Thursday, February 17, 2011

Light and Dark: The Laws of Attraction

There is for some, a propensity toward the darkest of human emotions. Scientists, psychologists, metaphysicians, clergy and philosophers might argue the source of these emotions, but wherever one may feel this darkness originates from, there can be no denying that exist it does.

It is also argued that the “light” attracts the “dark.” After following Michael Jackson’s career and reading accounts on his personal life for nearly 42 years, I’m inclined to agree. Michael shone with the light of love, goodness, peace, healing and humanitarianism, yet, he was constantly persecuted by the media and public alike for most of his life. Whatever positive good he did or said it was nearly always twisted into something negative or even sinister.

Yes, I believe “light” attracts the darkness of the human heart, but why? Why is it that some people take so much pleasure in tearing another person’s life from limb to limb; in humiliating, degrading, bullying and negating a soul’s essence? Why do some people eat their young? Greed, hate, vengeance, jealousy, racism, discrimination, rage, perversion, all could be some of the reasons, but to find source, the reason behind what motivates and elicits such extremes is a question I can’t answer. I just know, see and feel the ugliness.

And it’s there, still surrounding Michael’s name, but now it is also encompassing us, the fans. Those who knew him and are speaking now, openly and honestly about how he touched their lives, those who write about and pay tribute to him; all of us who are working toward and trying to continue the legacy he left behind, fans, peers and friends, can feel it.

I have wandered into some places on the internet; You Tube, forums, discussion threads, facebook posts and tweets that reek of this darkness. Hate literally screams from the images and words and none of us it appears, have escaped its ill-intentions. Charles Thomson, Deborah Ffrench and Rev. Barbara Kaufmann to name but a small few, have been attacked and ridiculed. Many, many tribute and fan websites have also been demeaned and attacked for simply daring to exist, and for equally daring to promote Michael’s achievements and to fight for his vindication and justice.

I myself have come under fire and most recently, the online magazine I publish monthly. I read in a discussion thread that the magazine was a sickly display of delusional misfits, all mooning over and defending a wacko that should have been locked up years ago, but now fortunately, is dead. (That is the edited version)

Do we care that these things are being said? Of course we do. We care because whatever is being said about us is also directly continuing the attack on a man we are trying so hard to defend. And personally? I take offense to being called ugly names by a bunch of bullies who have never graduated from their Middle School playgrounds. I am not a misfit or delusional, and I am not mooning over anyone. Rather, I am a stable, intelligent, grown woman who believes that Michael was a gift to this world, that he was misjudged and accused wrongly, and that he deserves to be recognized not only for his artistry, but also for all his acts of kindness and humanitarianism.

So, do we give up and yield to the onslaught of hate thrown our way? Of course not! If we do that then in essence we are giving up on Michael. Who else will fight so hard for him now that he has gone? Who else will continue his work and legacy? We are part of Michael, and he us. We have no choice.

It was said to me not long ago that often bad publicity can be good publicity. I sat and thought about this for awhile and realized the truth in this statement. The haters in a sense are giving us the publicity we need for people to sit up and take notice. Michael Jackson fans have always been labeled as fanactical, crazy, mean, blind and yes, delusional, but look what has happened! We came together and worked toward uncovering Michael’s name from the Gardner Street Elementary School auditorium. Look what happened when we came together in an all out effort to stop Discovery from airing their documentary on the re-enactment of Michael Jackson’s autopsy. We united as an intelligent and rational group. Dare I say it? We organized! And by doing so, caused alarm to some and respect from others. We are now being watched; we have been noticed in a positive light, one in which we have never been seen in before.

And those watchers and fence-sitters who perhaps might now have some doubts as to whether Michael was treated fairly, or doubts as to whether his accusers were the innocent victims, might now be experiencing some feelings of curiosity; some feelings of guilt. They might also actively seek some answers of their own or inadvertently stumble across one of those dark places that make your skin crawl with goosebumps. And, while some might slip back easily into the twisted mindset from which they came, others, or maybe just one at that time, might decide to look further into the cause of the hate, and visit our websites, forums and blogs. Once there, they may just read our articles, blogs and poems; watch our videos and witness the work we are doing and the goals we are trying to achieve. They may feel the immense love flowing from our words, all for a man they have accused and hated. They may ask why, and begin their own journey toward discovering the real Michael Jackson. The next it might be two more people, the day after three; small numbers you may say, but numbers nonetheless and when added to what we have, our audience grows larger and stronger.

So I say to the darkness, you who write so diligently against us and Michael, thank you. Thank you for the publicity. Thank you for giving us a wider audience and more reason to fight. Thank you for drawing attention to your hate because through it you are drawing attention to the “light.” And we who live in the light- aren’t going anywhere.

© Valmai Owens, 2010. All Rights Reserved.
No reproduction without permission from author.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011


The Name

Michael. Who is like God. Gift of God.

It is not an uncommon name. Many have had it bestowed upon them, but for us it is a name that when spoken, slides over the lips like red wine, rich and bursting with flavor. Lighting up the eyes it wreaths a face in smiles, and quickens the heart with excitement and tender longing. We clothe ourselves in this name; drape it around our necks and dangle it from our ears. We speak it, watch it, dance and sing it. It is drawn and painted and written upon pages; branded on our skin, hearts and minds. It is a name synonymous with everything we hold dear and love in this life. The name Michael is a soul’s kiss and a spiritual whisper of adoration.

The Child

Cute, adorable and playful, his smile won our hearts. He sang like an angel and moved like a seasoned professional far beyond his years, holding us captive and bound to him forever.

Well, you don't get to do things that other children get to do, having friends and slumber parties and buddies. There were none of that for me. I didn't have friends when I was little. My brothers were my friends. Michael Jackson.

