
I am not quite sure why this outlet reported it as such a lowkey affair, because my memory of that time is certainly quite different. However, I think they mean it was lowkey in the sense that Michael did rarely come out of hiding to show himself during those two weeks. Rather, it was the intrigue; the possibility; the ANTICIPATION of a possible Michael Jackson sighting that fueled most of the local hysteria. Judging by the local media, it was, however, almost a relief when the rehearsals were over and the last vestige of The Jacksons had finally packed up and moved on. The presence of Michael Jackson in a town the size of Birmingham (even if, granted, it IS our largest city) had practically brought the city to a standstill, with traffic jams, crowd control and security issues a constant problem. Although it was an exciting few weeks, I think most of the town’s more conservative citizens (i.e, “the old fogies”) were heaving a big sigh of relief when the madness was over. But oddly enough, in a time when my entire home state of Alabama was caught up in Michaelmania and reporting his every move, his every coming and going, it seems rather bizarre that the most horrific thing that could have possibly happened to him-or to anyone-went unreported and ignored in the media.
In LaToya’s autobiography, she gives a brief but horrific account of how things went down. The incident apparently occurred during one of Michael’s many routine visits to his mother’s relatives in Russell County. During a drive with Bill Bray, an associate who had made the trip with Michael and Katherine, Bray decided to stop for gas and to use the restroom. Michael, who loved nothing better than a chance to browse and putter around in small shops where no one would know who he was, couldn’t resist the temptation to go into the shop next door. When Bray came out of the gas station, he noticed Michael was gone. Then, according to LaToya’s account, he heard this “Help! Help” coming from the shop. He ran inside to find Michael on the floor and a white man standing over him, kicking him viciously in the stomach and head, over and over, while shouting, “I hate all you niggers!”
It took Bray several minutes of struggling to get the guy off of Michael. The incident reportedly left him with several severe cuts and bodily injuries, resulting in a hospital stay. As it turned out, the reputed “cause” of the attack was that, according to the shopowner (the guy who was beating Michael), Michael had put a “candy bar in his pocket.” Bray argued and said that was ridiculous…”He doesn’t steal, and he doesn’t even like candy!” Michael continued to protest his innocence, but the man kept insisting that Michael was trying to steal from him.
Well, actually, I think Bill Bray may have been trying at least in part to cover for his friend-Michael certainly DID love candy-but I highly doubt he was trying to steal; this was Michael Jackson, who had the #1 selling album in the world, why in heck would he need to steal a fifty-cent candy bar! (Though the way he liked to pull pranks, it’s entirely possible he could have been “messing” with the guy as a joke, but if that was the case, it was a prank that backfired on him horribly).
But whatever the case, the fact was that the guy never gave him the benefit of the doubt, and for one reason only-because he was black. Reportedly, the man never even recognized who he was; as LaToya put it, Michael to him was “just another nigger he could abuse.”
So during the time that was supposed to have been a fun and pleasant visit with relatives ended up being, for Michael, a very painful time laid up in an Alabama hospital, being treated for his severe cuts and bruises.
As the story went, Katherine called from Alabama to report what had happened. The family was horrified and outraged; according to LaToya, Jermaine was ready to fly down here and “whoop Alabama ass.” But cooler reasoning prevailed, and instead, a lawsuit was filed against the store owner. However, nothing came of it.
“Two girls standing outside had witnessed the beating, and one offered to testify on Michael’s behalf. We felt very strongly that racial violence must be stopped, but unfortunately, justice did not prevail in this case. The racist harbored no regrets. In fact, discovering that the black man he’d assaulted was a celebrity only inflamed his hatred. Now he threatened tokillMichael. Bill convinced us that this person was mad, that the threat was quite serious, and that it was better for everyone to drop the action. None of us was happy about this, but there was really no choice.”-LaToya Jackson.
As I said before, my big question-since this incident reportedly occurred at or close to the same time as when Michael was here for the Victory tour and rehearsals-was why it was never reported in the local media? Or for that matter, why Michael Jackson being the victim of a racist beating never made it into the news at all (amazing, considering how his every sneeze or fart was usually fodder for the tabloids?). However, given that the lawsuit was dropped out of concern for what action this guy might have taken, perhaps it’s understandable why the incident was kept lowkey. But I also have to wonder if Alabama didn’t feel some sense of shame that something like this could happen to the biggest star in the world right here in our own backyard…and was that part of the reason why it never made it into the papers?
