While the rest of the world is recoiling in horror from the allegations of rampant child sexual abuse leveled against Michael Jackson in the documentary “Leaving Neverland” (8 p.m. Sunday and Monday, HBO), it’s largely busines as usual in Las Vegas.
Billboards tout the celebration of Jackson’s hits in the tribute concert “MJ Live” at the Stratosphere.
The 10-foot statue of a militaristic Jackson created as a promotion for his 1995 album “HIStory” still stands on a pedestal in the lobby of Mandalay Bay. The resort also houses the Cirque du Soleil production “Michael Jackson One,” while the accompanying Jackson-themed boutique displays the jacket the singer wore to the 1984 American Music Awards as well as a pair of loafers and the Swarovski crystal-covered socks he performed in during the “Dangerous” world tour.
One entertainment booking website lists 19 Michael Jackson impersonators based in Las Vegas. Several of them, somehow, have glowing reviews from their performances at children’s parties.
“He was one of the kindest, most gentle, loving, caring people I knew,” choreographer Wade Robson says of Jackson in “Leaving Neverland’s” opening moments. “He helped me tremendously, helped me with my career. He helped me with my creativity, with all of those sorts of things. And he also sexually abused me for seven years.”
Much like Lifetime’s “Surviving R. Kelly,” which took damning claims of molestation and underage sex that had been floating around for years and packaged them into a sensational documentary, the two-part “Leaving Neverland” doesn’t so much break new ground as pummel viewers into submission with painfully graphic details of abuse.
Robson first made his accusations public in May 2013, when he filed a $1.5 billion lawsuit against Jackson’s estate. James Safechuck, the other alleged victim profiled in the documentary, filed a similar suit the following year. Both were dismissed in 2017 on procedural grounds without a ruling on the credibility of the claims.
Long ties to Las Vegas
Jackson’s ties to Las Vegas date back to at least 1974, when the then-15-year-old singer began performing with his siblings at the original MGM Grand. During those trips, he befriended magicians Siegfried & Roy, who also were performing at the hotel. Fifteen years later, Jackson co-wrote and recorded “Mind Is the Magic,” the theme song for the duo’s show at The Mirage.
According to Review-Journal stories from the time, Jackson hung out at the resort for several weeks before it opened to the public in November 1989. “We have been lucky enough to have Michael Jackson work on design elements and attractions,” Steve Wynn announced at The Mirage the next spring during an appearance with the singer.
Jackson became something of a regular guest at the hotel over the years. He and Wynn grew so close — in a detail that only grows darker with time considering the multiple sexual misconduct allegations leveled against both men — the casino magnate was listed by the defense as a possible character witness in Jackson’s 2005 molestation trial.
That was the same court proceeding during which Robson testified Jackson never acted inappropriately around him.
Meeting Michael Jackson
Robson was 5 years old and living in Brisbane, Australia, when his mother brought home a VHS copy of the making of Jackson’s “Thriller” video. “Once I saw that tape, everything changed for me,” he says in “Leaving Neverland.”
The boy began replicating those dance moves and started dressing like the singer. Robson soon won a dance contest at a Target store for the chance to meet Jackson during a concert in Brisbane. Two years later in 1990, during a trip to California, Robson and his family went out of their way to reconnect with the singer and visited him at his sprawling Neverland Ranch.
“Like, for me to look back on the scenario now, what you’d think would be standard kind of instincts and judgment seemed to go out the window,” Robson says in the film. After two days, everyone else went to the Grand Canyon, leaving the 7-year-old Robson alone with Jackson for the rest of the week. That, he alleges, is when the abuse began.
Safechuck, meanwhile, says he was never really a fan of Jackson before he was hired to appear with him in a Pepsi commercial. In the now haunting ad, the boy sneaks into Jackson’s dressing room, tries on some clothes and dances a bit before he’s surprised by the singer’s arrival. Smiling in the doorway, Jackson practically coos, “Lookin’ for me?”
According to the documentary, Jackson began spending the night at the Safechucks’ home in Simi Valley, California. That summer, the family went on tour with him. Safechuck, who would have been 10 at the time, stayed with Jackson while his parents were assigned hotel rooms farther and farther away. During a stop in Paris, he says Jackson started molesting him and making him practice getting dressed as fast as possible in case anyone came to their room.
That 2005 trial, 11 years after Jackson settled similar allegations out of court, interrupted a stretch during which the singer called Las Vegas home.
He became a regular visitor in 2002, hitting up the Forum Shops at Caesars seven times in 10 days that fall and, the Review-Journal reported at the time, taking a private 2 a.m. tour of the Guggenheim Hermitage Museum at The Venetian along with six children, two nannies and two bodyguards.
Jackson received the key to the city from Mayor Oscar Goodman in October 2003, while he was the subject of a police investigation. He was backstage at The Colosseum at Caesars Palace to see Celine Dion on Nov. 8 that year, 12 days before he flew from North Las Vegas to Santa Barbara, California, to surrender to authorities.
Hours later, after posting bail, Jackson returned, embarking on a winding, nearly three-hour rolling street party that was televised live on CNN. Fans and curious onlookers darted into traffic to get closer to the singer as he meandered from Henderson Executive Airport to Green Valley Ranch.
As odd as that convoy was, Jackson’s next stint in Las Vegas, following his acquittal and more than a year spent overseas, was downright surreal.
Arriving with his children on Christmas Eve 2006, Jackson became a fixture around town over the next two years while living at the Palms, in Summerlin, in Spanish Trail and, finally, in a 1.7-acre compound on Palomino Lane that has become known as the Thriller Villa.
Jackson sightings appeared frequently in the pages of the Review-Journal, chronicling his moviegoing habits (“Night at the Museum” at Red Rock, “Kung Fu Panda” at the Palms), dining excursions (Planet Hollywood restaurant at Caesars, Benihana at the Las Vegas Hilton) and other outings, including trips to see “Bodies … The Exhibition” and “Tournament of Kings.”
He reportedly attended UFC 84 at the MGM Grand, seated in a wheelchair, with black fabric covering his face.
Legacy in peril?
A little more than a year later, on June 25, 2009, Jackson was pronounced dead.
“I danced when I heard he had died,” Safechuck’s mother, Stephanie, declares in the film.
As powerful and harrowing as the claims of Robson and Safechuck are — the latter alleges Jackson arranged a wedding ceremony for the two, complete with rings, and that he was regularly bribed with jewelry to participate in sex acts — “Leaving Neverland” is being released amid near daily updates in the bewildering case of Jussie Smollett.
Jackson, obviously, isn’t around to defend himself, and there’s precious little of his side to be found in the four-hour documentary. Robson and Safechuck, though, will get yet another hour of prime-time television when “Oprah Winfrey Presents: After Neverland” debuts at 10 p.m. Monday on HBO and OWN.
Had Jackson never relocated to Las Vegas, though, he may still have been alive to refute every charge. After all, this is where the singer met local cardiologist Dr. Conrad Murray, who eventually became his personal physician and was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in his death.
There’s no telling how the many stomach-turning accusations will be received by the public — whether outrage will leave the singer’s reputation as damaged as R. Kelly’s, or if viewers will simply shrug the whole thing off as a desperate money grab.
For now, though, Jackson’s career is alive and well.
For now, the King of Pop still reigns.
At least in Las Vegas.
Contact Christopher Lawrence at clawrence @reviewjournal.com or
702-380-4567. Follow @life_onthecouch on Twitter.