For those of us who witnessed his emergence into the world of song and dance (children ourselves), we never questioned the hows and why’s he arrived to the stage. He was just there, shining and bright with life and a talent that left us breathless. We never considered that while we were going to school and playing with our friends, going to the park, the beach or on vacation with our families, engaging in normal childhood pleasures and activities, Michael was not doing the same.

He was like a child who never was. Years determined his age, but harsh discipline, grueling hours of practice and performing and dedication to his art, determined that he would never know the simplicity of living in the world of children with all its magic and laughter and fantasy. Instead he lived it in his mind; a private playground equipped with all that he yearned for but had never experienced. And through it all, he kept smiling and singing and dancing for a world that was unaware of his loneliness.

The Teenager

I was a gangly adolescent heading toward five feet ten inches… It was tough. Everyone had called me cute for a long time, but along with all the other changes, my skin broke out in a terrible case of acne…. I couldn’t look at people when I talked to them. I’d look down, or away. I felt I didn’t have anything to be proud of and I didn’t want to go out. I didn’t want to do anything. Michael Jackson

He grew; he grew tall and lean, and the roundness of the child’s face refined itself into angular lines of the young adult. The evitable course of nature dictates that all life must age, and Michael left his childhood behind and walked toward the angst, uncertainty and afflictions of the teenage years. And we walked with him, each bearing the signs of our body’s ever changing appearance and the confusion over emotions that often seemed out of control.

For some, these years were more painful than for others, leaving scars that ran deep into the future. Michael was no different, but this period in a sense was worse for him because he was so much in the public eye. Exposed on stage and before cameras he could not hide his face from the spotlight nor did he try, as he sang and danced in an expression of joy and deep emotion.

If we noticed the physical changes occurring in him, it was the revelation that a magical being was starting to emerge from his cocoon. We waited in expectation for the day he would unfold and stretch his wings.

The Butterfly

I only ask to be free. The butterflies are free. Charles Dickens

Once free from his chrysalis, Michael was more beautiful than we could have imagined. He had an ethereal beauty that came from deep within his soul, and it shone from him surrounding everyone who came near. None of us could resist the magnetic pull toward him; man woman and child were drawn to him like a moth is to flame, and we burnt from the love that was out of our reach, almost untouchable.

Yet we couldn’t help but come back for more; just as the moth, we kept flying into the light. We stood under hotel balconies and at the gates of Neverland, everywhere that we knew he would be, with our smiles and hopeful hearts waiting for a glimpse, a wave, a word, a touch; just one moment of physical connection.

Some would say that Michael was no different to other icons that collected adoring followers, but we know different. We know that Michael was different. He was more than an artist and he was more than just physical beauty. He exuded a spiritual aura that touched everything and everyone with an unselfish and all encompassing love. We could see it then as we can now, that one such as him comes but once in a lifetime.

The Master of Song

I wake up from dreams and go "Wow, put this down on paper." The whole thing is strange. You hear the words, everything is right there in front of your face . . . Michael Jackson

Instantly recognizable; a voice that is as smooth as silk and fluid in intonation and clarity. Strong and powerful or soft and tender, Michael adapted his voice to the message in his songs, pouring his heart and soul into lyric’s that told more than just a story. His songs were poetry; an extension of his feelings that exposed his deep innermost feelings. They gave us an insight into his heart and mind, and carried us far beyond imagination into the reality of his world and the spiritual essence contained within. When we close our eyes and breath in the music, we are right there in his moment of joy, pain, happiness, loss, loneliness and sometimes anger; feeling the words as if they were our own.

Michael’s song is unforgettable and much more than just aesthetically pleasing to the ear. It brings us to an awareness of his message; a message that ripples across the universe in waves forever etched in the history of mankind; an eternal prose of enlightenment.

The Master of Dance

…I keep on dancing and then, it is the eternal dance of creation. The creator and creation merge into one wholeness of joy. I keep on dancing and dancing.......and dancing, until there is only......the dance. Michael Jackson.

He was a white heat radiating from the stage pulsing with energy and light, and when he danced time stood still. No one could take their eyes off him  nor deny the genius of his artistry. Michael was simply mesmerizing. But what made him different from other great dancers of our age? Michael didn’t move to one genre. He incorporated many styles into his dance and mastered each, making him unique and a force to be reckoned with.

His innate sense of rhythm and timing was a natural gift not acquired through practice, but born in him and gifted from above, and each movement he made was in perfect time to the message contained in his lyrics. Quick-fire spins led to the sensuous sway of hips, and in between, he tap danced and moon walked across the world inspiring and electrifying audiences of all ages.

His passion for the art he excelled at; using every part of his body, heart and soul, was a ballet choreographed by divine communion. Michael on-stage and off, will forever remain irreplaceable.

The Man, the Mirror, the Message

I'm just like anyone. I cut and I bleed. And I embarrass easily. Michael Jackson

Michael. The name, the child, the teenager, the butterfly, the master of his craft, was driven to perfection; inspired to make a change in this world. He was a man made of flesh and blood, a man who had his flaws, eccentricities and demons that chased him. His childhood experiences helped to shape the man he would become, but his drive toward excellence and perfection, and more importantly, the empathy he had for the pain and suffering of others, especially children and our planet, came from another place.

He was a beacon to not only his adorers, but also to the disdainers who recorded and wrote of every aspect of his life. Nowhere could he go without being followed, photographed or questioned. His only sanctuary was Neverland, and that too became tainted through lies that almost destroyed his spirit. He became geographically homeless in a sense, drifting from one country to the next with the little ones he knew he could trust, his precious children.

How much the loss of his childhood, the pain of his teenage years and the many betrayals affected Michael, we will never know, but undoubtedly they left their scars. A brilliant businessman and consummate artist aside, Michael was a sensitive soul; a soul that searched and questioned and dreamed.

I changed. People change. Michael Jackson

We see glimpses of this searching and questioning in images captured of Michael standing before a mirror. The mirror image of self- reflection is intrinsically bound to his message; Michael and the mirror, the mirror and Michael.

