Michael Jackson | Billy Preston | Rock 'n' Roll Live | Awards, Awards, Awards

Jacko Parties in Bahrain but Neverland Staff Suffers

Michael Jackson had a perfect, five-star, expensive Christmas in Bahrain, thanks to his host, the prince, Sheik Abdullah bin Hamad al Khalifa.

But back home at Neverland, his employees wound up waiting until the eleventh hour to get enough money to buy gifts for loved ones.

The Neverland staff was finally paid four weeks' back pay on Dec. 23, according to my sources. That didn't leave much time for most of the remaining 50 or so zoo workers, groundskeepers, maids, cooks and administrators to do their holiday shopping.

The staff's relief at getting paid on the 23rd was shattered, though, yesterday. Jackson once again missed payroll, leaving the employees right back where they started.

There's talk, I'm told, that the checks may be ready by Monday. But no one's certain and no one's counting on it.

The only bright side to all this is that this week Neverland finally got a gas and propane delivery. For the last couple of months, the ranch has been without heat. There was no cooking, either, because the kitchens have gas stoves.

"When we saw the trucks we were thrilled," says a source. "We thought it was a sign."

Well, it was probably just a sign that Jackson got some royalty money from Sony for the first quarter of the year. He still gets royalties from CDs and videos sold. That's separate from his $270 million loans for which he used his equity in Sony/ATV Music Publishing.

But the employees at Neverland might not be so happy when they find out that Jackson had a very nice Christmas in Bahrain. Using someone's money — presumably that of his host — Jackson flew in his three main surrogate families from different locations, put them up in hotels and got them expensive gifts. The families were: the Schleiters, from Germany; the Bhattis, from Norway; and the Cascios from New Jersey.

You will recall that Jackson has had close relations with Anton Schleiter and Omer Bhatti, both of whom are about 21 years old now, for a long time.

Anton's father, Wolfgang, is a German music executive. Michael dedicated the song "Speechless" on his last album to Anton, who used to dress up like Michael and his sister.

Omer Bhatti was the 12-year-old Jackson imitator whom Michael picked up in Tunisia in 1996 and essentially kept on and off for years. He told friends that Omer was his natural son, but Omer's parents actually came to work for Jackson in exchange for letting the boy stay with him.

The Cascio family has figured prominently in Jackson's world for years as well. The father, Dominick Cascio, was once a banquet manager at the Palace Hotel in New York. He and his wife, Connie, have five kids, all of whom stayed at Neverland for long stretches. The eldest son, Frank, worked for Jackson and was an unnamed co-conspirator in last spring's trial.

The report from the Jackson holiday was a good one, however. Jackson, according to sources, ate heartily, didn't seem to be drugged in any way and was friendly and upbeat with his guests. The guests did not get to meet the prince, but they did see Jackson's new digs outside the palace at a house he, his kids and nanny Grace Rwarmba are all staying in courtesy of the prince.

If Jackson is not desperately hooked on drugs, then what about all those panic-ridden stories that ran in the supermarket tabloids just a few weeks ago? Speculation is that some members of Jackson's family who feel left out or left back since Michael split the U.S. may be selling stories to make money.

One friend of the family who attended court sessions off and on last year has been mentioned as a go-between who sets up the deals and then kicks back the payments.

'Fifth' Beatle in Health Dilemma

Those very same supermarket tabloids are about to go to press with some nasty and inaccurate stories about the "fifth Beatle," Billy Preston.

Preston, who played on The Beatles' "White Album," "Abbey Road" and "Let It Be" albums, had numerous hits in the '70s with "Nothing From Nothing," "Will It Go Round in Circles" and "Outta Space." He also wrote the Joe Cocker hit "You Are So Beautiful."

But Preston has suffered from kidney failure for years. A transplant in 2002 went bad in a year, leaving him on dialysis. Since last September, after a summer of stellar performances around the world, Preston started having such serious problems that he had to be hospitalized. At one point he contracted pericarditis because of a temporary change in doctors and regular facilities.

I'm told that Billy is now in an excellent facility where he's recovering from this ordeal. It's been a tough time: He has had a tracheotomy, which leaves him unable to speak for now. He's also being fed through a tube. Nevertheless, he's getting daily physical therapy and I'm told music is being played for him constantly.

Most importantly: Let the record show that Billy Preston's condition is not and was not the result of any use or abuse of narcotic substances. If you see conflicting info while waiting on a grocery line, scoff at it, please.

So let's all say our prayers for Billy, who should have been in the Rock Hall of Fame by now. Let's hope this motivates Jann Wenner to give him a special citation this year.

Rockers in the Flesh

John Legend, one of the few real contemporary talents, plays a special show on Sunday at what used to be the beloved B Altman department store, now known as the CUNY Graduate Center.

Legend's interview and show are part of the New York Times Arts and Leisure Weekend. Proceeds go to the Actors Fund and MusiCares.

Jessica Domain plays at Pianos on the Lower East Side this Saturday and next. When she's on the Grammys in two years, you can say you saw her there.

I'm told that Schuyler Fisk, the charming daughter of Sissy Spacek and Jack Fisk, is one of the performers who will play the prestigious ASCAP Sundance Lounge during this month's film festival

Rob Thomas and Columbia Records' Anna Nalick are also set for Sundance performances.

Directors, Writers Pick Faves

The Directors and Writers Guilds chose their nominees yesterday, and the Screen Actors Guild selected theirs as well. The DGA nominees are usually a real predictor of Oscars — at least for directors. This year the nominees are: Steven Spielberg for "Munich"; George Clooney for "Good Night, and Good Luck"; Ang Lee for "Brokeback Mountain"; Bennett Miller for "Capote"; and Paul Haggis for "Crash."

My guess is that if one of these drops out for the Oscars it will be Haggis. "Crash" is very much a descendant of Lawrence Kasdan's "Grand Canyon," a better movie in many ways. I think James Mangold still has a shot for "Walk the Line."

The WGA also picked "Crash" for original screenplay, and four others: "The 40 Year-Old Virgin" (a title that may have appealed to the voting bloc); "Cinderella Man"; "The Squid and the Whale"; and "Good Night, and Good Luck."

Adapted screenplays were: "A History of Violence," "Capote," "Brokeback Mountain," "Syriana" and "The Constant Gardener."

Of those, the winners should be "Squid," Noah Baumbach's painfully accurate reminiscence of his parents' divorce; and "Capote," Dan Futterman's flawless screenplay about the making of "In Cold Blood."

The "Capote" script is superior to the one for "Brokeback Mountain," which is a boring and repetitive movie, in every way. I think the WGA will appreciate Futterman's dialogue much more than Larry McMurtry's mumbling, inexpressive caballeros.

But the good news here is that as time wears on, and voters get bored, "A History of Violence" is looking better and better. Like "Transamerica," "Capote" and "Mrs. Henderson Presents," "Violence" is a film that Academy voters will probably dig once they pop in their DVDs.

I would add Lasse Hallstrom's "Casanova" to that list, but Disney requires their DVD be played on a special machine. Forget it. Just go catch it in a theater. "Casanova" is the year's forgotten sleeper.