Through the years, it seemed that Michael continued to have bad luck whenever he crossed paths with my home state. A Brazilian chef, Rema Vila Real, who had worked for Michael, and whose talents for healthy dishes was one he keenly appreciated, recalled in an interview the time she was mysteriously but urgently summoned to drop everything she was doing and get on a plane-immediatly.
“… I was living in West Los Angeles in a small apartment when I got a phone call. The person on the phone asked me to look outside. He said: “See the limousine? Get in it, now!” I told him I could not because I was taking care of a person off the street and could not leave him. They said that they would send someone to look after the person right away and for me to get into the car. I told them I had to change my clothes because I all dirty from cleaning. They didn’t care. Finally I agreed when the man arrived to take care of my guest and I was taken to a big building in Beverly Hills and up to the very top penthouse. It was very luxurious.
The man on the other side of the desk handed me a ticket and said ‘you are going to the airport right now. Here is your ticket.” I asked him why. He explained to me that Michael Jackson was having stomach aches and specifically requested me to be his “nutritionist” on the “Thriller” tour. He was feeling sick to his stomach and refused to go on stage until they sent me to be his private cook. They were all very nervous. They said they were losing millions of dollars in canceled shows and I had to go right then.
I told them I could not and could only go in the morning. After a lot of arguing, the agreed to let me go home and they picked me up early in the morning and I was off to BirminghamAlabama…”
So…it looks like the stomach ailment from unhealthy eating that was costing the tour millions reached its crisis point in…where else, Alabama! (Maybe too many stops at those Birmingham barbecue joints, hmmm?).
But it wasn’t all bad. In fact, one of the funniest segments of the special Michael Jackson’s Private Home Movies is when he talks about going “down home” to Alabama, and we see the clip of Michael, his brothers and relatives having a good, old-fashioned hootenanny. Even though bad luck sometimes seemed to dog his steps in Alabama, I think he also enjoyed the bit of anonymity of just getting back to the country, traveling the backroads, shopping at The Salvation Army and being able, for a little while, to just drop the mask of stardom and see how us ol’ regular folks down here live. I can never travel I-65 (Alabama’s main north-south interstate) without thinking how many times Michael and his family must have traveled this road; probably more times than any of us everyday Alabamians will ever know. To this day, I still don’t think most people around here realize the extent of Michael Jackson’s Alabama connection.
But maybe that’s not a bad thing. At least it ensures that tiny Hurtsboro, Alabama and rural County Road 12 in Russell County are not destined to become mega tourist attractions anytime soon. Hopefully, they will remain as pure and untouched as they were in this hilarious clip from a Jackson Alabama road trip in 1979:
I will resume my series on Michael’s work in relation to Langston Hughes’s “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” soon, but for now, circumstances have once again intervened and required a detour. Late Wednesday, shock waves were sent throughout the fan community by a statement from the Michael Jackson estate. It is with a heavy heart that I begin this post today. First of all, here is the official statement that came late Wednesday night:
You will soon be reading news reports stating that Colony Capital has decided to sell Neverland. As the property manager, they have the right to do this. The Estate has issued the following statement in response to a media request for comment:
We are saddened at the prospect of the sale of Neverland which, under the agreement negotiated during Michael’s lifetime, Colony has the right to sell. The Estate will maintain Michael’s family home in Encino, including its iconic recording studio there. We continue to build upon Michael’s legacy as an artistic genius and humanitarian through his music and new projects such as the Michael Jackson ONE show in Las Vegas. We hope and trust that any new owners of Neverland will respect the historical importance and special nature of this wonderful property. Michael’s memory lives on in the hearts of his fans worldwide.
It is also important to the Estate that Michael’s fans understand that although the Estate has no right to stop or obstruct the sale, The Estate did explore a number of potential options for Neverland with Colony but zoning, financial and land use restrictions limited the alternatives and ultimately Colony made the decision to sell.