What was he thinking as he contemplated his reflection? Was he measuring what he had gained against the price he had paid for his success; the countless tours and rehearsals, the invasive curiosity about his life, the publicity and bad press, the ultimate betrayals and tribulations? Did he ever ask the mirror, “Why me? Why was I chosen to deliver this message?”

Whatever his thoughts, whatever was passing through his mind during those moments, there is a sense of Michael pressing into the mirror as if was trying to merge the physical with the image; as if he saw both as two separate entities.

But, through all his joys and happiness, the trials and pain throughout the years, one thing remained constant; his message.

To heal the world, we first have to heal ourselves. And to heal the kids, we first have to heal the child within, each and every one of us. Michael Jackson

What about the bleeding Earth
Can't we feel its wounds
What about nature's worth?
It's our planet's womb.

The basis of his message isn’t new by any means. Many advocates of peace, love and healing have lent their voices to the peacemaker’s choir. But what made Michael’s voice so different; so special?

He was loved and supported unequivocally, by millions upon millions of people in an age where technology allowed the farthest reaches of our world access to images and sound through the click of a button. He toured extensively, he recorded, and he published and used his craft to rise up onto the world platform. Once there, once he had our hearts lying in his hands, he delivered his message to ears that were open and ready to hear. No one before has been able to reach so many people at the same time.

Michael’s legacy more than anything, is his humanitarianism; his unselfish giving of time, money and love. It wasn’t just empty words he spoke, he lived his message and he believed in it with all his heart and soul. For us now, the one’s left behind, a duty falls on our shoulders to make sure his legacy is continued into the future. Let not our words be empty. Let not our actions disprove what he worked so hard for and ardently believed in. We have this one chance given to us so let’s make it count. Let’s make that change in ourselves, and then change the world for our children and for Michael. It is the greatest honor we can give a man who sacrificed so much for us.

© Valmai Owens, 2011
Director of Publications/Editor-in-Chief
Dot to Dot: Keeping Michael’s Legacy Alive

Interview With LaVelle Smith Jr.

His resume is extensive. He’s worked with Diana Ross, the Rolling Stones, Janet Jackson, Beyonce, Teena Marie, and Michael Jackson to name only a few. He’s won numerous awards, including five MTV awards and an Emmy. He’s talented, down-to-earth, genuine, thoughtful, kind, direct yet gentle, and funny. After his first audition for one of Michael’s videos, he was invited to choreograph and tour with Michael on his Bad tour, and was invited back for Michael’s Dangerous and HIStory tours, as well as numerous awards shows, films and other appearances.  He created a new dance routine for BBC’s Move Like Michael Jackson, a show which aired in December 2009, geared to “find Britain’s best MJ-inspired dance act.”

Meet LaVelle Smith Jr., Michael Jackson’s longtime friend and choreographer. LaVelle recently received his Dot in the Michael Jackson Tribute Portrait. I had the opportunity to speak with LaVelle, who graciously agreed to do an interview with us answering some questions the MJTP Team asked, and tell us about his experience with Michael. After spending some phone time with LaVelle, I can see why Michael and he connected so quickly, and why Michael called him a friend for over 20 years.

Valerie:  How did you first get started as a professional choreographer?

LaVelle Smith Jr:  I got started as a choreographer by being an assistant to a choreographer named Barry Lather. Barry Lather got the Rolling Stones tour and couldn’t do it, and so as an assistant they asked me, if they paid me the same money as a choreographer, would I come and do it. And I said, of course I would. And that began.

And also Janet Jackson, about the same time, let me do a number in her Rhythm Nation telefilm.  I did “The Knowledge.”  

And that’s kinda how it started.

Valerie:  You first danced with Michael in the “Smooth Criminal” video in 1987. What was that experience like for you?

LaVelle:  I had just moved to Hollywood about three weeks before the “Smooth Criminal” auditions.  And I auditioned, and got the job.  

I don’t think I really understood the magnitude until I walked onto the sound stage. We were on the same sound stage where they shot Gone with the Wind. It was massive, and we were there for three months. But it changed my life. And Michael said that from the minute he saw me dance that he wanted me to be on his tour.

Valerie:  What was it like to work with and tour with Michael, and what length of time for rehearsal was normal in the course of a day?

LaVelle: Touring with Michael was amazing. I got to see the world. But rehearsals were really hard!  As a concert dancer first, I’m used to hard rehearsals. But this was more than that. We would actually do full-costume dress rehearsals three times a day, and we’d do that for six weeks. And then we went on tour. And Michael’s thinking behind that was, if we can do it three times a day, one time a day is gonna be nothing. And it got everybody a chance to work out lights, special effects, costume changes…it was perfect.

Valerie:  What was it about Michael’s approach to dance that made him stand out as above and beyond all the others?

LaVelle:  Michael’s approach to dance – and of course I adopted the same approach; I love dance to be really organic. I like it to come from a real, real place. It’s really simple to put on music, get up and do some steps. It’s easy. The challenge is to test yourself and not jump at the first thing that comes to your mind. Take a thought, take an idea, and play with it over and over and over again, until it becomes just the right step for that moment of music.

Valerie:  What do you feel is the greatest or most important thing that Michael taught you?

LaVelle:  Michael taught me so many things. I’d say the most important thing is to really not let your ego get in your way of your work. It’s hard.  I’m still working on that!  I am human.  But he taught me that’s something that really has no place in artistry- in true artistry. Leave your ego aside, work with everybody and anybody, learn from everyone, and contribute as much as you can.

Valerie:  What do you think is Michael's greatest legacy?

LaVelle:  I think Michael’s greatest legacy will be his children. But his greatest legacy in entertainment will be his music and the way he revolutionalized dance. Michael changed dance and the way dance is seen on the face of this planet. That is amazing to me.

