It all started on a sedate evening in Newport, Rhode Island. That’s where I was when Michael Jackson died, traveling for a family wedding. Jeff Gillan of Las Vegas One called asking me to join him to discuss MJ’s Vegas ties, and I suggested, as I was unavailable, that he corral Erich Bergen, a known Jackson devotee and a star of Jersey Boys at the Palazzo. Gillan did.
From that, the Las Vegas Sun let Erich write an essay about how the King of Pop had influenced him, and then he tweeted something vague about wanting to do a tribute show. Norm Clarke reported it as a concrete plan, and I called Erich to find out more.
But there really wasn’t any more. He had an extremely ambitious idea and an aim—to raise money for public-school music-education programs—but he knew not exactly how to go about it. As we discussed it (we’d become friends since my column about him this spring), he asked me to help him. I did not hesitate. I was suddenly co-producer of a benefit that, at that point, we thought would maybe fill the Liberace Museum showroom.
Whoa! Aren’t I a journalist? Aren’t I duty-bound to stay out of the news, not to make it, to observe and analyze, not to participate?
Fair questions, all. And given what has happened to the Jackson story since then—that the death is considered a homicide and that a Vegas doctor is at the probe’s epicenter—those questions are even more pertinent. But when this started, it was a few days after Jackson’s death, and nobody I knew imagined it would be a criminal matter. It took weeks before any national media outlet recruited me to dig into Dr. Conrad Murray’s background and a month before his office and home were raided.
By that point, I was in Las Vegas Celebrates The Music of Michael Jackson too deep, and it had exploded into an historic event that would raise more than $100,000 and include performances at the Pearl at the Palms of MJ music by more than 100 Vegas entertainers. When I informed my editors at various outlets of the concert, they just told me not to write about it in their publications. Good help, evidently, is hard to find in Vegas.
The two roles caused me plenty of angst. I knew there was a distinction between a charity show and a death investigation, but I also knew there could be an appearance of conflict. I don’t dismiss such concerns—they’re valid and part of every journalism school’s curriculum—but it’s telling that every nonjournalist I groused to viewed one as having little to do with the other. Did putting on a show have any bearing whatsoever on the criminal probe, or vice versa? Of course not. I agree that journalists shouldn’t become involved in political causes, but must we never do charitable works? If that’s the case, I should’ve been in trouble long ago, having spent countless hours and dollars as a Big Brother, as a Candlelighters volunteer, as a food server at homeless shelters on holidays, as a fundraiser for several nonpolitical AIDS, gay and free-press causes. Erich’s desire to raise money for kids fit my goals, too.
True, we relied on contributions from many whom I cover, but that cut both ways. Erich did virtually all of the asking, often leaving me out of it to avoid being denied because of something I had written. My coverage has accrued me plenty of detractors in the hotel and show industries, a fact I wear as a badge. I avoided offering myself for interviews until the last week, when Erich became overwhelmed with creative duties. Not because I feared journalistic criticism—any credible reporter could have quizzed me, but only one, my own Weekly colleague John Katsilometes, did—but because I thought I could harm the effort.
Two examples come to mind that show I deviated little from my normal journalistic activities. The first was my July 2 column here, in which I asserted that Jackson’s death, while tragic, would also be an opportunity for his music to reclaim its rightful place in the culture.
I feared some Jackson fans and Erich in particular might be offended, but he complimented me on my analysis. Then, in a July 14 blog post, I blasted Mirage headliner Terry Fator for publicly humiliating his wife.
It was the harshest thing any journalist has ever written about him, and I did it knowing he had already agreed to perform in the show. We shared some awkward moments last week, indeed.
I co-produced this show to raise money for kids, but also to learn what it takes to put on a production like those I cover. To me, this was the equivalent of a cop reporter going to the police academy. In this crash course, I learned the costs of everything involved with putting on just one show, much of which never occurred to me, and discovered all the legal and logistical elements of such an effort. I got to be backstage as performers made quick changes, got to sit in on rehearsals where Erich debated a blue or red spotlight and other minutiae.
I also learned who in Vegas is for real and who is full of shit. That means those of you who claimed you could get us Celine Dion, Brandon Flowers and even Taylor Dayne. That means you, “journalists” from TMZ, who promised coverage when really you were gunning so obviously for an entirely different story. That means you, singer Earl Turner, whose producer demanded 15 comps, agreed instead to $20 a person for $129 seats and then, at show time, angrily refused to even pay that and left, depriving local children of another $2,000.
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- A little kid’s play enlivens Michael Jackson benefit show (08/31/09)
Despite all this, we raised a huge amount of much-needed money, and, because as a reporter I wish all non-profits operated this way, the records of revenue and expenses will be available soon for any legitimate journalist who asks. Many have asked if I now have ambitions to produce, but while I’d never say never, and I’m endlessly fascinated by show business, this adventure isn’t representative of that work. We took no personal financial risks, and we received free venue and rehearsal space, PR assistance, performances and advertising. Plus, it was easy to sell the media on the merits of coverage. While I learned a lot, this occurred under optimal conditions.
Last week, I ran into Clint Holmes at a Starbucks. I hadn’t seen him since I beat him up in this column in 2007 for having a thin skin after he publicly berated an R-J theater critic who bashed Holmes’ autobiographical musical. Holmes, who would be singing at the benefit, was friendly, and we were both excited about the upcoming event, but as we parted he said, “Maybe after this you’ll be a kinder, gentler journalist.”
To which I replied: “God, I hope not.” I guess the proof will be in my work. I’m thinking Earl Turner doesn’t think so right about now.