How I Got in a Michael Jackson Video

The last blog entry was about meeting Martha Graham, who, I think, was part of a wave that made the post-war U.S. a cultural force for the rest of the world. I can almost hear the yawns.

Today’s post is how I got to be in a music video with another modern dancer, and a well-known singer, ‘King of Pop,’ Michael Jackson. If I mention this bit of history from my life (or should I type “HIStory?”) to people, they can’t seem to get enough –“Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough!” Right?

Before you too get all star-struck on me, my part was mostly just showing up. And I almost didn’t do that. Still, I do think I have a good story.

Here’s some background.

I wasn’t a huge fan of Michael Jackson’s music. I know there are his fans out there who would have killed to go in my place. But from the mid-80s, I couldn’t stand the non-stop airplay of all the songs from the Thriller album on the radio and MTV. The last Michael Jackson song I liked was “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough.” In college, bands like The Cure, early U2, The Smiths, Echo and the Bunny Men and the later Beatles music reached me a lot more.

Then there were the child molestation charges. To me, it seemed strange that he had all these little boys coming to his home and ‘sleeping over.’ And I couldn’t understand, or at least appreciate, how any parents would have allowed that for their kids. It looked to me like Michael Jackson was trying his wealth and fame to get away with something terrible.

It repulsed me beyond belief hearing people take his defense when I think the same people would probably say his behavior with little boys sounded a little strange if it were anyone else.

In the nineties, I had been doing some extra work and auditioning for small parts and commercials in New York. Stanley, my agent, had all kinds of people coming into his office and all sorts of people’s headshots on his walls, absolutely desperate people and people who were getting casted in big parts on TV or in movies. I talked to people on the West coast who said they heard of him, and maybe a lot of people knew him. Over the phone he sounded intimidating. He would answer with a firm voice “Stanley.” I might say, “Michael Chabler, checking in.” And he might say, “Call me later,” unless he had a job that might fit, where he would ask me questions, such as “Do you have a police uniform?” In person, he was a big guy with with horn rimmed glasses and scraggly hair and the kindest person you could talk to.

Some days before he sent me to the Michael Jackson video, I was over at Stanley’s office/apartment. His son, who was around eleven, had spent the day dancing in a video shoot with Michael Jackson and he asked for him to come back the next day. I think Stanley heard me express my wariness of the situation.

So when a week or so passed and I asked whether there were any jobs, he told me there was a “Spike Lee video,” and I showed up for the shoot, along with a couple hundred other extras, at the Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens, where I found out I was going to be in a Michael Jackson video, that Spike Lee was directing. Maybe we weren’t supposed to know until we showed up or maybe Stanley tricked me or maybe he just called it a Spike Lee video because he was the director–I’ll never know. I needed the money at that point and I couldn’t just walk off and expect that Stanley would ever book me again if I did such a thing.

And I guess I thought this was going to be interesting.

Being an extra is sometimes a little like being in the army, at least because you’re often part of a large group, and they’ll tell you where to go and where not to go, how and where to stand or where to sit and what to do while sitting. If you’re an extra, you’re the background colors on someone’s canvas.

After organizing us and briefing us on what would be happening, the choreographer came out to go through the movements. She was a slightly petite, attractive, fit and shapely, African American with hair like Beyonce´’s.

She went over the clapping, turning our heads and raising our arms we were supposed to do during certain words from the song’s chorus:

All I really want to say
Is they don’t really care
About us!

As she went through it with us again, she said, “This is some deep shit Michael’s saying.”

A little later, a few people laughed about that, repeating, “deep shit.” This was, of course, from Michael Jackson’s HIStory album, in response to the child sex abuse allegations that he had just finished going through.

Soon Spike Lee and others were sitting in front of us, watching us rehearse. One guy, an African American, started saying “Uh-huh” and “Hey-haw” the way Michael Jackson sang with his high pitch while moving his buttocks away from the rest of the body, then saying with his right arm and fist moving up and down in the air, “everybody,” clearly mocking Michael Jackson.

Mr. Spike Lee was watching everything and clearly not amused, with an expression of anger, apparently thinking, “Who’s this clown?”

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Jackson and Lee on set

Then a large, muscular African American guy said, “Ok, we’re all going to all have fun and respect each other. But if we hear any ‘hey-haws’ from anyone they’re going home. Do you understand?”

We all said “yes,” and that was the end of Michael Jackson impersonations.

 

They took us to a changing room where the wardrobe people fit us into prison clothing and the checked in our personal items. Then they took us to the large room that was supposed to be the prison mess hall. We sat at metal tables where we each had shiny metal trays. We continued to rehearse.