Valerie:  What moment in This Is It best reveals the true Michael? What scene from the movie is the most representative of Michael’s character and personality?

LaVelle:  I think a great moment in This Is It is…Michael, he wants it right. If it’s not right, he’s gonna hear it and he’s gonna see it. And you really can’t hide from that. If it’s wrong, it’s wrong. 

Valerie:  Can you share a personal experience you had with Michael, or something you witnessed, that would personify Michael’s greatness? Is there a profound, touching, enlightening or even funny experience or conversation you had with Michael the man or Michael the boss, which you can share with us that stands out above all others?

LaVelle:  Once again, there’s so many moments in my and Michael’s relationship! After 23 years?  Many, many things have happened. Many great things; many funny things.

Something that really showed me who he was though, on stage once, we were at a dress rehearsal for I think an award show – I’m not sure, America or Europe. But I had a costume that…blew up in the beginning of the number. And unbeknownst to me, I caught on fire! And all the sudden I see Michael running toward me, throws me over, and starts patting the fire out of my back. And I’m standing there –I’m laying there actually on the ground smoking – you know, just fire coming, you know…smoke coming off of my body. He’s like, “Didn’t you know you were on fire?”

I’m like, “Nope.”

And he’s like, “You were really in the moment!”

And that was kinda funny to me – scary, but funny! That showed that, you know as much as he is a true performer, he’s human. My friend’s on fire, I’m gonna put the fire out.

That’s a moment.  Let me think of something else…

Gosh!  There’s so many. I mean, we used to share so many laughs. I mean, I love to laugh and so did he, and so that made it a lot of fun to work. And sometimes it made it kinda hard to work, because once you start laughing it’s kinda hard to stop.

But, yeah - just goin’ to the ranch – I remember going up to Neverland Ranch and being there for about two weeks, just dancing! And the studio’s open 24 hours. Whatever we needed was there, you know…and if it wasn’t there he made sure somebody got it for us.

And, I think that’s the kind of person he was, and those are the kind of things that stick out. Just generous, loving, funny.  Great to be around.

Valerie:  What would you like the world to know most about Michael?

LaVelle:  I would like the world to know that Michael was a great man. He was funny. He was very human. The same things that bring us joy as humans of course brought him joy. The same things that make us laugh made him laugh. And that work was who he was, and he taught me that it’s a gift, and with that gift there’s a lot of responsibility. You have to share that gift, and he shared his gift with me of dance and music. I try to do that now with anybody that really wants to know.

Valerie:  Imagine Michael looking down on us. What do you think are some of the things he would appreciate the most since his passing?

LaVelle:  You know, I think that Michael would appreciate looking down on us now, just the outpouring of love, and I think dance now is on the forefront. It’s everywhere, and I think he’d really appreciate that because – he would never admit it, but he’s a big part of the reason that dance is such a big part of American culture – videos, obviously. I think he’d get a kick outta that.

And it’s a shame that we don’t share that kind of love and appreciation of a person when they’re with us, so it’s a shame that he has to be looking down as opposed to standing here with us. I think he’d really be appreciative.

Valerie:  If you could say one more thing to Michael now, what would it be?

LaVelle:  Thank you. If I had one more thing to say to Michael it would be thank you. Thank you for everything. It changed my life. It’s allowed me to work with – obviously him – but so many more beautiful artists, and I take everything he taught me and I try to share that with artists on any job I do, commercials, video - whatever I’m doing – film, it’s important to share. I would just say, thank you, thank you, thank you. It changed my life.

Thank you, LaVelle, for sharing this with us.

From June 20th – June 24th of this year, individuals, dance studios, teams and teachers can attend the LaVelle Smith Dance Camp at the Odham County Schools Art Center in Kentucky, USA, and dance with LaVelle and special guest teacher Eddie Garcia, another renowned and talented choreographer who toured with Michael on the Bad and Dangerous tours.

To see the video of LaVelle’s interview, laughs included, please click here. (Thank you, Mary Jane).

By: Valerie, Michael Jackson Tribute Portrait Director of Operations & Administration


© Valmai Owens, 2011
Director of Publications/Editor-in-Chief
Dot to Dot: Keeping Michael’s Legacy Alive

Re-Visitng Neverland

After answering questions from MJTP Team members and volunteers in our Christmas Special, Big Al returns to answer more, including questions from some of our members.

Valmai: What was Michael's favorite ride?

Big Al: I would say the Bumper Cars with the Sea Dragon a close second.

Valmai: Did Prince, Paris and Blanket have favorite rides?

Big Al: They were still too young for the big rides ... they liked all the Kiddie Rides ... the Lolli Swing was probably the favorite.

Valmai: Many people never understood the concept of why Michael built an amusement park. If you could be his voice, what would Michael tell the world?

Big Al: The Amusement Park, along with the rest of Neverland, was built to bring a magical day; a joy filled memory into the lives of all those sick and less fortunate kids who visited Neverland. 

Valmai: How often did Michael invite the underprivileged, handicapped and terminally ill children to Neverland? Once a month, every week or maybe several times a year?

Big Al: During the spring and summer, we tried to do a group every week, sometimes two a week. During the fall and winter we got a lot of rain, so not as often. We did not want the kids to look forward to their trip with great anticipation and then have to cancel due to rain.

Valmai: When a person thinks about an amusement park, typically they think of rides, cotton candy and children. Michael had much more than that; we know he had a zoo. What kind of animals did he have?

Big Al: We had an incredible petting zoo and reptile exhibit. We also had Chimpanzees, Orangutans, Giraffes, Elephants, Alligators, Tigers, Exotic Birds, a Black Bear and a Lion.

Valmai: Do you have any fond memories to share with us about Michael and the animals?

