Michael Jackson | 'King Kong' | Clive Davis, Chris Noth

Jacko Threatened With Contempt of Court

Michael Jackson is being ordered to come to a Los Angeles court in two weeks and explain why he shouldn't be held in contempt for defying a judge's order.

Judge Linda K. Lefkowitz of Los Angeles Superior Court issued her ruling today. The matter stems from depositions that were taken in London on Sept. 23 for the lawsuit brought by Jackson's former partner Marc Schaffel. Jackson was supposed to have paid the London hotel bills for Schaffel and his attorney, as well as bills for a court reporter and videographer.

That's right, the deposition was videotaped, and I'm told it's a hilarious performance of obfuscation, confusion and dim recollection.

The judge ordered Jackson to come to court on Jan. 9 and show why he shouldn't be held in contempt of her previous order to make sure all of Schaffel's bills were paid. Jackson will also have to pay a $1,000 fine from the 9th until the bills are paid, and may be ordered to pay Schaffel's legal bills as well.

Ironically, Schaffel's lawsuit against Jackson for $4 million is also about money Schaffel laid out for Jackson or loaned to him but for which he was never reimbursed.

Meanwhile, the 50 or so people left at Jackson's Neverland Ranch (I'm revising this number down from 100) are on the verge of filing a complaint against their employer.

If they are not paid today, that will make four weeks without remuneration. On top of that, it's Christmas. So far things look bleak.

I'm told that in the last week or so, a sedan with United States government plates visited the ranch. Sources there tell me they're pretty sure the car was from the United States Department of Agriculture. There is concern at Neverland about the welfare of the animals in Jackson's zoo.

But there is concern about the people, too. Remaining loyal through many missed payroll checks, these staffers — including maids, landscapers, etc. — are dependent on Jackson for their livelihoods. They haven't seen him since June, though, and now they face the prospect of a bleak Christmas.

"Not only that," says an insider, "but it's almost the first of the month again, which means rent is due for a lot of us."

Sources tell me that in the last couple of weeks, many employees have just stopped coming to work. The remainder are now considering going to their local unemployment office, I am told, to ask what can be done.

I myself posed that question yesterday. And sources knowledgeable about Jackson's failing finances told me that as of last night, there was no money to pay Neverland ranch workers for their last month.

"They're trying to pull it together for Thursday afternoon," I was told, "but it's not definite. We'll have to wait and see."

Interestingly, even the most loyal of the last hangers-on aren't in full attendance because of the situation. Joe Marcus, who's become a favorite of the staff as he's risen through the ranks, testified on Jackson's behalf at last spring's child-molestation trial.

But I'm told that Marcus has only clocked in "about three times" since Thanksgiving. Hopefully, he's looking for work.

Jackson's absence from the ranch, his break in communication with close family members and his seeming disinterest in his deteriorating financial situation — all of this is starting to worry those who care about him.

There have been reports from Bahrain lately that Michael has started taking Islamic instruction as his residency allowance period comes to an end. This would complete the plan begun two years ago when brother Jermaine introduced Jackson to the Nation of Islam, which then took over his life.

Switching religions again would not be out of character, as Jackson was raised as a Jehovah's Witness and had a brief interest in Judaism five years ago. He seems gullible enough to believe anything is right if he thinks his host will bail him out.

Jackson's latest savior is the Prince Abdullah bin Hamad al-Khalifa, the 30-year-old second son of the King of Bahrain, which means Islam is in until Jackson gets the check.

Meanwhile, please do read our column from yesterday concerning the Department of Justice investigation into Jackson's obtainment of passports for his children.

Another story ran on the wires yesterday that showed how media hysteria can grow from a kernel of information. That kernel was based on a "correspondent" for an unknown Web site called tmz.com, who happened to see the title page of a motion being filed in court.

The title of that glimpsed document then became the basis for a story — with no other facts. Wow! It doesn't take much to incite the world entertainment press, does it?

But in fact, the story was much deeper than that. It's not just that Jackson's ex-wife Debbie Rowe has claimed that Jackson "abducted" their kids. It's that he may possibly have lied to get them travel documents. And that now he's trying to stall in court long enough to establish his kids' residency in a foreign country.

'Kong' Konked by Strike, Apathy

Poor "King Kong." The $300 million epic is suffering one blow after another at the box office.

After a mixed weekend, the take for the Peter Jackson extravaganza dipped to a $5 million on Monday, and that's what it did again on Tuesday. Yikes!

The hope on Universal's part was that once schools started letting out, "King Kong" would do gangbusters business after the weekend. It simply didn't happen.

Monday and Tuesday's grosses were significantly lower than last Wednesday and Thursday's. This must have been a body blow to Universal. It's certainly a surprise everywhere else.

Of course, the fall-off could be attributed in part to the New York transit strike.

No one here is thinking much about the movies right now. There is a low-level layer of tension in the air at all times, and a high level of traffic on the ground.

To make matters worse, New Jersey has unleashed hundreds of inadequate vehicle operators onto our streets. They don't accelerate and are afraid to make turns. They are the unofficial cause of TMJ, according to a completely unscientific and most likely inaccurate poll I took yesterday.

Clogged streets may also account for what looks like a slight drop-off in attendance for "Brokeback Mountain," the gay cowboy movie. After an impressive start out of the gate, "BM" started to trail off on Monday and more on Tuesday.

Has every gay man, sympathetic woman and sensitive straight guy already been through these turnstiles? We'll know better on Friday, when the cowboys nearly double their exposure to 120 theaters from the current 69.

Clive's World; Noth's Good Sound

The record business is Clive Davis's world, and we just live in it.

Early reports indicate that Jamie Foxx's album "Unpredictable" is, predictably, a runaway hit. It will debut next week at No. 1 or No. 2 on the charts. Thanks to an Oprah showing (and the fact that the album is terrific) Foxx sold 200,000 on Tuesday alone.

Foxx will join RCA Music Group's three other Top 10 hit albums from this week, by Carrie Underwood, Bo Bice and Kelly Clarkson — all "American Idol" refugees.

Davis's RCA Group, aka BMG, has merged with Sony and is now in a contentious internal rivalry. Needless to say, Davis is winning. ...

Chris Noth and friends remind me that it's not their sound that was iffy on Monday night at the Cutting Room, our favorite music venue in New York. "Outside forces" were the culprit. Just so we're clear. ...

Last minute gifts: Susan Lennox Jewelry is donating 10 percent of profits from its popular Rap N Tie necklace to AIDS relief. You can get more info at susanlennoxjewellery@hotmail.com.

Looking for real headphones? I just bought the $95 Grado SR-80's at Harvey Electronics and couldn't be happier with them. Joe Grado is the wizard of high-end 'phones that go over the head. For in-ear headphones, try Bang and Olufsen's, with gorgeous sound and a comfortable fit thanks to the intelligent design. ...

Finally: a belated R.I.P. to the magnificent book editor Leona Nevler. She died last week at age 79. I knew Leona very well in the 1980s when I worked at Ballantine/Fawcett books after Ballantine — then a crass mass-market house — ate Leona's fine Fawcett and picked at the bones.

Fawcett under Leona meant John Updike, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Doris Lessing and no end of good works brought into paperback and to the mainstream. For years, she (and the M.I.A. Bob Wyatt) were all Ballantine had to point to as evidence of being a book company (they were obsessed with Garfield, "Star Wars" and finding out what season you were color-wise).

Leona, you will be sorely missed.