MJOnline The Official Online Team of The Michael Jackson Estate™
In an apparent attempt to assuage concerns and accusations that the estate had not “done enough” to preserve its stake in Neverland, another statement was released on Thursday:
MJ Estate Additional Info- Last night, we sent you a message from the Estate regarding Colony Capital’s decision to sell Neverland. Many of you have inquired about the Estate purchasing Neverland. As you know, the Estate does not disclose the details of its business dealings but last night’s statement to the fans (not included in the comment to press) states “the Estate did explore a number of potential options for Neverland with Colony” but for the reasons stated none of those options were feasible. This sentence was included specifically for your benefit to let you know that the Estate tried to find a way to keep the sale from happening but for a variety of reasons, it was not possible. Zack O’Malley Greenburg broke the news in Forbes shortly after we sent you the Estate’s statement: http://www.forbes.com/…/michael-jacksons-neverland-is…/. He offers some further insight you might find helpful in understanding the situation. Like you, the Estate is sad and disappointed by Colony’s decision. Michael’s legacy is in his music, in his humanitarian efforts, and in his spirit. The Estate hopes that whomever the new owners may turn out to be, that they will continue to appreciate the property not only for its beauty but for its historical and cultural legacy as well. MJOnline The Official Online Team of The Michael Jackson Estate™
No sooner had the news broke, then the heated battles were waging on social media between the usual factions of estate haters vs.supporters. It all comes down to a few key questions: Just how much interest DOES the estate really have in Neverland, and are they being forthright in their claims that every feasible avenue was indeed exhausted-or is it, as some are claiming, a case of unburdening a troublesome asset that has little financial incentive or priority for them? OR is it all a big bluff? These questions are ones that are being raised everywhere at the moment, and the answers are as varied and complex as every aspect of Michael Jackson’s life. The full details of Michael’s 2008 deal with Colony Capital, which prevented foreclosure of Neverland and allowed him to maintain a stake in the property-but with the understanding that Colony Capital would maintain the full right to sell-may be best left to those with more legal expertise to unravel. For the layperson, Zach O’Malley Greenburg’s article, linked to in the above statement, may be a good place to start but it still leaves many questions as to whose interests are being best served. And perhaps it is a legal web I will best leave for those who have, as I said, more expertise with which to unravel it. What is known with certainty is that Michael Jackson, contrary to popular myth, never “gave up” Neverland. True, he never had a desire to live there again after the 2003 raids and the trial, although it has been said that he was also acting on the advice of his attorney Tom Mesereau who had warned him that he would never be able to live there again even if he wanted to; that Sneddon and company would continue their mission to drive him out.
But the truth is that even though Michael Jackson never again physically lived at Neverland after 2005, he never gave it up, either. Rather, he fought valiantly to keep it-or at least, to maintain some measure of control over it on paper-just as he fought throughout the last years of his life to maintain all of his valuable assets. He could have easily sold the property in 2008, or earlier, and perhaps alleviated at least some of his financial headaches. But apparently, maintaining Neverland, and keeping it in his name, was important to him. Important enough to fight for it. What were his eventual plans for the property? We may never know for certain. It doesn’t seem likely that he ever intended on living there again. In fact, he had already set his heart-and his sights-on a luscious property in Las Vegas that he intended to purchase from the profits of This Is It and transform into his new vision-Wonderland.