Big Al: Mr. Jackson loved visiting the zoo and enjoyed spending time with all the animals. We had a great group of employees in the zoo; very knowledgeable. Mr. Jackson would learn and retain some new bit of information on every trip to the zoo. I think the one thing that really sticks out, and it took me a while to realize this, but I think the animals knew who he (Michael) was. Does that sound off the wall (no pun intended)? Well ... it is true. I know some animals are smarter than others, but I think they ALL knew Michael. I would visit the zoo at least three times a week. The Chimps really knew me and really liked me, but I am pretty sure every animal down there knew who Michael was… well maybe Big Al (my name sake) the alligator didn't. He would only come up if he was hungry and you had chicken for him. 

Valmai: What was it like to have the animals around the grounds, and did you have any experiences with them? 

Big Al: On occasion the Zoo personnel would take animals down to the front or back yard of the house. One day I was up at the Steam Train and I heard some strange noises coming from the lake. I looked down to see the elephants playing in the lake. It was like being in a Tarzan movie ... totally awesome.

And speaking of the Neverland Zoo… one day I was in the Amusement Park when I got a call on the radio from the girl in charge of the Elephant Department. She asked if I could stop by when I had a few minutes. Since we had no guests on property, I headed to the Zoo. So ... here's the deal ... one of the elephants in the zoo actually belonged to a guy who had several exotic animals, and worked with the TV / Movie / Commercial industries. Since elephants like hanging out in groups, Suzy hung out at Neverland when she wasn't working. Also, the younger elephants learn from the older elephants and Suzy was a great teacher since she was well trained, very gentle and well mannered. So this was a win win situation.

Suzy’s owner also spent a lot of time with the girls in our elephant department teaching them all he knew about elephants. Well ... the request that involved me ... they wanted to do a thank you card to Suzy’s owner, and on that card they wanted a photo of Suzy and Santa Clause. Since I had a very nice Santa suit (yet another fun story), I was asked if I would take part in this thank you card. With permission from the management, the photo shoot was set up.

With my Santa suite on, I climb up on the fence, Suzy walks over and I get on. After several photos, Suzy drops me off at the fence. As I am heading back to the ranch house to change back into my work clothes ... I am stopped ... “Oh, we have one more photo we want to take”. They roll out this aluminum stand that the elephant puts her foot on when the girls clean and trim her feet (a regular event). They explain to me that I am going to sit on this stand, they will march Suzy in front of me, have her turn away from me and give the 'Trunk Up' command. As she raises her trunk her back legs will bend. The idea here is to make it look like the elephant is going to sit on Santa's lap.

I must admit that at this point I was ready to end my thank you card participation, but I said alright. So, with Suzy in position the command is given. Suzy looks back at me as if to say, “Hey, there is someone back there”. I thought this was pretty cool, and I was glad to see that she was concerned with my safety. Once we assured Suzy that all is well, she raised her trunk. Oh wait ... one more photo just to make sure we got the shot ... then it happens ... Suzy passes gas right in Santa's face. Let me tell you, when an Elephant passes gas it is like a giant high speed fan or a blast from a train horn. Once the elephant girls stopped laughing, I asked if we were done. “I need to go get the green speckles out of my Santa beard”. 

Valmai: Is there a campaign set up to support turning Neverland into a museum or public park, and if so, how do we go about volunteering?

Big Al: I have not heard of any plans for Neverland, but I would love to see Neverland open back up. Please read my comment in the last interview. 

Valmai: You’ve shared with us some funny stories. Is there anything that Michael said to you, whether it be profound, funny, moving or enlightening that you feel both you and he would be comfortable with you sharing; that has really stood out for you over the years?

Big Al: I would have to say the time Mr. Jackson was telling me about Earth Song. This was before the History CD was released so I had no idea what he was talking about. But the way he talked about the message and how much it meant to him ... the emotion ... I was almost brought to tears thinking about that conversation the first time (and every time) I heard that song.

Valmai: We often hear from people who met or actually knew Michael, of how just being in his presence seemed to be magical, uplifting, healing; as if his love and light shined through and radiated everywhere he went. From fans who met him, to sick children who experienced a healing effect, to close friends and loved ones, we have heard this many times. Did you ever experience something like this as well?

Big Al: It was always a great pleasure to work for and be in the presence of Mr. Jackson ... and yes, I witnessed his extraordinary positive effect on many people.  

The story and picture of Santa (Big Al) and Suzy the elephant, and the picture above of Bubbles and Michael, have never been published before. Before Big Al sent these to me, only a few of his close friends had ever had the pleasure of seeing them. I am honored and privileged that Big Al shared these for Dot to Dot, and for taking time out of his busy schedule to answer our questions.

Thank you, Big Al.


© Valmai Owens, 2011
Director of Publications/Editor-in-Chief
Dot to Dot: Keeping Michael’s Legacy Alive

Back to Neverland With Big Al Scanlan

From 1990 to 2005, Big Al Scanlan worked at Neverland Ranch as Director of Maintenance. He was responsible for overseeing the grounds and numerous attractions, including the theater, rides and trains. He also became a close personal friend of Michael’s.

In this interview, Big Al answers questions posed by some our team members and volunteers, giving us a rare insight into his time at Neverland, and his relationship with Michael.

Valmai: Big Al, how did you come to apply for the job at Neverland?

Big Al: I got involved in the amusement business shortly after high school. Most of that time was in the safety and maintenance end of the business. When Mr. Jackson purchased the ranch, I was working for a Risk Management Consulting company that specialized in amusement rides. This company was recommended to the MJ representatives by the amusement ride broker in regards to, how to take care of the equipment. I would visit Neverland two or three times a year, either for a safety inspection or to address maintenance issues.

During the first two years Neverland was in operation, I developed a great professional relationship with Neverland as well as a good friendship with the ranch manager.  During one of my closing meetings, I informed the ranch manager that I was getting tired of all the travel (300 days a year) and was thinking of looking for a job at an amusement park. I then told him of two parks I was interested in. His reply shocked me. He said, "What do you think about working here?" 

