Katie Holmes | Michael Jackson | Elisabeth Shue | Ebersol Family | Peter & Gordon

Now Pitching for Scientology: Katie Holmes

Well, it's happened. Katie Holmes is now shilling for Scientology.

I told you one year ago this week that I had received an unsolicited gift package in the mail from the Church of Scientology.

It included a personalized, signed note from Tom Cruise, informing me that a donation had been made in my name to the organization.

The package also included a framed set of Scientology lessons to live by. The most memorable was No. 12: Never fear to hurt another in a just cause.

Now I've seen the updated package for 2006, and it's a showstopper. The signed note now comes from Tom and Katie, and it includes both of their signatures.

Like the old letter, this one informs lucky recipients that donations have been made in their names to Scientology and welcomes them to check out all the included materials.

The package also contains a book that has pictures of smiling children and quotations, in large type, from people who would probably be surprised to find themselves in the company of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard: Kofi Annan and the late Martin Luther King Jr. The quotations are made to seem as if their authors endorse Scientology.

The new Scientology package comes as a brightly-colored cardboard box with many inserts, including a CD and a DVD. The DVD contains a weird music video called "United."

At the end of the video, many disparate people — including Jenna Elfman, Erika Christensen, Isaac Hayes and Catherine Bell of the TV show "JAG" — are all sort of nodding in a trance and clapping along while watching a TV news anchorman and repeating the song's chorus over and over.

It made me drowsy from monotony, but perhaps it has a different effect on others.

I can only imagine what Holmes' parents, devout Catholics and upstanding members of Toledo, Ohio, society, think of all this. But I'm told that Cruise recently bought them a million-dollar home close to his in Beverly Hills so they can be near their daughter when she gives birth to their first grandchild.

The date of this blessed event is said to be sometime around May 5, the day "Mission: Impossible 3" opens worldwide.

Jacko Employees File for Compensation

There's real concern about the remaining employees at Michael Jackson's Neverland Ranch. Yesterday marked six weeks since they received paychecks.

I'm told that one group has already filed a complaint with the California Labor Relations Board, and another one is about to follow suit.

Jackson, meanwhile, is vacationing in Venice, Italy, with his 20-year-old protégé Anton Schleiter.

Jackson is being underwritten by a Bahraini prince. The employees, sources say, are borrowing money to buy groceries and gas, hoping the situation will change.

One Neverland staffer has taken matters into his own hands.

Rudy Lozano, a cook at the ranch for seven years, opened Rudy's International Fast Food in nearby Nipomo, Calif., a couple of weeks ago. He's serving Mexican, American, Italian and Japanese food from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m and hoping to generate enough money to make ends meet.

Lozano still supports Jackson, although his confidentiality agreement prohibits him from even saying Michael's name. He says of the Arvizo family, which brought the child molestation charges against Jackson for which the singer was acquitted last year, "One family destroyed 180 families."

He was referring, of course, to the Neverland staff.

"I am very sad," he said, "very angry."

Whatever Happened to Elisabeth Shue?

You may recall a great Oscar-nominated performance a few years back by Elisabeth Shue in "Leaving Las Vegas."

At the time, industry insiders were startled because Shue had not done much besides "Adventures in Babysitting," and was pretty much thought to be done. "LLV" revived her career overnight, but then she seemed to disappear again.

Yesterday, I had the good luck to come upon a screening of her new film, "First Born" (thank goodness for New York screening rooms, that's all I can say).

This remarkably intense psychological thriller is an independent film written and directed by Isaac Webb, with gorgeous cinematography by Alejandro Martinez.

Frankly, if the producers of "First Born" had brought it to Sundance, they would have had a big winner. But I'm told they waited, and will hold simultaneous East and West Coast screenings on Tuesday for potential distributors.

Alas, there will be no swag, but someone will walk away with quite a "gift bag."

"First Born" is similar in tone and pace to another great recent thriller, "The Others." Like that Nicole Kidman vehicle, this one has a surprise ending.

But while the twist at the end of "The Others" is more of a gotcha, the ending of "First Born" is startling and disturbing. I think that also means it's got "hit" written all over it.

Webb has no other credits that I could find, but he's going to be hot as a pistol when this film is released.

Shue, of course, is another matter.

She plays a pregnant woman in this film. In real life, she and husband Davis Guggenheim have two children.

I'm told that she had tried for a third and when it didn't work out, she accepted roles in this film and a new one with Jim Carrey. When this one finished, it turned out she was pregnant in real life and bowed out of the Carrey film. There is truly a thin line between fantasy and reality!

HBO Scores Ebersol Kids' Africa Film

Back in June of last year I told you about an incredibly moving documentary called "Ithuteng," made by Charlie and Willie Ebersol, sons of NBC sports honcho Dick Ebersol and his actress-wife Susan St. James, and their friend Kip Kroeger.

The film was about a South African school run by a woman named Mama Jackey, and it was so inspiring that when Oprah Winfrey subsequently visited Ithuteng Trust in Soweto, she gave it a gift of $1.2 million.

I was all set to hear Oprah talk about Ithuteng with the Ebersols when I TiVo'd her show yesterday. I was sorry, then, that there was no mention of it all.

I've been told that "Ithuteng" has found a home at HBO, where it will air this spring.

Since the West knows very little about Mama Jackey, or present-day Soweto, this is an important film. Shown along with "Hotel Rwanda," the Sundance entry, "God Grew Tired of Us," and HBO's own "Sometimes in April," we are starting to get a clearer, more immediate picture of Africa than ever before.

What Oprah and the Ebersols did talk about was the tragedy they endured a year ago on Thanksgiving.

That's when Dick, Charlie and the couple's youngest son, 14-year-old Teddy, were in a private plane crash in Colorado. Charlie saved his father, but Teddy, very sadly, died.

When I met the Ebersols in June, seven months after the event, they were grieving but trying to go on with their lives (the film had been made before all this). It seemed an impossible task.

Now, a year and two months after Teddy's death, the family proved again to be unusual and highly evolved people. The "Oprah" show was worth a whole box of Kleenex as these brave and lovely people discussed what had happened to them.

They have nothing to sell -- it was just their catharsis, and they were kind enough to share it with the public in case it might help someone else.

Their healing is far from over, but the Ebersols should be studied simply for class and courage. I think their Teddy is very proud of them. And Oprah, of course, did it again.

World With Love, Pt. 2; Engines On

Last summer, I told you about a rare reunion of the '60s pop duo Peter & Gordon. They appeared at B.B. King's in New York as part of a tribute to Mike Smith of the Dave Clark Five.

Well, big news: the guys have agreed to one more show, at a Beatles convention in the New York area taking place between March 31 and April 2. You can read all about it at http://www.FestForBeatlesFans.com.

Peter & Gordon's biggest hit, by the way, was a song written for them by Paul McCartney at the height of Beatlemania called "A World Without Love." At the time, Paul was dating Peter's sister, Jane Asher, and living in their London home.

Peter Asher went on to produce and manage Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor. He's a big deal in the record business, but he's still got the chops.

Also at the Beatles convention: the group's recording engineer, the very talented Geoff Emerick, who's written his autobiography. In addition to working with the lads, and with McCartney as a solo act, Emerick is also legendary for turning the knobs on Elvis Costello's career-making album, "Imperial Bedroom."

And tonight, at the Continental on Second Avenue and St. Marks Place, catch the latest appearance by Twin Engines. Jim Wallerstein, late of Vacationland, fronts this talented duo, which should have a deal in place and a CD soon.