Michael’s new “dream home” was said to be this Las Vegas property.He intended to purchase it from the proceedsof “This Is It”:
But Neverland had been too hard won, and as he had told us, represented the totality of who he was. Having put his whole heart and soul into Neverland, it was not something he could easily just walk away from. Perhaps it represented too much for him to be able to just give it up. The big question is: Did Michael, in his efforts to hang onto the property, get suckered into a bad deal? I have seen a lot of talk to that effect. Basically, the terms of the agreement that Michael signed to in 2008 would be what passed into the hands of the estate after his death. As much as we might fault Michael (or shoddy advice from Tohme) about signing an agreement that gave Colony Capital the right to sell at their discretion, there are still a number of factors to keep in mind. My understanding is that Michael maintained an 87.5% interest in Neverland (with Colony Capital maintaining a smaller 12. 5% interest) which, upon his passing, would have reverted to his estate. If true, this would mean that any decision to sell would have to be a mutual decision of both parties. The key, however, may be in a 2003 decision to initiate a non-renewal option on the Williamson Act, which until then had protected Neverland-just as it protects all agricultural California landowners-from massive tax liability, provided the land remains used for agricultural purposes. Under this agreement, the contract would have expired around 2013. Well, this is 2014. So maybe this IS an important piece of the puzzle that makes good sense. You can read more about Neverland and the Williamson Act here:
The irony is that when the above blog post was written, in 2012, there was much optimism that the estate would reapply for the Williamson Act when it expired. Apparently, however, upon the contract’s expiration, the decision was made not to reapply. If we go back to why Michael ever agreed to tie this asset up with Colony Capital in the first place-especially under the terms that he did-we have to remember that dying and leaving it all behind for others to unravel probably wasn’t exactly in his plan. Tom Barrack supposedly said to him when the idea was proposed, “Don’t have me do this…unless you’re really interested in building a program going forward to create some revenue for yourself.”
Michael obviously had high hopes-right up to the very last-that he could generate the revenue again to somehow make everything turn out all right. At the very least, he probably looked at Neverland as an asset that would benefit his children one day. But it is also possible that he was thinking about the potential revenue he could generate for himself, in his own lifetime, by maintaining control of this asset. Even if Michael never set foot on the property again, he could still generate a sizeable yearly income just from leasing it-a practice he had actually been doing, under the radar, for years. Here is a video clip where he discusses (besides Marc Schaffel) the leasing of Neverland property to local cattle farmers:
There are some reports claiming that Michael understood, from the get go, that the intent was to ultimately sell, but that with an estimated $70 to $80 million to be gleaned from such a sale after renovations and increased property values, it would have been quite a financial windfall for him-and his children. I don’t know if there is any truth to those reports, and I tend to believe Michael’s words that he would never sell Neverland. Whatever the case, Michael’s untimely death changed the game plan considerably. But what about Tom Barrack, the man who agreed to “bail” Michael out in 2008? Back in 2010, I did an in-depth post on Barrack and Neverland when an article ran in “New York” about Barrack’s partnership with Rob Lowe and the business of investing in “distressed celebrities.” Unfortunately, just as with everything I wrote prior to 2011, that post is currently inaccessible, but the “New York” article on which I based it is still available. While the article did a good job of humanizing Barrack and letting us get to know the man beneath the “gleaming” bald dome, it also left no doubt that, for Barrack, this was all part of a successful business model built on the idea of investing in “artificially depressed” celebrities and properties. The following passage is excerpted from Benjamin Wallace’s “New York” article:
Over the past two years, Barrack has been lining up deals that target celebrities and entertainment properties whose value he believes to be artificially depressed. In some cases, that’s because they haven’t yet figured out a way to monetize their assets. But mostly it’s because the investment is, in the classic sense, distressed—individuals like Jackson or Annie Leibovitz whose financial mismanagement has obscured their future revenue potential, or properties like the Miramax film library, which Disney is unloading at a time when no one can agree on what a studio archive is worth. This summer, Barrack created a new $500 million media-and-entertainment investment fund, working with his friend Rob Lowe, who is a partner in the fund. Together they have been on something of a shopping spree—and generating a little tabloid coverage while they’re at it. In one TMZ appearance, a paparazzo’s telephoto captured Lowe and Barrack, shirtless, checking their BlackBerrys on a yacht in the Mediterranean. In a second, the two men were video-ambushed as they entered the Mayfair restaurant C London for dinner with owner Giuseppe Cipriani and Formula One’s Flavio Briatore. Barrack has explained the timing of his new direction by musing publicly that some of the investment sectors in which he amassed his wealth can no longer generate extraordinary returns. The world right now is “an environment that has very little visibility, and whatever you guess will surely be wrong the next day,” he says, glancing at his BlackBerry. “Everybody has been abjectly wrong if they’re trying to make macro bets.” The only thing to do is position yourself for opportunities—stand in the stream and wait for fish to swim between your legs. That’s how the Neverland—(At this point in the conversation, Barrack was interrupted by the arrival of his partner Rob Lowe).
