Jacko Can't Sell Out Carnegie, But Looks for a Date

It was the kind of Valentine's Day gift you could only hope for: Michael Jackson, live at Carnegie Hall, in a self-billed "Valentine's extravaganza" called, "Love, Work, and Parenting: Can You Be a Success in the Bedroom, the Boardroom, and the Family Room?" 

Last night, Jackson — busy on his campaign to revive his sagging career — took over the famed recital hall on West 57th for his much- anticipated panel discussion on children. It was a night of psychedelically bad taste, with excursions into the bizarre, the weird, and outright insane. It culminated with a speech read from a TelePrompter by the star in which he complained of not being able to get dates with women. 

First of all, Jackson was unable to sell out the house, which should be his main concern. According to an usher who'd worked at Carnegie Hall for 20 plus years, the great space was "70 percent full." Indeed, there were rows and rows of empty seats in the back half of the orchestra section. This reporter was given a seat in row T on the side, but there were so many vacant seats I was able to move up to row 3, on the right-center aisle. Not bad. 

Around me were a number of foreign-speaking people and several followers of Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, who is Jackson's latest project. Or is it vice versa? Hard to say. The rabbi, who claims to have taught at Oxford University, is a short, broad man with a booming voice and a clipped brown beard. He says he is 34, and last week he and his wife had their seventh child. Shmuley, as he is called, is the author of a book called Kosher Sex. He and Jackson met through the mentalist Uri Geller. And to my mind, he is quite a hustler. 

Boteach (pronounced boh-tay-ach) has started a charity with Jackson called Time for Kids. It's part of Jackson's Heal the World charity. Every stage bill in Carnegie Hall included a card on which you could check off the amount you wanted to contribute to the cause, although there is no explanation for where this money might be going. Indeed, one Shmuley follower, a nice-looking young man, didn't seem to know the name of the charity even though he worked on it. "I'm with Time for Kids," he said, then corrected himself. "Heal the Kids? Whatever it's called." 

Meanwhile, in the audience were also a bunch of fringe fanatic Jackson fans: A middle-aged woman wearing a fire-engine-red T-shirt that read on one side "Michael Let Me Hug You" and on the other "Leave Him Alone — Stop Filthy Press." 

Another woman, around 28, well-dressed, sobbed uncontrollably two rows behind me as she clutched a dozen red roses for Michael. Yet another, who had a European accent, carried a basket of at least $100 worth of flowers to present to the singer. And one more, roughly the same age, who recognized me, was a film editor at a local movie studio. She couldn't complete her salutation to me because she was shaking and crying as she looked for her seat. 

Maybe these are the women Jackson could be dating. 

Operations director of Heal the Kids, Toba Friedman — who is absolutely not related to this reporter in any way — introduced Boteach. She made a point of thanking various sponsors and friends including Frank Tyson, the young man who is "Michael's close friend" and personal assistant. 

Friedman did not introduce the panel of experts sitting on the dais at two separate tables. At the left table: Puff Daddy/O.J. Simpson defense attorney Johnnie Cochran, talk show host "Mother Love" and Dr. Stanley J. Greenspan, a clinical professor of pediatrics and psychiatry at George Washington University. At the facing table: Former MTV shrink and professional hack Dr. Drew Pinsky, book editor and Fox News personality Judith Regan and Boteach himself. Only two African-Americans on the panel, and they were seated together. So much for Heal the World. But of course, this was Time for Kids. Or whatever. 

Boteach is impossible to like. When he speaks he is oily. You can't figure out what he wants besides money. And, "money for what?" is a good question. The theme of this charity is two-pronged: "You should spend time with your kids" and "Michael Jackson is maligned." Boteach tells a lot of very bad Borscht Belt-type jokes that make the audience groan collectively. He's supposed to be in favor of children — he has seven! — but tells a story about a kid on a plane who's "evil incarnate — I hated him." 

He said, "Imagine cheating on your children with other people's children," which is supposed to be an analogy to spousal infidelity but sounds kind of icky in its setup. He's Shmuley, not Shecky, and it shows. 

Boteach then launches into his Jackson defense, which this column first heard in November. Jackson takes terminally ill kids to Never-Neverland. There's always a lot of bald children in the stories, which is not in any way to minimize the seriousness of kids with cancer, but Boteach manages to make it sound like a pity project. 

He says Jackson, "the greatest recording artist of all time," who, "has the best-selling record of all time," loves children as if the first two items, which are questionable at best, make it possible for the third. He says Jackson is, "playful ... curious ... inspiring ... and a great pleasure." He fails to mention that there is still an open investigation against Jackson stemming from charges made in 1993 by an underage boy that Jackson molested him. Jackson paid the kid, the son of Dr. Evan Chandler, $25 million in a settlement. The case, according to the prosecutor, can be reopened at any time. 

But then came Michael, wearing an all-black suit with a white shirt, Peter Pan collar sticking out. He looked much the same as he did in November — very pale. There was a rush to the stage by eager, weirdo fans including one wearing a Sgt. Pepper-type bandleader's outfit. 

Jackson read from the TelePrompter a prepared speech about children being replaced by video games. At one point his voice trembled and it seemed as though he might cry. A fan called out: "Don't cry, Michael! We love you." 

Jackson said: "I'm having trouble finding a date for myself even though Rabbi Shmuley tells me he's going to find me the perfect woman. And I tell him, as long as it's not a journalist!" 

Jackson did not mention his two failed marriages, but did bring up his two children, Paris and Prince, who live with him and not their mother — and look as much like he did as a child as they do Britney Spears

"Michael, I love you!" one girl shouted out and wiped tears from her eyes. 

"I love you, too!" Jackson said, and exited stage left. The program, for which the top ticket cost $65, was only twenty minutes old. The rest of the evening was devoted to the other speakers including Dr. Greenspan who plugged his new book, and Regan, who attacked her ex-husbands and accused the first of being a terrible father. It was not a terribly healing speech.