Conlon Meets Michael Jackson

Pollstar’s “Lessons Learned” series included a recollection by Live Nation Atlanta’s Peter Conlon about the time he spent with Michael Jackson.  With the recent passing of the mercurial pop star, the story is worth revisiting …

I wanted to submit something both interesting and insightful, or even educational. Instead, I’ll share one of the more bizarre experiences of my career.

While attending law school in 1975, I was bored and didn’t want to face the inevitability of becoming an attorney, so I contacted the office of presidential candidate and Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter. The office was desperate for campaign workers. I watched the campaign staff grow from about 20 to more than 2,500 by the time Carter was elected.

I stayed with the administration for more than five years serving in different roles – campaign aide, assistant treasurer of the Inaugural, White House liaison and national fundraising director for committee to reelect. I left to start my career as a concert promoter at Southern Promotions but always stayed in touch with President Carter and we remain good friends.

President Carter still calls on me for anything entertainment related. In 1994, he wanted to inoculate Atlanta inner city youth against disease. As an incentive, he was going to offer free tickets to see Michael Jackson at the Omni. The president told me he talked to Michael, and Michael had agreed to appear.

The plan was to produce two back-to-back shows with Michael and inoculate approximately 20,000 children. Carter’s local group, The Atlanta Project, announced the shows, and kids lined up. All the tickets went in one Saturday. I agreed to produce the concerts pro bono.

The children got inoculated, and I called Michael’s management to begin work on the concerts. Turns out, Michael wasn’t kidding about agreeing to appear. Michael had indeed agreed to appear but was not performing.

I immediately called President Carter’s chief of staff. I suggested canceling but that was shot down. The image of 20,000 disappointed kids in front of TV cameras was disconcerting, and the president wouldn’t consider it. So we started developing a show centering on Michael’s appearance.

Ted Turner is a good friend of President Carter’s and mine. He made producers available, wrestlers, and mascots of cartoon characters. A local unknown group called TLC agreed to perform. After a few meetings, we had a show.

Day of show, Michael arrived without any production or management representatives – only bodyguards, Lisa Marie Presley and Emmanuel Lewis. All day, the bodyguards handled our issues.

The first problem arose when the bodyguards used the Secret Service’s secure line for President Carter as a dedicated phone line for Michael – a big no-no. My production manager, Ruth Marshall (whom I believe is the best in the business and suffers though many events of this nature) called to tell me she thought the bodyguards may be “disappearing soon” due to comments she overheard from the Secret Service. Luckily, I knew Carter’s detail and they knew me, so that one got resolved quickly.

Then I received a call that Michael wanted to watch cartoons. Ted had recently purchased the Cartoon Network so this just meant a call to another good friend, Scott Sassa, who was president of Cartoon Network at that time.

Everything went well until showtime. Carter arrived with his detail. Michael arrived with an entourage of guests – many wanting to meet President Carter.

That was fine. To this day, whenever he’s flying, Carter introduces himself to fellow passengers after takeoff. Michael apparently isn’t so good with introductions. When it was time for Michael to go onstage, I couldn’t locate him. I asked his lead bodyguard, Bill, where he was. Bill pointed to the heating and air utility closet. A bodyguard was standing on either side of the louver door. Running out from underneath the door was a phone cord. The Secret Service line.

Michael was not comfortable with all the people around, Bill told me, and had gone into the closet to call Brooke Shields. I asked Bill when he was coming out. Bill wasn’t sure. I asked him if he could ask Michael to come out; Bill said he couldn’t.

I had one option. I had to ask President Carter. The former Leader of the Free World, The liaison between Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begen. Winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.

I told the president I had a problem. His immediate response: “How can I help?”

I told him Michael was in the utility closet and wouldn’t come out. I pointed to the closet.

The same bodyguards who wouldn’t let anyone approach stepped aside for President Carter and his Secret Service detail. President Carter spoke to Michael through the louvers. Within minutes, Michael was out and walking with Carter to the stage.

Some may think Carter’s greatest act of diplomacy was the Middle East Peace Agreement or the Panama Canal Treaty. I think it was the Louver Door negotiation.                                                                                           — Peter Conlon

Click here to see more of Pollstar’s Lessons Learned series.