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Michael’s media circus
Inside Santa Maria’s three-ring spectacle


The media found whatever vantage points they could find to catch a glimpse of the troubled star. Here camera crews park themselves atop the offices of Michael B. Clayton and Associates.

Michael Jackson’s arraignment at the Santa Maria Courthouse the morning of Jan. 16 spanned far beyond the boundaries of a media circus, entering the realm of cultural extravaganza.

Santa Maria, a relatively anonymous city known for tri-tip sandwiches, farm workers, strawberries, Robin Ventura, Mark Brunell, and Camelot Park, was center stage. The event felt much like going to a sold-out rock concert at the Los Angeles Coliseum, with neighbors selling parking spots on their front lawns.

Three news helicopters flew overhead, adding to the sound of the growing crowd and mayhem gathered on Miller Street. A small Latino woman informed others in broken English that there was a truck nearby handing out free shirts reading, “I support Michael,” and “We love Michael Jackson. Living King.”

The workers inside the back of the Ryder truck couldn’t hand out shirts fast enough to the mobs of onlookers, supporters, and assorted media members. Moms had their small children pushing closer to get the coveted free souvenirs—paid for by fan clubs? The defense team? Record companies? The Nation of Islam? Who knows—like Mike, the jury is still out on that.

Attendees to the event were not without refreshments. Hot dogs, baked goods, and traditional Santa Maria tri-tip were available for sale on each corner of the block. “Access Hollywood’s” Pat O’Brien, donning a Burberry scarf, was perched atop the roof of Michael B. Clayton’s law office (inquiries to the office as to how much a spot on the roof cost were not answered) across the street from the courthouse, a stone’s throw away from the “Entertainment Tonight” media tent.

Michael Jackson arrived in Santa Maria Jan. 16 to a horde of gawkers, journalists, and supporters during his arraignment for child molestation charges.

Traffic on Miller was near stopped as media, fans, and assorted onlookers crossed from one side to the other, making even the police K9 dog a little nervous. Perhaps it was at the sight of the hired security from the Nation of Islam (Jackson is now a member of the Nation; insinuating that he now feels this is a case of racial discrimination), or the sheer madness of the estimated 1,500 people gathered on one block.

A small circle of Jackson’s family members, close friends, a Charlie Chaplin look-alike, and girls in matching FUBU outfits held hands and sang gospel songs. One passerby took the opportunity to shout out an impromptu sermon.

Supporters carried homemade signs, a large beaded mural, babies, and even a red Macaw on a leash through the masses, all hoping for the best vantage point to await the world icon’s arrival.

Advertising opportunities abounded. Signs promoted the release of Michael’s new album, Number Ones, while other people chose to market assorted goods. A man clad in a suit of plastic chrome armor marched up and down the sidewalk with a sign that read A disheveled elderly man missing teeth, eating a tri-tip sandwich, and donning a Russian Ushanka for his head—complete with sickle and hammer—promoted with a canvas banner festooned with stray bits of tri-tip from his breakfast. Motto: “Let common sense prevail.”

Seemingly missing were the planes flying overhead with banners for Bacardi and ads for the Super Bowl on CBS. Also missing were outhouses, face painters, clowns, a marching band, and beer. There were, however, Michael Jackson impersonators and ample amounts of dogs on hand.
Hodgepodge media groups of dapper newscasters and groggy, coffee-toting camera and soundmen scurried about, talking to anyone who was willing to listen. A Righetti High School journalism student in a miniskirt and flip-flops trailed behind them, gathering man-on-the-street interviews.
As Michael’s arrival grew near, a second regiment of security from the Nation of Islam was dispatched to the street across from the courthouse, proudly filing down the road in their signature suits. They now lined both sides of the street, newspapers with headlines proclaiming “Justice” tucked under their arms. Needless to say, their formal, stoic presence was somewhat daunting, but police seemed able to keep the situation relatively under control. It may have seemed like a mess to some, but as one attendant Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s officer said, “It’s our mess.”
The first limousine to come down the street, an obvious decoy, was greeted with a veritable stampede of fans and media. To an alarming number of attendees, this was an event of biblical proportions. In a time where popular culture is a religion to many, Michael Jackson is an icon that has managed in some way to withstand the test of time, carry on his fame no matter what the charge.