Then they brought in the stand-in for the rehearsal, an African-American guy that they splashed a bunch of white makeup onto. We all thought it was a strange site and quietly talked about it to each other at my table.

I made some jokes about being one of the token white guys with the other people at my table and had them laughing.

Then some people came around with the “food” for our trays, that we were to leave alone until shooting started. I think I made some jokes about our delicious dinner, but I also worried. “Would there be meat on the tray — would I have to eat it?” I wondered. I had already been a vegetarian for a few years and was committed to not swallowing any meat. Sure enough they had something with gravy and some kind of meat.

Meanwhile, they started preparing us for Michael’s entrance.  The stand-in went away and Spike walked next to Michael with his arm around him protectively. When Michael walked on his own, there seemed to be a nervousness. We were watching him and he was like the shy, new kid in class.

His face was pale and his nose was thinner than a pencil. I later, perhaps cruelly, joked privately to a friend that Michael went to the same plastic surgeon as The Joker.

During the shoot, I directed my jokes toward the people’s reaction. We went through some run-throughs and Michael got on top of the table in front of mine to do a little dance. There was a guy at the table whose face turned to stone, as if God had just danced there. We had to stop and God (or Michael) went through the dance moves a few times again.

I said, “Look at him,” pointing out the stone faced guy. People at my table started laughing, but they tried to do it in a controlled way. The guy next to me said, “Oh Lord help me!” as he continued to laugh as quietly as he possibly could.

When the shooting started, we had to eat our “food.” They told us that we’re supposed to be really hungry. I thought, “Ok, I’m not that prisoner. I’m a little disturbed and rebellious and I hate the food, and I’m a little like an animal.” So when I shoved anything with meat into my mouth, I spit it back out rapidly, in a cannon blast. I noticed that one of the cameras was near me. I hoped that was going to be ok.

Later in the shoot, we were supposed to get up. Michael was on top of one of the tables right near me. I could see a look in his eyes, as if he thought he was a messiah leading all of us. Our eyes met. I looked at him thinking, “you’re not a messiah–you’re totally delusional and nuts!”

Later we were dismissed and went to dinner. I remember the food being very good with a lot of variety, some things probably a little expensive. It was catered from some service in the area. They picked some people to do another scene and dance with Michael, but I wasn’t one of them. Then the people who were doing the additional scene joined the rest of us for dinner.

After the shoot, I didn’t hear much about this video for while. I heard that they shot something down in Brazil for this song. I started to worry — did I screw this up? I could just see Spike in the editing room looking at footage. “Look at that guy. Do you see that? We can’t use that footage,” he could have said. ”

I found out later that there were two videos for this song, one they shot in Brazil and one they shot in Queens, where I was. I hope that had nothing to do with me!

Years later, I was working a teleprompter operator. One of the guys I worked with told me he did a job with Michael Jackson. He said that he had a whole bunch of toys and board games in his dressing room, like a kid might have. Then before the shoot, Michael asked a group of people how he looked. They all went gushy and told him he looked “fabulous.”

It was clear that he was surrounded by people who always flattered him. It sounded almost sad. But I wondered what anyone could have said. Who could tell him there was something wrong with the way he looked?

When I heard he had died, I strongly suspected he had a doctor who wouldn’t say “no” to him, even when he should. And I told people I thought that, before he was in criminal trouble.

I had disliked Michael because I thought he molested children and for his bizarre behavior that followed the video shoot, when he dangled his son from a Berlin hotel balcony.

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Michael Jackson dangles his son from a Berlin hotel balcony in 2002

But after he died I wondered if he didn’t have the same understanding of reality as the rest of us. That doesn’t excuse what he did, or make it a good idea.

I remembered that before I had lost my virginity, I thought it was no big deal to sleep in the same bed with a few female friends I had, where nothing sexual would happen. I wondered if Michael Jackson was a virgin when he died. A few others have wondered the same thing.

A few years ago Rabbi Boteach appeared on news shows with his recordings of telephone conversations with Michael. He shared a lot of personal information with this friend. You

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Michael with Rabbi Boteach

can hear him talking about all the abusive memories with his father. Did his father screw him up and his fame and wealth enable staying or being more screwed up?

Did his father’s abuse turn him into a child molester? Or was he stuck in childhood with a distorted view of reality, where his relations with little boys were more innocent? Maybe that’s a naive thought, but we might never know.

As I told someone, “it’s one thing to hear about someone you never met who’s died. But if you stood in front them, as close as I am to you, and looked them in the eyes, you can’t help from feeling a little sad.”

His death probably leaves many of us with conflicting feelings and judgements about him and the public when he was alive.

Note about Stanley: He had an office near the World Trade Center. He’s been out of contact. Last I’ve heard is that he’s been sick.

 

 

 

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