At this point in time I had no idea what all went on at Neverland as far as all the charity work. I thought this was just a place for Mr. Jackson to have some fun. I was not a Michael Jackson fan, but I was into music enough to know he was an incredibly talented entertainer. I had seen enough of Neverland to know that this place had some serious class, but I really thought working there would be ... well ... boring. I decided that I should hear what the MJ people had to say about my possible employment at Neverland. This turned out to be a very wise decision on my part.    

Valmai:  What was a typical day like when Michael was at home?

Big Al: When Mr. Jackson was home or if we had guests, my day would start around 5.00am with the alarm clock going off. I would clock in at 7.00am, and head to the steam train. There were only two of us at the ranch that could fire up and operate the steam train. One of us would come in early to fire up, and the other would come in around 2.00pm and stay until closing.

Once the steam train was full of steam, I would clean up and put on my formal uniform for the rest of the day. After that, it was stand by and listen to the radio for any requests for a train ride on either train. I would normally rotate back and forth between the trains, running them from one end of the valley to the other and blowing the whistle from time to time. Mr. Jackson enjoyed the atmosphere that the train movement and sound of the whistle added to the magic of Neverland.

Valmai: We know that Michael loved to play jokes on people for fun. Did he ever play one on you? What were some of his funniest pranks?

Big Al: I had only worked at Neverland for a few weeks. It was a very warm day. I was in my suit (and thinking to myself it was a bit hot to be wearing a suit), standing near the front of the amusement park grinding ice for the snow cone machine with my back to the road that runs in front of the park. I see a golf cart full of people out of the corner of my eye; the golf cart stops right behind me. I keep grinding ice and I hear, "Sure is hot today, isn't it?"  I slowly turn around and agree then go back to grinding ice. Then ... WHAM, a water balloon hits me in the middle of the back. As the golf cart speeds off I hear Mr. Jackson say, "It wasn't me". I realized that I was feeling much cooler and a thought ran through my mind, "I have never had a boss throw a water balloon at me, I think this is going to be a fun place to work.”

This incident really sticks out in my mind because I had only been working at Neverland for a few weeks and had not had any contact with Mr. Jackson yet, other than running a few rides for him.

Valmai: Aside from his work in the entertainment field, what did Michael most enjoy doing during his free time? 

Big Al: The only free time I can comment on is his time at Neverland. I believe he enjoyed everything about Neverland; riding on the rides, watching movies, visiting the zoo and without a doubt, water balloon fights!
Neverland gave Mr. Jackson, as well as all his guests, a chance to relax, a chance to escape the everyday stress life gives us. Even if he was on tour or in the studio, he would want to hear all about the day that the guests had at Neverland. It was very important to him that they had the time of their life.    

Valmai: Did you ever have any personal interaction with some of Michael’s most famous friends, such as Elizabeth Taylor or Lisa Marie?

Big Al: During my years at Neverland, I believe I meet them all. The one that really stands out is Gregory Peck. He was in the park with some of his family. He and I were sitting under a big oak tree while watching his family ride some rides. Mr. Peck asked me how I got my start at Neverland and over the next half an hour or so I told him my life story. When he got up to leave he thanked me, and told me I was a fascinating person. He said it with a level of sincerity I will never forget. I was telling myself, “here is a guy who is an absolute icon ... a legend ... and he is fascinated by my life as a Carny ... WOW!”

Valmai: Can you speak about the impact that a day at Neverland had on the children who visited there?  What, if any, miracles did you witness?

Big Al: It is hard to explain what a huge impact a day at Neverland had on the inner city kids and the kids fighting life threatening illnesses. You would almost need to hear it from them. I know that we would receive letters from doctors, nurses, counselors and family members that would absolutely make me cry. Some of those kids were so sick; I think it was a miracle, if only for that one day, that they forgot about their illness. And for the inner city kids, some who had never been out of their neighborhood, the miracle was that they got to see that there is hope. 

Valmai: Did Michael appear to be a happy person at Neverland?

Big Al: Extremely!

Valmai: What was one of Michael's happiest moments?

Big Al: That one I cannot answer. I do believe that seeing the sick and inner city kids having the time of their lives’ at Neverland made him very happy.

Valmai: When you look back on the time spent at Neverland and with Michael, what's the one thing you'll never forget; the memory that stands out in your mind the most?

Big Al: That is one tough question; there are so many incredibly happy memories. I guess if I had to pick one it would be the time I made Mr. Jackson laugh the hardest. (Side Note: I did get to make him laugh several times.) I have to stop here and ask if you can recall the video for “Speed Demon?” The opening when Michael runs into the two fat twins on scooters? If not, stop reading and go watch it. Okay, are you back?

I am in the amusement park area when I get a call on the radio, “Mr. Jackson would like two scooters at the park in a few minutes.”  I grabbed Dan, and we jumped in my golf cart and headed to the barn where the scooters were. Now Dan is about 5 feet 6 inches and weighs about 130 pounds.  I on the other hand, am 6 feet1inch and weigh 320 pounds. By now you may know where this story is going.
Dan and I are heading to the park on the scooters, and when we were about 200 feet from Mr. Jackson, I notice he is looking at me and laughing. I pull up about 6inches from his feet and the words just came out, "Hey Mister, want to autograph my belly?"  He started laughing so hard I thought he was going to cry. 

Valmai: How would you feel about Neverland being re-opened as a memorial park similar to Graceland and do you think that Michael would have wanted this?

Big Al: Absolutely! I know there has been talk, both good and bad, about that possibility. There have been reports of Mr. Jackson saying he hated Neverland and would never live there again. Given the acts of the DA, the sheriff and 'that family', I do not doubt those reports. I believe eventually Mr. Jackson would have re-opened Neverland. Why do I believe that?

