Forget about secret rooms. Michael Jackson was in the process of building a secret bunker at his Neverland ranch before his scandal hit the papers.
The underground apartment was called "Project X." No one was supposed to know about it except Jackson and his regular local contractor in Los Olivos, Tony Urquidez.
Project X, which is just a hollowed-out hole framed with concrete but not yet executed, was a result of Sept. 11.
Jackson, as you may recall, "beat it" out of New York by bus when he thought New York was being destroyed by terrorists.
At home, Urquidez tells me, Jackson wanted a bomb shelter. Since bomb shelters are not routinely built anymore, Urquidez consulted plans he normally uses for wine cellars.
"It's a tilt-up building, a hole in the side of a mountain," he says.
At 20 feet wide and 50 feet deep, the hole is about the size of a Manhattan studio apartment. Jackson's requirements for the shelter were simple: a bedroom, a bathroom and kitchenette.
"He wanted it filled with games for kids," Urquidez says.
Jackson also wanted "hospital air" pumped into it in case toxins had invaded the atmosphere. That may have been the last straw that ultimately shut down the ever-more-expensive project. Now all that remains of Project X, Urquidez says, is a "big cement vault."
But few people even know it exists. Urquidez thinks the state of California may know because of building permits, and one of Jackson's former attorneys was brought to the scene, so Urquidez would have a witness to his secret.
Urquidez, by the way, says he's still owed $30,000 by Jackson for work done at Neverland. That's a small amount, considering that at one time Jackson ponied up $400,000 in cash to settle another bill.
Most interesting and ironic: We now know that Jackson was recently $150,000 behind on the ranch's payroll. His brother had to scramble to come up with funds necessary to keep the place afloat.
But in the last couple of months, Urquidez says, Jackson called him and asked that the builder find four large brass coats of arms, which Urquidez had once before located, to be placed on some of Neverland's gates. The total cost: $150,000.
Urquidez declined the job.
Mariah Carey came pretty darn close to meeting her ex-husband's new wife on Monday night.
Carey made a surprise appearance at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame dinner at the Waldorf Astoria before the music part of the show began.
Accompanied by her publicist Marvett Britto, Carey — in a beautiful white fake fur — was shown to the very front section of tables to meet and greet.
What she didn't realize is that Tommy Mottola and his present wife, Mexican singing and soap star Thalia, were sitting dead in her sights.
"It wasn't a good moment," said one observer.
But Carey held her head high as many performers came to say hello. She met the Pretenders' Chrissie Hynde, soul legends Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff and had her picture taken with Bo Diddley.
Luckily, she had a built-in excuse for leaving: an overnight flight to Paris.
"We're leaving to start promotion for the new album," she told me.
She will return stateside around April 4 to kick off the release of her new album, "The Emancipation of Mimi," which I gave you an exclusive preview of a couple of weeks ago.
Here are some other tidbits from the Rock Hall dinner:
Justin Timberlake — looking natty in Gucci sneakers and a standard gray suit/tie combo — has not given up on the music business. He has a development deal with Atlantic Records for an imprint label of his own. Manager Johnny Wright says they're almost ready with their first act: a Memphis kid with whom Justin grew up.
Catherine Zeta-Jones was radiant all night, even though hubby Michael Douglas was home with a cold. Seated at Jann Wenner's table, Zeta-Jones stood out in the crowd of thousands like a jewel. But she's no diva. When nature called, Catherine trooped through the tightly packed room and took herself to the restroom unaccompanied, no assistants or lackeys at her side.
Dan Aykroyd did get to meet one of the original singers of his "Blues Brothers" hit "Rubber Biscuit."
"I'm glad I made some money for him," Dan said, beaming.
Little people: Frank Barsalona thanked his driver in his speech; Percy Sledge thanked his valet.
Chrissie Hynde brought her managers, a daughter, the sister of deceased original guitarist James Honeyman-Scott and her accountant. She wore drop earrings made of dice. She didn't rehearse a speech, however, leaving her long-time/sometime drummer Martin Chambers to do the honors.
"We continue to boogie," she said.
Chambers was a bit more, uh, honest, in assessing their relationship. Many in the room who know them got a good laugh.
Chrissie, by the way, admitted to me that it was she who performed "Superstar" on the "Wayne's World 2" soundtrack under a pseudonym — one of her many uncollected rare tracks.
Seymour Stein, founder of Sire Records, is the first person I know of to be introduced at an awards show to the strains of Talking Heads' "Psycho Killer."
Sledge, 64, talked of his days picking cotton in Alabama until his boss heard him sing and told him to go get a career.
Percy saluted Atlantic Records' legendary Jerry Wexler: "He is the 'is.'"
You bet he is!