A Michael Jackson impersonator joins the hoopla, giving her best impersonation of the besieged star.

Indeed, the man has put out some of the greatest pop music albums of all time, and most will agree that throwing Off the Wall on the record player will be sure to liven up any party. Wearing a remarkably feminine, military-inspired outfit and flanked by security, lawyers, and an attendant holding his now-famous umbrella, all eyes were on Jackson as he exited the limo. Crowds rushed to catch even a glimpse of the back of his head.
Invitations to an “arraignment after-party” at Neverland circulated through the crowd. It was to be Michael’s thank-you to his fans for showing their support that crisp, sunny January morning. He danced on top of his car after leaving the court, and word on Highway 154 Friday morning was that traffic to the Neverland party was backed up for 3 miles. A true example of contemporary American pop culture at its best.

Janet Jackson was among several family members who accompanied Michael Jackson during his arraignment in Santa???.jpg

Arts Editor Brandi Stansbury is a pop-culture junkie.

In Las Vegas, the show goes on without Jackson

Editor’s note: When news broke that Michael Jackson was being sought for allegations of child molestation, the world’s media descended upon Las Vegas in December where Jackson was filming a new show. Humorist Harmon Leon was there and took advantage of an opportunity to turn the spotlight back onto the media. The images shown here were taken some weeks later in Santa Maria, during Jackson’s arraignment on Jan. 16. The media circus, however, was just as prevalent and silly as ever.


In my Vegas hotel room, onions and sauce drip onto my lap as I bite into a Subway sandwich. My attention is focused on the TV. An arrest warrant has been issued for Michael Jackson. You know, the King of Pop. I switch channels.

Click! “Entertainment Tonight” lets me know what P. Diddy thinks.

Click! Larry King has a bunch of screaming lawyers taking sides.

Click! Click! Click! Yes, the media circus has come to town. There’s a sea of flashing cameras and, afterward, a smattering of sensationalized headlines in bold fancy fonts.

The trial by media loves to build up its celebrity idols, then delightfully tear them down to the smug, ironic detachment of the American viewing public.
We get the same story from CNN as we do “Access Hollywood.” The press keeps our rabid appetite for sensationalism fully satisfied.

It’s time to strike back and hit the sensational media where they live. Fortunately, it’s rumored that Michael Jackson is here in Vegas filming a music video for his now-scrapped CBS special, “Number One.”
A full-fledged media circus extravaganza has set up stage here.
Coincidentally, I have a Toronto camera crew at my disposal. With that, I’m going to infiltrate the Michael Jackson media circus. With my newly fabricated press credentials of Chas Lemon, reporter for an ambiguous Canadian music television network, I call a local news station to find out where my fellow esteemed journalists are staked out.

“You might want to try outside the CMX Sports and Entertainment Studio,” relays a helpful local newswoman. “It’s near the Palms.”
Bingo! After applying a fake goatee and tucking my hair under a Las Vegas beanie, I’m hot on the savage press trail. Let the media-circus games begin!

My camera crew of three drives past the bright lights of the Vegas strip with its mammoth signs. Turning off on Nevso Drive, we perch ourselves on top of the Palms’ parking garage to get a bird’s eye view of the action.
I expected a full media frenzy with such key players as CNN’s Wolf Blitzer and “Entertainment Tonight’s” Mark Steines. Instead, a few satellite trucks are parked across from the studio. Several cameras are poised directly at the gate as if they will capture Michael suddenly moonwalking from the building with his hair on fire, toting a bag of Elephant Man bones.
Basically, they appear bored, waiting for something. From our parking garage vantage, I can see clearly inside the CMX compound, protected by large humorless security guards, with a black SUV parked inside the gates. A few scattered bodies run inside then back out.

“Time to get the big story!” I proclaim to my camera crew as I adjust my crooked goatee. The big story, of course, is to infiltrate the circling media sharks waiting to devour every inch of Michael Jackson’s flesh.

“We’re here in front of the CMX studio. As you can see it’s a regular media frenzy,” I say to our camera. My crew tries to wrangle other reporters to stand in the background to make it look frenzied. I get a comment.