During my 15 years at Neverland, sitting at a picnic table under a huge oak tree, I had several long conversations with Mr. Jackson about Neverland. Looking into his eyes and hearing his voice, there is no doubt that the charity work done at Neverland was one of the most important things in his life. In time, I believe the importance of those magical days for those sick and inner city kids would have found its way back into Michael’s heart. The letters from all the doctors and nurses from children's hospitals, and the letters from parents who hung onto the memory of their child and that trip to Neverland, make it very clear how important Mr. Jackson’s charity work through Neverland was.

I became very good friends with a kid with cystic fibrosis (number 1 genetic killer of children). Jeff visited Neverland once with Children's Hospital of Los Angeles and twice as my guest during the annual employee family day. One day after taking it (Neverland) all in, he looked at me and said, "I don't know if I like Michael Jackson the entertainer (Jeff was a Lollapalooza kind of kid) but I am sure I like Michael Jackson the person.”

Jeff truly understood Michael and the importance of Neverland, and as I write this, and hang onto those happy memories of Jeff at Neverland, I understand its importance. If Neverland were brought back to its 'Heyday' condition, and opened to the public part of the time to support itself, and part of the time for invitation only charity events, it would be a win-win situation.

Valmai: When was the last time that you and Michael spoke, and what did you talk about? 

Big Al: My last conversation with Mr. Jackson was during the trial. It was not much of a conversation. Sometimes I would see him in the morning before he left or in the afternoon when he came back. The conversation was more of acknowledging each other. I hope he saw in my eyes how I cared and how much I wished I knew what to do, what to say. This is the first time in a long time that I actually recalled that last conversation. I have a plethora of much happier times I concentrate on.  

Valmai: What do you feel is the greatest gift you received from Michael?  How did he change your life?

Big Al: After spending some time around Mr. Jackson and getting to better understand what he was about; I learned how to be more charitable, not to be judgmental, to do whatever I can to help people less fortunate than I, and to be more courteous and polite. I am a better person, thanks to my time at Neverland and with Mr. Jackson.

Valmai: What would you say is Michael's most profound legacy?

Big Al: I am sure that most people would say his musical career. I, on the other hand, would say his humanitarian accomplishments both known and unknown.

Valmai: If you could have one more day with Michael, how would you spend it? 

Big Al: After reading that question, it took me a long time to get my composure back. I would spend the day thanking him until he made me stop, then I would do my job, entertaining the “Entertainer.”

Valmai: If you could share one thing with the world, what would it be? 

Big Al: If I only knew how ... I would like to let the world know what a truly genuine person Mr. Jackson was.

Thankyou, Big Al, for sharing your special memories with us.


© Valmai Owens, 2011
Director of Publications/Editor-in-Chief
Dot to Dot: Keeping Michael’s Legacy Alive

Under a Microscope

In 1986, Michael was at the height of his fame and a superstar of epic proportions. He had set artistic standards few others could ever hope to attain to, and had risen from the cute, multi-talented child fronting the Jackson 5, to become a worldwide phenomenon. He had broken ground, broken rules, broken down barriers, and gained the love and support of millions of fans. He had also attracted a great deal of attention from the media.

The shift from extolling Michael’s talents and achievements in the music industry, to scrutinizing his personal life wasn’t exactly subtle. His philanthropy and humanitarianism was greatly ignored by the press, in favor of examining his changing appearance and lifestyle. Under the watchful eyes of the world, Michael was put under a microscope to be analyzed, discussed, questioned, speculated on and ridiculed. A lot that was written about him was based on only the smallest grain of truth, but it made headlines.

When National Enquirer published pictures of Michael sleeping in a hyperbaric chamber, along with the report that he was using it to help keep him alive until he was 150, the consensus was and still is by the tabloids, that he had deliberately staged the whole thing as a publicity stunt. If this is correct then it worked, because it caused sensational headlines around the world and drew even closer scrutiny from the media and public alike.

Did Michael leak this story and others that followed? In an interview with Will Doig of Nerve, which was published  December 5, 2006, Iain Calder, who was editor for the National Enquirer when the story of the hyperbaric chamber was run, gives us his version of how it all unfolded.

Doig: Most people assume that celebrities hate the National Enquirer, but actually they've often worked in concert with the magazine to put together certain stories.

Calder: Sure. They'd work with us behind the scenes; get their faces on the cover, then go to their cocktail parties and say, "I don't know how that rotten rag got that story." We ran a front-page picture of Michael Jackson sleeping in a hyperbaric chamber. We got sent the picture by one of his representatives. He said, "He sleeps in there because he thinks he's going to live past one hundred." I looked at the picture, and I said, "That looks like Michael Jackson, but I can't tell if it's really Michael Jackson. This guy is probably sending us a phony picture." Sometimes people would try to catch us on various things so they could say, "Look, the Enquirer is false!" So I said, "Send me another picture where I can really see its Michael Jackson." Well, a few days later I get another picture of Michael. He'd climbed back into that box and got his picture taken again.

Doig: And you ran it.

Calder: We ran it, under two conditions from Michael's people: it had to be front page, and we had to use the word "bizarre." Because that was his shtick at the time: Michael is bizarre. So we ran it with the story. We said "bizarre." The whole bit. And it sold very well. Then Michael went on television and said, "How did they get that picture? Yes, I was in there, but I don't sleep in it, blah blah blah . . .
The Enquirer also reported Michael as saying, “I've taken several long naps in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber and when I awoke I felt like a new person - I've never felt better. I definitely want one for my home so I can sleep in it at night. I plan to get one immediately. I want to live to see world peace, a world without hunger, a world where children and all mankind know no suffering.
I believe if I treat my body properly I'll live to be at least 150."

