The word from the Neverland ranch (search) isn't good.
Randy Jackson (search), working toward a deadline of tomorrow, has been on the phone frantically calling members of the extended Jackson inner circle asking for financial help. He solicited a loan for $200,000 from one major insider who turned him down.
Other potential lenders are not materializing. And there's a problem: Michael Jackson, it's pointed out, is not allowed to borrow any more money per his agreement with Bank of America. He has outstanding loans there of $350 million, not $270 million as erroneously reported on another Web site.
I'm told the still-unpaid house staff staged a walkout last night at midnight. According to my sources, this is just a preview of what's to come if there are no paychecks tomorrow morning at Michael's fantasy playground estate.
This morning, according to sources, a furious Michael Jackson — who was finally filled in on these subjects — announced that his brother Randy was "out" as his overseer. If his decision sticks, Michael would be absent a manager of any kind for the first time in several years.
Jackson of course has another option: his sister Janet, a multimillionaire in her own right thanks to many hit records and sold-out tours. Janet, according to insiders, already makes substantial contributions to the family finances and is unlikely to help out this time.
"This is just a Band-Aid approach," said a source. "Even if they get the money this week, how will they meet the next payroll?"
Lisa Marie Presley had a hit called "Lights Out in Memphis," but she never could have dreamed up this scenario concerning her ex-husband: the lights could be out at Neverland today.
It seems that Michael Jackson's famed ranch and retreat, the site of many good works and also some nasty allegations, could be losing its staff.
Sources have confessed to me that last Friday, for the second week in a row, the payroll was not met.
Many operating expenses, including the phone and electricity bills, have gone unpaid as well.
The blame for all this is being laid at the feet of Randy, who took control of the pop star's finances and life about a year ago when brother Jermaine and the Nation of Islam got the boot.
Randy is highly unpopular among Michael's loyalists, but what took place last Friday seems to have been the breaking point.
Staffers who went home again without checks were told that Randy would make good on salaries by yesterday. When that didn't happen, he was given a deadline of this morning to come through — or else.
I'm told that chaos ensued on Friday when Michael came home after a long day in court.
He had to face his father, Joseph Jackson, who'd been summoned by Michael's accountant Alan Whitman.
Joseph and his wife Kathryn have remained at the ranch ever since, keeping the peace among ranch workers who are ready to walk.
So what's going on?
This column was first to write about Jackson's financial woes back in July 2001. As others have speculated about his ownership of the Beatles catalog and of Neverland itself, we've been on the case trying to untangle the mysteries of his accounting.
Randy has too. About three months ago, he hired his own accountant and instructed Whitman, who has long tried to rein in Jackson's wild finances, to answer to him.
According to my sources, it takes around $350,000 a month to run the 2,700-acre ranch, including the costs of staff, maintenance and the zoo. That breaks down to roughly $75,000 a week.
Jackson got a long-term loan of $350 million from Bank of America a few years ago. He also gets royalties, both from album sales — he's still selling about 15,000 CDs and DVDs a week, mostly of "Thriller" — and the publishing rights on his own music.
About two weeks ago, I'm told, Whitman became concerned that the Neverland operating accounts were running dry. The CD and publishing income was not appearing in Jackson's Bank of America account.
"There was nothing to draw on," my source reports.
Afraid that the usual intermediaries wouldn't alert Jackson, Whitman contacted Michael's father, I am told.
Joseph Jackson, who had been in London, immediately went to Neverland last Friday when he returned Stateside. The result was a showdown that has still not been resolved as of this writing.
The big question of course is: Where did the money in the Neverland operating account go?
I am told that when Bank of America receives payments on behalf of Jackson, it sends the money directly to Whitman.
"It would be impossible for someone to get between them in the process," my source said.
Even more intriguing is the report of Randy's promise to make good on the missing funds. Where would he suddenly find the kind of money needed to cover the ranch's operating expenses?
Speculation is that Randy, Michael's younger brother, has been cutting deals for the pop star without his knowledge. Believe it or not, sources tell me, offers in the half-million dollar range come in almost daily for endorsements.
The word from Neverland is that since Randy assumed control of Michael's world about a year ago, the younger brother has purchased a penthouse for himself in Miami and moved one of Michael's Bentleys there for his own use.
"When Michael found out about that, there was a huge blowout," my source said.
Calls to Randy Jackson and Alan Whitman were not returned.
It was like old times for someone — I'm not sure whom — at Planet Hollywood last night.
Former restaurant-chain shareholders and pitchmen Bruce Willis and Sylvester Stallone were briefly reunited to promote Willis's new movie, "Hostage."
Stallone got a plug for his show "The Contender" and brought along boxing great Sugar Ray Leonard.
Lindsay Lohan, 18, worth $12 million, and loads of tabloid headlines thanks to her wayward father, also showed up.
Back in the day, when press agents were real men, someone would have bailed Dad out for the night and brought him to Planet Hollywood for fun. Oh, but those days are long gone.
Lohan was sporting a huge diamond ring designed by Judith Ripka. Is she engaged, I asked?
"No, it's just to throw off the paparazzi," she said.
Stallone, who moves with a phalanx of unpleasant bodyguards, told me he's just about out of the acting ring.
"I've got four more movies maybe," he said. "I want to do another 'Rocky' for personal reasons. It would be like the George Foreman story."
I was going to ask him if that included the invention of the coveted Foreman Grill, but at that point he turned away and a bodyguard, with his mitts on me, inserted himself between us.
Lohan was more forthcoming. I did get to ask her about her headlines and her father.
"I can't have fun anymore," she said.
She's a pretty young woman and is in fighting shape.
"I have big movies riding on me now. I have responsibilities," she said.
I guess signing up with Creative Artists Agency chastened her.
As for her singing career, you'll be curious to know she hasn't abandoned it yet.
"I'm just concentrating on movies," she said.
But wasn't there a little dish, you ask? There was: Lindsay was overheard saying to someone on her cell phone, "I hope you're staying over tonight." It was probably her mom.
And what of "Hostage?" It got several thumbs up as a good ol' meaningless film, with lots of scares and red herrings. You can do a lot worse in March during a blizzard, I'd say.
Since everyone is piling on, let's get to the Dan Rather story.
I thought I'd remind you of an item from this column dated Oct. 4, 2004. That's when CBS's Mike Wallace talked to me about Dan. This was long before Dan's announced sign-off, which takes place tonight.
Wallace confirmed for me a long-running rumor/open secret: Rather had kept Walter Cronkite, his beloved predecessor, from appearing on CBS News since his retirement after 19 years on the job in 1981.
Instead of becoming an eminence grise or a Yoda for the network — as was the late Eric Sevareid, who appeared at the end of each of Cronkite's broadcasts with an editorial — Cronkite was sent to network Siberia.
Cronkite was forced to start his own production company, syndicating feature news shows and appearing all over cable.
A "60 Minutes" spokesman noted that Cronkite appeared on a "Walter Cronkite Remembers" special. But otherwise CBS News itself has simply ignored him.
Rather was always said to be the man behind it, afraid that Cronkite's immense popularity as "the most trusted man in America" would hinder his own position.
Why was that, I asked Wallace? Was it just insecurity?
He hunched his shoulders.
"You said it. And stupidity," he said.
I asked Wallace what if this scandal would have happened in the good old days when Edward R. Murrow was CBS News' leader? What if Charles Collingwood had gotten himself into such a mess? Wouldn't the news department have closed ranks behind him?
"It wouldn't have happened to Charles Collingwood. He was too professional," Wallace replied.
As for CBS still being known as the "Tiffany network," Wallace narrowed his eyes and said, "That doesn't exist anymore."