“There’s rumors flying,” offers a reporter from the local paper, “that Michael Jackson is going to be arrested right here.” There’s also the possibility that Michael’s already on his way back to Santa Barbara, he adds.

Again, I address my camera: “You heard it right here in front of the gates of the Michael Jackson video studio! Chas Lemon, Canadian Music Television.”
While waiting for something to happen, the majority of media seems unsure what to do. One older cameraman sits in a lawn chair waiting, simply waiting.

“How long have you been out here?” I ask.

“Eight hours!”

He has yet to see anything. To cheer him up, I point to the Palms’ parking garage.

“You know if you went up to the top deck, you can get a clear camera shot of everything going on inside the entire CMX complex,” I offer with a huge informative smile.

The cameraman’s eyes glaze over, “Oh, really?”

“Yeah, about an hour ago, we filmed Michael getting into a black limo leaving out a back exit!”

Uncomfortable silence, then “Oh.” More uncomfortable silence, then, “I’m basically told just to stay out here. I get paid by the hour.”
After a good night’s sleep, Chas Lemon and ambiguous Canadian Music Television are ready 8 a.m. sharp for day two of the asinine spectacle.
Added to the frenzy are several more bitter reporters, along with a half-dozen Michael Jackson supporters bearing such profound protest signs as

“100% Innocent,” “Leave Him Alone,” and “We Believe In Michael.”
A TV reporter, a kind of faded-cheerleader-looking woman, steps in front of a camera and delivers her diatribe for the morning news with utter seriousness.

“So far there’s no word whether Michael Jackson is inside or has already headed back to Santa Barbara … .”

Within camera range, I stand right behind her, then get on my cell phone and start screaming.


News crews take turns interviewing the half-dozen Michael Jackson supporters, the leader of which is a really bitter looking woman with big hair. She’s the founder of the King of Pop Fanatics and is wearing buttons all over her coat, all featuring her big-haired self with Michael Jackson. She’s a media darling.

“I find it very funny these charges come at the same time his album comes out,” she theorizes, then adds with sarcasm, “That’s really a coincidence!”
She’s also brought along her two teen-age kids—all dressed in black and supporting Michael. Apparently, her chubby and surly 15-year-old son (who’s been on shopping sprees with the Gloved One), skipped school today because “he was just too upset to go.”

Since Chas Lemon and ambiguous Canadian Music Television have to stand in a long line before getting an interview with these media darlings, we move on to a girl wearing a “Beat It” T-shirt with a sign reading “Love Always Michael Jackson.”

“Canadian Music Television would like to ask you a few questions.”
“You’ll have to wait,” she pooh-poohs with a take-a-number attitude. “I have to do another interview first!” Stepping in front of another camera, she asks, “You’re not going to twist my words around, are you?”

“No,” she’s told.

“I’m a nanny,” she says, “and I love kids as much as Michael Jackson does. I have total faith in him. I couldn’t be the fan that I am if I believed any of it.”

Wrapping up the interview, she moves along the press junket to Canadian Music Television.

“Have you ever met Michael Jackson?”

“Yes, and he’s the most down-to-earth, kindhearted person. He has completely no ego,” she expounds.

It seems like the MJ supporters are getting all the airtime. Thus, the need arises to regroup and come back in disguise, posing as yet another Michael Jackson supporter in order to give inane interviews to the press.
Going back to my hotel, I drastically change my appearance, rip off my fake goatee, don thick, black-frame glasses, and put on a big cowboy hat. I top off my look by wearing a Vegas T-shirt with big dice, shorts, and cowboy boots. With magic markers, I concoct two large protest signs: “MICHAEL JACKSON IS NOT ‘BAD’!” and “ALLEGATIONS ‘OFF THE WALL!’”
I catch a snippet of the live press conference. Media ringmaster Santa Barbara County District Attorney Thomas W. Sneddon Jr. is actually doing schtick on TV!

He plays to the cameras, holding court for the sea of reporters. He’s getting huge, Carrot Top-sized laughs, throwing out zingy one-liners about the arrest warrant concurring on the same day as the release of Michael’s new CD.

“Like the sheriff and I are really into that kind of music,” he smugly retorts. Huge laughs. The DA’s killing the crowd.