Interestingly, the Enquirer failed to mention that Michael first became aware of hyperbaric chambers and oxygen therapy, that helps to  speed the healing process for burn victims, after he himself received horrific burns during the filming of the Pepsi commercial in 1984. But sources seem to differ here.  It is said that he saw the chamber at Brotman Memorial Hospital and with the $1.2 million settlement he received from Pepsi, donated the money to the Michael Jackson Burn Center. One of the machines that was purchased was a hyperbaric chamber and it was suggested that he try it out for himself. He climbed inside it and pictures were taken. Other sources claim that he actually underwent oxygen therapy to help heal his burns.

In The Magic, The Madness, The Whole Story, Randy Taraborrelli writes that it was Michael’s idea to promote this story, not only as a gimmick to promote the film Captain EO, but also to see what sort of a reaction he would get from it. Taraborrelli also writes that Michael had been angered by other untrue stories written about him by the media, and that with this story he could get the satisfaction of knowing he had tricked them into believing it.

In the time that directly followed the hyperbaric chamber hoopla, other stories printed by the media were also said to have been leaked, notably the one concerning Michael’s offer to buy the bones of Joseph Merrick (the Elephant Man). Although this was found to be untrue, it caused another round of sensational headlines and high ratings for publications, proving that people in general were prepared to believe anything they read. As the gossip spread and tabloid media began making up their own stories, Michael was eventually dubbedWacko Jacko by British tabloids, a title he came to detest.

In 1993, Oprah Winfrey interviewed Michael at his Neverland Ranch, and during its course he finally dispelled some of the myths and rumors that had surrounded his life for so long. He freely admitted that he had bought the hyperbaric chamber and had donated it to the Brotman Medical Center, but refuted claims that he had purchased it for himself and slept in it to slow down  the aging process, stating that he was not afraid to grow old.

Michael: It's crazy. Why would I want to sleep in a chamber?

Oprah: The rumor was that you were sleeping in the chamber because you didn't want to grow old.

Michael: That's stupid. It's completely made up. I'm embarrassed. I'm willing to forgive the press, or forgive anybody, I was taught to love and forgive, which I do have in my heart, but please don't believe these crazy, horrifying things.

Michael further denied any knowledge of how the National Enquirer came to print the story and emphatically denied claims he had leaked the story himself as a publicity stunt. The photographs were easily explained. He had simply climbed in the chamber to check it out and with most things Michael did, there was always a photographer close buy to capture the moment.

As far as buying the bones of Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man?

Oprah: Did you buy the Elephant man's bones? Were you trying to get them for...

Michael: No. That's another stupid story. I love the story of the Elephant Man, he reminds me of me a lot, and I could relate to it, it made me cry because I saw myself in the story, but no I never asked for the...where am I going to put some bones?...

Michael: ....and why would I want some bones?

Oprah: I don't know. So where did that story come from?

Michael: Someone makes it up, and everybody believes it. If you hear a lie often enough, you start to believe it.

Unfortunately most publications discounted Michael's explanations as lies, a practice the media would continue until the day he died. As he remarked to Taraborelli:

Why not just tell people I'm an alien from Mars. Tell them I eat live chickens and do a voodoo dance at midnight. They'll believe anything you say, because you're a reporter. But if I, Michael Jackson, were to say, "I'm an alien from Mars and I eat live chickens and do a voodoo dance at midnight," people would say, "Oh, man, that Michael Jackson is nuts. He's cracked up. You can't believe a single word that comes out of his mouth."

Michael refers to the attention given him by the press several times in his book, Moonwalk:

The media write weird stuff about me all the time. The distortion of the truth bothers me. I usually don’t read a lot of what is printed, although I often hear about it.
I don’t understand why they feel the need to make up things about me. I suppose if there’s nothing scandalous to report, it’s necessary to make things interesting.

….Gradually, as I lost weight, my face took on its present shape and the press started accusing me of surgically altering my appearance, beyond on the nose job I freely admitted I had, like many performers and film stars. They would take an old picture from adolescence or high school, and compare it to a current photograph……It’s really not fair to make comparisons. They have said I had bone surgery done on my face. It seems strange to me people would jump to that conclusion and it was very unfair.

I can’t help but pick up on some of the criticism leveled at me at times. Journalists seem willing to say anything to sell a paper. They say I’ve had my eyes widened, that I want to look more white. More white? What kind of statement is that? I didn’t invent plastic surgery. It’s been around for a long time. A lot of very fine, very nice people have had plastic surgery. No one writes about their surgery and levies such criticism at them. It’s not fair. Most of what they print is a fabrication. It’s enough to make you want to ask, "What happened to truth? Did it go out of style?"

It is clear that Michael was more than just a little bothered by the criticism and distortion of truth printed by the media. With his privacy invaded at every turn and innuendos and allegations running rampant, who can blame him?

When you look at photographs of Michael taken during his 2005 trial, you see a man  broken, beaten and tortured. You get a sense of him physically and spiritually shrinking before our very eyes. His eyes are haunting and speak of his disappointment, pain, disbelief and agony of soul. I don't believe Michael would have wished this on himself for anything, anymore than I believe he was aware of just how hungry the tabloids were go to get sensational headlines, even if they had to bend a few truths to get them. If anything, Michael might have under-estimated the power of words and how they could be used and twisted to destroy a life. 

Did Michael leak stories to the media, and in doing so help to set a trend for what was to follow? Assuming he did, do you think that if he hadn’t leaked these stories would there have been the same focus on his personal life? Would the press still have diligently and persistently tried to destroy his character and tear him down?  I’m inclined to believe they would, but that’s just my personal opinion based on what I have read and come to understand from watching the tabloids ply their trade. It really comes down to the individual’s viewpoint and perspective, and at the end of the day, it's only a matter of opinion.


Moonwalk, Michael Jackson, 1988.

The Magic, The Madness, The Whole Story, J. Randy Taraborrelli, 1991.

© Valmai Owens, 2011.
All Rights Reserved. No re-production withour permission from author.

Director of Publications/Editor-in-Chief
Dot to Dot: Keeping Michael’s Legacy Alive