I suppose there are two ways one could look at Barrack’s practice. Some might call it savvy business dealing (and after all, isn’t taking advantage of opportunity part of every successful business model?). However, it could also be viewed another way as well-that is, simply taking advantage. And taking advantage of someone who has fallen onto hardship-however temporarily–is certainly not the most ethical practice in the world. In Wallace’s piece, it isn’t exactly made secret that Barrack’s modus operandi is to take advantage of distressed situations with an eye towards the profit they will eventually turn. It doesn’t make Barrack a crook, necessarily, but the point is that just because something is legal doesn’t make it ethical. The tragedy is that Michael-and Neverland-was ever put into such a vulnerable position to begin with, and for that, the real blame must go all the way back to Tom Sneddon. Today, the property for which Barrack initially invested $23. 5 million is guaranteed to fetch him anywhere from $50 million on the lower end of the spectrum, to $70-$80 million on its highest end. That should be good for at least an additional yacht or two to sail on the Mediterranian. The upside of the situation is that a sale on the higher end will probably guarantee Michael’s kids at least a $20 to $30 million windfall, once Colony Capital takes their end. But as some sources have reported, a sale on the lower end could possibly mean they end up with nothing. However, this is not really an issue of what will line the children’s pockets. Michael’s children are already wealthy. It’s an issue of losing something that may be far more valuable to them than money-their link to their childhood and that magical, wonderful kingdom he created. But there is another reason why Neverland may hold special sentimental value for them. It was much more than just their childhood home. It was the only permanent home they ever shared with their father. It was the last place they could ever truly call “home.” The tragedy for the fans in the loss of Neverland is nothing compared to the tragedy this must be for them. Perhaps, again, not so much for what it is-or was-as for what it represents. Had Michael lived, they might have been content to move on, because any home they eventually made with him-whether it be “Wonderland” or elsewhere-would have been “home.” But as it stands, Neverland has probably loomed large in their imaginations as a connection to a time and place when life was much more innocent, fun, and happier-and, of course, magical. But the subtitle of this post is: What does this mean for us? And that is where I would truly like to focus. Several months ago, someone kindly sent me two leaves from Neverland. I assume they must have come from a tree on the property. I sat for quite some time before beginning this piece, inhaling their woodsy fragrance and hoping to draw from their essence the inspiration on how to even begin to assess how I feel about this news. I try to look at it from all angles; to keep my balance in perspective, but I cannot overcome the empty sadness.
Even though we know that “Neverland,” as such, really died in 2003, and has stood mostly as an empty, abandoned shell since 2005, there was still the comfort of knowing it was “there”; that it was still a part of Michael, still in his name, and that any time one felt up to making the pilgrimage to the gates, they would still be there (for me, this has been on my “bucket list” for over five years). As long as the property remained in limbo, there was always the hope that something good might come of it. There had been talk of many proposed projects and ideas-a museum, a Graceland-like mecca for fans, a state park, an art school for teens, even a children’s hospital (though I don’t know how seriously the latter was ever really proposed). In the end, as we have been told over and over, none of these ideas have proven “feasible” given the reality of Neverland’s zoning and geographic location. “Los Olivas isn’t exactly Memphis,” Zach O’Malley Greenburg has stated, and he’s right. Graceland is situated in a wonderfully convenient location adjacent to the interstate, just a few miles south of downtown Memphis. It is a location that can easily accomodate the many thousands of visitors Graceland receives per year. That being said, however, there are many such rurally located tourist attractions that manage to do quite well. The D.H. Lawrence ranch in Taos, New Mexico comes to mind (and it, too, requires a trek up some very treacherous mountain roads) but I don’t think we can even begin to compare the number of average visitors to a place like the D.H. Lawrence ranch to that which would descend upon Neverland, should those gates become open to the public. But I honestly do not think most Michael Jackson fans are really concerned that the place become some huge commercial asset-in fact, most would probably prefer that it remain exactly what it is at present, even if going there must feel a bit like visiting a ghost place. That is, a quiet and tranquil place where Michael’s spiritual aura can still be felt. For most of us, that is enough. But apparently, the estate can only see the viability of hanging onto Neverland if it is generating a profit. This is what I really read between the lines of their statement. In saying every option had been exhausted, it seems what they are really saying is that every feasible option to turn Neverland into something viably commercial and profitable had been exhausted. So, in the end, I suppose, it must have come down to a choice: Either to hang onto something of great sentimental and historical value to the estate, at the cost of draining the estate’s resources, or to let it go. Apparently, they made their decision but I think it is a huge mistake. Understand that even though I’m not an estate hater, I am also not one who blindly accepts their every decision without question, and I believe those questions do need to be raised, especially when we look at the implications of what is potentially going to be lost IF this sale goes through.