With signs complete, I choose the pseudonym Monroe Bennett. The plan is, I’ll take my place among the other supporters. Then my camera crew will start interviewing me in order to get the ball rolling with the other news crews.

I waddle unnoticed past the reporters I mingled with earlier, and then rigidly stand undetected right next to the girl I interviewed less than an hour ago. The mom in black eyeballs me with suspicion.

“What does your sign say?” inquires her angry son. I hold up each. The group reads them out loud.

“That’s good,” praises a tall guy whose sign reads “Michael Jackson #1.” He then does a few Michael-esque dance moves. I frantically wave my sign at every vehicle that passes. Still, the media-darling clan doesn’t take me in as its own.
Regardless, contingents of photographers snap our group photo. I scowl, sternly holding up my signs. (One photographer is actually the man who, in the ’80s, snapped Michael with his hair on fire.) My camera crew rushes over and immediately sticks a camera and microphone in my face.

“What do you think of the allegations against Michael Jackson?”

“I think they are off the wall!” I stress in a very high, effeminate voice, hoping that other TV camera crews will hear my interview sound bites.

“Have you ever met Michael Jackson?”

“Yes,” I continue. “On several occasions!”
This gets the attention of the angry kid, who whispers something to his bitter mom. Being a media darling, he usurps my interview and adds his two cents about going to Neverland Ranch.
My cameraman turns the tables. He asks the kid too upset to go to school today, “Has Michael Jackson ever tried to have sex with you?”
“No!” he proclaims in horror. “I can’t believe you even asked me that!”
The 15-year-old wants to beat up my cameraman.

“If he doesn’t get out of here,” he whines to his mom, “I’m going to kill him!”

“Don’t say anything,” explains bitter mom. ”That’s just what they want you to do, get angry.”
A well-groomed TV newscaster sets up his camera right in front of the CMX gate. As he addresses the camera, giving a live update, I park myself behind him and start frantically waving my idiotic signs. For his viewers, Monroe Bennett represents the sea of Michael Jackson fans. He even refers to me during the broadcast.

“As you can see behind me, there are many Michael Jackson supporters here, some who have brought signs … .”
I’m inspired to ham-and-cheese it up in my high, effeminate voice.

The media ball is rolling. I’m granted an on-camera interview (“Fox News”?

“Inside Edition”?!) to speak my mind on the Jackson matter.

“What brings you out here today?” I’m asked.

“I’m here to show my support,” I say, uncomfortably shifting my eyes back and forth. “I work as a Michael Jackson impersonator so I can only get an impression of the pain he must be feeling right now!”
The reporter nods his head with fake concern. “Do you believe the allegations brought against Michael Jackson?”
“It’s a witch hunt!” I add. “When you’re that talented, people get jealous. Just look at other geniuses who have been persecuted, Beethoven … Albert Einstein … Oprah … .”

I then end the interview with a few more chants of “HEY-HEY! HO-HO! ALLEGATIONS GOT TO GO!”

With more moronic sign waving, it suddenly hits me. Instead of being part of a news story, why not, instead, create the news story!
The sole reason these media clowns have perched here for days is to capture Michael Jackson on camera!
That’s just what I’m going to give them. Yes, I’m going to rent a golf cart, hire several Michael Jackson impersonators, and drive them through the gauntlet for a media circus extravaganza.

“I can’t get you a Michael Jackson,” one agency informs us. “But we do have a Tom Jones.”

“No! We don’t want a Tom Jones—we want a Michael Jackson!”
Other agencies get indignant.

“Our Michael Jackson impersonator won’t do it if it’s making fun of Michael Jackson!”

I explain we’re not making fun of Michael, but the press. My parade is rained upon. They request $3,000 for one hour. It’s looking bleak—we might have to go with Tom Jones.

At zero hour we get a call from Pete. God bless Pete! Pete is our celebrity-impersonating savior. First he plays a little hardball. He wants too much money.

“Well, how much would it be just to rent your costume?” we plead.
This makes the Michael Jackson impersonator laugh. He agrees to do it for $350. At that price, he says, there will be no moonwalking! We happily agree. We got our Michael Jackson!

