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To Michael Jackson on his 45th birthday

Times Staff Writer

Sean, the surgically augmented Michael Jackson impersonator from Las Vegas, waved madly to catch the eye of the real Michael Jackson, but the celebrity’s attention was at that moment dedicated to Tavi, a Michael Jackson impersonator from London who was twirling on stage. All three, in surreal syncopation, were mouthing the words to “Billie Jean.”

Just when it seems the funhouse mirror of celebrity culture loses its novelty, you can count on the king, Michael Jackson, to pop up with some strange new reflection.

On Saturday night he did it at the Orpheum, a grand old Los Angeles theater on a gritty downtown block, the occasion being a curious, fan-organized celebration of his 45th birthday that at times felt like a junior college talent show. Hundreds of fans paid $30 or more for admission (although more than a few got in free after the tickets reserved for celebrity VIPs went largely uncollected), and the program chiefly consisted of young people singing, lip-synching or dancing to Jackson’s many hits.

The tilt of heads in the crowd was clearly up and away from the stage and toward the balcony box occupied by Jackson, and frantic cheers went up every time the singer stood, raised a glittering palm or even glanced toward the audience. Except for R&B; singer Brian McKnight, the performers were amateurs or obscure (“Here is somebody else y’all don’t know” is how the emcee, comedian Steve Harvey, summed it up midshow), and Jackson himself did not perform.

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Jackson, who turned 45 on Aug. 29, did, however, give a lengthy, surprising speech at the end of the 3 1/2-hour show, and he often had to pause as the passionately loyal fans -- some of them holding aloft flags of the European countries they had traveled from -- went berserk. The fete was organized by a coalition of the singer’s fan clubs and was led by Deborah Dannelly, a legal assistant from Corpus Christi, Texas. The ragged nature of the event and the handmade gifts piled up on the balcony level had charm of spirit, but the lack of satellite trucks outside and the number of A-list no-shows also spoke to Jackson’s career trajectory since his 1980s moonwalking days.

In shimmering pants and a blousy, white shirt, the giggling singer emerged onto the stage with a cadre of bodyguards that he referred to as his “soldiers of love.” He coyly bit his lip and peered out from under his curtain of black hair as the crowd called out to him. At one point he twirled and pulled his shirt down off his bare shoulders for the cheering fans. Reading off a TelePrompTer, he said the night marked a new day for his career and that in the coming months he would be making new music, feature films, movie shorts and launching a new philanthropic organization called Go for the Dreams.

“My birthday wish is that you all join me in some new undertakings so we can all travel into a bright future together.... I would love to see you more often,” Jackson said.

That message appears to be far more than sentiment. Stuart Backerman, the spokesman for the usually reclusive singer, has announced that on Sept. 13 Jackson’s Neverland Ranch in Santa Barbara County will be opened up for 250 fans willing to pay $2,500 each for a dinner and tour. Backerman said 25% of the proceeds would go to charity.

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The idea of the Garbo-like Jackson opening up his home -- or spending a Saturday night watching tap dancers and lip-synching imitators just to woo his constituency -- suggests that the singer is turning a corner of sorts, and it may not be voluntary. At the Orpheum, Jackson hailed his new “advisors and team” because they have “the fans at the top of the list,” but there is also speculation that Jackson’s new handlers are just trying to find ways to pay the bills.

As emcee, Harvey was a badly needed delight in an otherwise bland evening, and one of his jokes was a response to people who mock or question Jackson for his appearance and unconventional behavior: “It’s because he’s got more money than the rest of us. Michael’s got that other kind of money. Michael’s got a giraffe. He’s got giraffe money.”

It was a big laugh, but menagerie or not, the status of Jackson’s wealth has become the latest tabloid topic in the tall stack of pulp dedicated to the singer’s strange public odyssey.

In June, a lawsuit brought by Jackson’s former financial advisors was settled, but not until after its documents portrayed the singer as strapped and near bankruptcy.

Jackson also has legal battles underway against his 1970s recording label, Motown Records, as well as his current label, Sony’s Epic Records. (On Saturday, he again railed against former Sony chief Tommy Mottola: “This is not a good man. He is a racist.”)

During the show, Harvey stood in the wings and watched a young singer perform a plaintive version of Jackson’s “Human Nature.” The comedian and radio-show host shook his head when asked about the tribulations endured by Jackson through the years, among them murmurs about his seeming fixation with plastic surgery and accusations of child molestation.

“The media has done to this man things that you and I and anyone else would not be able to survive,” Harvey said. “I know it has hurt him. I don’t think it tortures him, but I would say it has hurt him. Listen to his music, to his talent -- look at what he has given us. Look at the kids on this stage who worship him.”

As the show wound down, Jackson stood center stage with his arms folded as a towering 400-pound birthday cake was wheeled out. He bobbed his head as the large cast joined in for a show-closing rendition of “We Are the World,” but instead of standing next to the likes of Bob Dylan and Stevie Wonder, as he did when the song was recorded 18 years ago, he was standing beside his own look-alikes and a 13-year-old singer from Denmark who moonwalks.

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He smiled and waved at the crowd when they yelled their love for him.

“I love you more,” he said.


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