They like to to tell us that the business of an estate is to generate money and to protect its assets for the heirs. It is true that an estate must make money. But they also have a responsibility for protecting and preserving the historical legacy, especially when we are talking the estate of one of the most culturally iconic performers of our time. To be sure, having Neverland sold might not exactly be the end of the world as we know it. As some have said, it may all depend, ultimately, on who buys it. Yes, it “could” end up in the hands of some very benevolent benefactor who will fully understand and respect its legacy and importance to fans-or, at least, its importance to his kids, which is really what should be our utmost concern. It would be wonderful to think that someone might buy the place who would actually consider opening it up to fans, or giving us that museum (though, no shocker, that would probably end in a lawsuit with the estate!). I even heard one very ingenious idea of turning it into a bed and breakfast establishment. I’m sure that would be a windfall for anyone, with guaranteed bookings up to ten years in advance! (And, heck, there ought to be enough guest cottages on the property to make it a perfectly feasible idea! And imagine…for an extra fee, getting Michael’s master bedroom!).
Over time, there have been rumors of many celebrities, from Justin Bieber to Lady Gaga, who have reportedly been interested in purchasing Neverland. I can’t really imagine Justin Bieber, after all of his antics, being a viable candidate (I am sure the neighbors of Los Olivas would probably be none too thrilled!) but Lady Gaga, I am sure, would at least respect the property’s connection to Michael. But while it would be wonderful to envision such a “best case” scenario, the simple truth is that we have no such guarantees. The new owners might be people who would care about and respect the property’s legacy.
But then again, they might not. What if Neverland falls into the hands of someone who could care less about Michael Jackson or his fans, and in fact, would do everything in their power to strip and dismantle all reminders of Sycamore Valley Ranch as the infamous Neverland? I am sure that, for many of us, that is our worst nightmare scenario-the idea of Neverland being taken over by some indifferent or cold hearted individual who would strip away all physical reminders and ties to “Neverland.” Even if Barrack has worked hard to restore Neverland to its “former glory” and has respected Michael’s vision, as he claims, that is no guarantee that any new owner will feel an obligation to do likewise. Imagine the beautiful flower gardens gone; the clocks taken down; the Giving Tree perhaps chopped down, and cattle grazing where the Ferris wheel once stood. Imagine those magical gates being torn down to make room for something else-a new, much colder, and more imposing barrier that says nothing. The scary thing is that we simply don’t know. The above scenario is certainly the worst case scenario, but it could happen, and there are no guarantees that it won’t. But even if Neverland is lucky and does fall into the hands of an owner who respects and values it as Michael Jackson’s home, it doesn’t change the fact that Neverland will no longer be in Michael Jackson’s name. It will no longer be under the control and protection of his estate; it will no longer belong to the family. And that, for me, is the saddest part of all. Neverland-if for nothing else, its historical value-should remain in the control of the estate. For me, it simply isn’t good enough to “hope and trust” that the new owners will respect and honor the property’s legacy. Does anyone think that Elvis Presley’s estate would simply “hope and trust” that someone would come along to take care of Graceland? Recently, a petition has begun circulating on Change.org to save Neverland. Although I am somewhat skeptical about the success of petitions, I signed it in the spirit that no turn should be left unturned. This is what I commented:
It is important that Neverland be kept within the control of the estate and of Michael’s heirs. It is much too important a part of his legacy to be turned over to other hands. Even if the future owner(s) were to honor the home’s legacy, there are no guarantees once it is passed on to the hands of others. It could end up going through countless owners, who no doubt over time will chip away until there is nothing of Michael left. The Neverland property has just as much historical value as Hayvenhurst, if not more. Michael composed many of his biggest hits on its spiritual grounds, in his beloved Given Tree. And yes, it became tainted over time but even that sad history, too, is part of the historical legacy of NL and vital for future generations to understand not only Michael’s great vision for healing children, but what he had to sacrifice and endure as well. Nothing represents the full breadth and scope of Michael’s magic, endurance, trials and tribulations like the 2700 acres of NL. Those acres are the heart of Michael; to sell it is like ripping the heart from him, more surely than the coroner’s scalpel. Consider: Michael went from a 3-room house in Gary to Neverland. There is nothing else-no other home or landmark-that physically commemorates this achievement Hayvenhurst, after all, belonged to all the Jacksons. Neverland was not only Michael’s one and only permanent home, it was his own creation.