I metamorphose back into Chas Lemon and rent an electric yellow golf cart.
A couple from Idaho pulls their car alongside my golf cart.
“Have you gotten a glimpse of Michael Jackson?” asks the man.
“No. But if you go back to the CMX studio, I guarantee you will see Michael Jackson in 20 minutes.”

“Really!” he exclaims.

“Yes,” I state with conviction. “I guarantee it!”
Moments later, I get the call. It’s show time! I rev up my electric yellow golf cart, spinning a 180 to pick up Michael. When I arrive, Pete looks uncannily like Michael Jackson … if Michael Jackson happens to be really tall, still black, and wears his clothes from the late ’80s. Pete gives a few Michael squeals, some spins, and a bit of moonwalking to show we got our money’s worth.
The plan is to drive through the press gauntlet three times. Michael Jackson gets in my yellow electric golf cart. As we drive toward the circus, I make small talk: “Do you think this will affect your career as a Michael Jackson impersonator?”

“Maybe, but I also do Prince.”

Heading down Nevso Road, our impersonator seems pensive, almost nervous. I give him a little pep talk (hoping his nervousness will make him forget his no moonwalking policy).

“Okay, I’m going to pull the golf cart into the CMX driveway. I’ll sing ‘Beat It.’ You’ll get out in front of everybody, do a few dance moves, and then get back into the cart, then we’ll drive off.”
I reassure him that security guards don’t have the authority to arrest people; they can only call the police who will do the arresting.

“Besides,” I say with a big broad smile, “I don’t think it’s illegal for a Michael Jackson impersonator to drive up in a golf cart! LET’S DO IT!” I scream.
The electric golf cart whizzes closer. The studio is bustling with activity, several more news crews, the local curious, and tourists. I trumpet our arrival clear down the road by continually honking the golf cart’s horn, while loudly belting “Beat It.”


All eyes turn to us; the bitter reporters, the burly security guards, the big-haired mom in black, her two kids.

“Hey what’s going on here,” I scream, as if I just happen to be driving by with an oblivious Michael Jackson. He bellows, “Leave Me Alone!” It takes a second to sink in as Michael waves from the golf cart. First there’s a look of

“maybe that really is Michael,” followed by laughter, and, I’m almost positive, jubilant joy from even the most hardened observers.
For a brief moment, our Michael Jackson actually becomes Michael Jackson. I see the smiling faces, the security guards, the mom with big hair and her angry kids, the media—finally something has actually happened in front of the CMX studio gates.

“Michael, look over here!” shouts one cameraman after another. “MICHAEL! MICHAEL!”

Everyone seems so happy. It feels like 1982 again and the Thriller album has just been released. I can now see the jubilant joy Michael Jackson once brought, as my Michael Jackson keeps crooning “Leave Me Alone,” while I bellow “Beat It!” We drive off, laughing our heads off.
But there’s more. We turn the corner. Wait five minutes, then turn back around and drive through again.

Michael, now out of his shell, hams it up for the cameras as we zip past without stopping. I belt out “Thriller!” A few older, bitter newsmen give a look like “You’re making a complete mockery of our media circus.” We speed out of sight.

Five minutes later: HONK! HONK! HONK!
This time the security guards aren’t smiling so much. I break into “Billie Jean,” creating a bigger commotion by blocking all the traffic behind us. Like Pavlovian monkeys, the press once again goes apeshit. Michael gets out of the cart and does a few spins, totally ham-and-cheesing.


“Leave me alone! Leave me alone!” he sings while pointing at their flashing cameras. I get out of the golf cart and start dancing beside Michael Jackson, doing my rendition of the moonwalk and robot. It’s simply beautiful. The moment’s short lived as the cars behind us start honking. The large security guard lumbers towards us.

“Michael, time to get back in the cart,” I instruct to his dismay. He is thoroughly enjoying his moment in the sun. We once again speed off in our yellow golf cart into the Vegas setting sun and the glow of the early evening glittering lights.

“Wow! This has been the weirdest gig I’ve ever had,” Michael Jackson confesses to me in a quieter moment. And then we decide to go back one more time.


Yes, there’s nothing like overkill as the subtext of my loud horn says, “Hey! Here we come again!” ?

Harmon Leon is a Bay Area humorist who loves a good laugh.

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