There have been many similar “Save Neverland” campaigns and petitions started in the past. I found a few such petitions on Google, all from several years back, many with as few as a little over a hundred signatures. But now it seems there is a new sense of urgency; a sense that “this is it.” The reality is looming that Neverland could indeed really be gone forever now. This petition alone has garnered over FOUR THOUSAND signatures and counting, not to mention that many others have started up as well.
To expand further on my comment, Neverland not only stands to this day as the only permanent home that Michael Jackson ever owned, it is also the only truly physical testament to what he accomplished in going from that tiny, three room house in Gary, Indiana to a 2700 acre estate. It is, in fact, an insult to both Michael’s memory and to his accomplishments to even insinuate that Hayvenhurst is more worthy of preservation than Neverland. They should both be maintained, but again, it is Neverland that represents the “totality” of who Michael was. Over the past two days I have heard many arguments and reasons as to how we should view the potential sale and loss of Neverland. All of them have validity to some degree. Some feel that Michael set the example when he walked away from Neverland and (presumably) never looked back. And there is something to be said for the ability to just “let go.” The reality is that Neverland has sat as an abandoned shell for over six years. But although I have not been to Neverland personally, I have been told that its energy can still be felt. And I believe this very strongly, as it is part of my own Cherokee belief and my knowledge that Neverland is indeed sacred ground. It was sacred ground for thousands of years before Michael ever sat foot on it, as it was a place that Chumash Indians used for ceremonial grounds. But Michael definitely left the stamp of his own energy and presence there. Part of my personal Cherokee belief is that spirits never completely disconnect from earth or from their physical embodiment. Spirits will always maintain a connection to the places where they were happiest. If the property is taken over by someone else, it won’t take away the fact that Michael’s energy and presence is there. But over time, that energy will become diluted and dispersed, especially if it senses it is no longer welcome there. As so many have sadly noted for the past five years, one of the most tragic aspects of being a Michael Jackson fan is the fact that we have no real “center” where we can come together to feel his presence. Forest Lawn is where his body lies, but it’s not where his spirit dwells.
Where does Michael’s spirit reside, really? It is an impossible question to answer. If you are Christian, you may say he is in Heaven, or whatever is your spiritual equivalent. For most of us, we can say that he exists in our hearts, and that Neverland as a concept is something that no one can put up for sale. So if Neverland as an idea-as a place that lives in our hearts-cannot be taken away, is it worth it to fight for an empty house and a couple thousand acres of land that even Michael himself had not set foot on for years?
That may depend on personal view. I have been in a few of the same places that Michael has been. I can say I have been inside the same hotel room that he once stayed in. I sat on a bed he slept in, but other than the bragging rights of being able to say I sat on Michael Jackson’s bed, I can say it pretty much felt just like any ordinary bed. There was no “magic dust” that rolled off the sheets; no fairy dust under the pillows. I have even ridden his Ferris wheel from Neverland, and presumably sat in his favorite seat (No. 13)-at least so they told me. It was exciting, but again, having my rump on the same spot where Michael’s rump once sat still did not impart anything extraordinary or magical. It felt like any, ordinary Ferris wheel seat.
I try now to apply this same common sense logic to Neverland. It was just a house he lived in; the grounds were just grounds he once walked on. But we all know, Neverland was so much more than that. Neverland wasMichael.
The analogy I used-likening it to the moment when his heart was removed by the autopsy scalpel-may be unpleasantly graphic for some, but I stand by it. For me, that is an apt analogy as the sale of Neverland is exactly just that.
I can’t say I am totally shocked by this turn of events. I think a lot of us had seen it coming for years, but like everyone, I held out hope that eventually Neverland might be used for some good purpose that, of course, would honor Michael’s vision for it. As crass as it sounds, I always loved the idea of making it into a “Graceland” so that it would become accessible to everyone who wished to visit. But I would have been equally happy to see it become an art school or something equally productive-again, as long as it was within keeping with Michael’s original vision for the place. That could encompass a wide range, from recreational fun to spiritual healing.
I suppose the worst thing it could do would be to sit, abandoned. But there are some who say even that is not a bad thing. In the quiet stillness of its abandonment, one can still go there and find it a peaceful place to meditate, and to connect with Michael’s spirit.
Not everything can have a dollar price. I feel the estate has dropped the ball on this one. But I also have to admit that if I were pressed to ask what else should they have done-and how to offer up realistic solutions for this dilemma-I am not sure I would have those answers, either. Not without a lot of thought. I see and hear all of the well intentioned fan initiatives to “buy back Neverland.” I know such initiatives are well intentioned, but the reality is that unless a fan just happens to be a multi millionaire, it is doomed to fail. However, I just feel that selling it shouldn’t have to be that answer. And I am not consoled by reminders of saving Hayvenhurst, or the success of Michael Jackson One. New albums and Cirque du Soleil shows will come and go. They are exciting in their way. But all pale when compared to the immanence of Neverland, and what it represents. Those artificial gates in the One and Immortal shows will never compensate for the loss of the real thing.
Yes, it is possible that something good may come out of this. But it will not be the same. It is what Shakespeare meant by a “sea change.” Neverland will be transformed. In the best case scenario, we will still recognize it, and let’s hope that is the case. But the reality is that it could become something completely unrecognizable. I am reminded again of the climactic scene from Ghosts where Michael slowly disintegrates into nothingness. His legacy is not going to die, but it sometimes seems, just as with his physical remains, that much of what he left is slowly turning to dust.
Some will say it should not matter, as long as the music survives, and maybe the short films. But that is still only a part of Michael Jackson’s legacy, and maybe not even the most important part. The real essence of who Michael was-the father, the humanitarian, the man with a grand vision for himself, for the world, and its possibilities-is embodied by the grounds of Neverland.
It’s not to say we will lose the spirit and essence of Michael without Neverland. But it may be important to note that what we willlose is the closest physical representation of it that we have.
That is something worth thinking about. And yes, it should matter to all of us who care about him. No exceptions.
ETA (08/04/14): I saw this shared on Twitter last night, and found it so sickening that I wanted to also share it here (not that I enjoy sharing sickening things, that is, but sometimes they are necessary). It’s no secret that Barrack and Colony Capital have been leasing Neverland’s grounds for some time, usually for short term events such as meetings and weddings. I have not found anything that states that they are not within their legal rights to do so, as per the terms of the agreement but, if nothing else, this hits home the reality of what is happening-and will continue to happen, especially as the property goes on the market. Neverland is being invaded by people who have NO RESPECT for anything it stands for, as evidenced by the snarky comment below from a Miss Lauren Roxborough. “Happy Easter from the creepiest place on earth!” she mockingly and proudly tweeted, after being allowed privileged access onto those sacred grounds (and not just sacred because Michael lived there-Neverland has been sacred ground for thousands of years to the indigenous people of Santa Ynez Valley). It sickens me to think of disrespectful trespassers like this woman being allowed to walk the grounds of Neverland. But this may be only a hint of what the future holds for Neverland once it is gone, and no longer in the control of people who care about its legacy. I am not posting this here to stir bad feelings, or to rub salt in the wound, but rather, to show the reality of Neverland’s present and the possible reality of its future. I would rather see the gates closed permanently and the house razed to the ground than to have people like this in it.