Me and Michael Jackson?
We go way back.
To 1983, to be exact, when for my seventh birthday, my parents gave me his “Thriller” album as a gift.
And that night, during my sleepover party, my friends and I turned off all the lights in the living room, climbed inside our sleeping bags and fired up the album’s title track on my dad’s record player.
To a bunch of second-graders, the song’s lyrics coupled with Vincent Price’s haunting voice about darkness falling across the land and whatnot was quite the, ahem, thriller.
Twenty-two years after that birthday — a million miles for Jackson — I interviewed a woman who met Michael when he was about the same age that I was when I became the owner of his iconic album.
On June 7, 2005 — when Jackson was in the midst of his child molestation trial in California, and I was working as a columnist at The Daily Times in Ottawa, Ill. — I sat down with local hairdresser Kay Halterman.
But, perhaps, even more interestingly was that Halterman had befriended a young Michael Jackson back in the late 1960s when her eldest sister, Thelma Finkeldey, was the future King of Pop’s teacher in Gary, Ind.
“He was eight years old, and in the third grade,” Halterman told me, recalling the day that she took a trip to visit her sister’s classroom. “He was the cutest darling. Very, very shy … He had the cutest pug nose.”
At the time, Michael was performing locally with his brothers as the youngest member of the Jackson Five, and Halterman remembrered that: “There was a picture on the billboard (in the classroom) — something from the newspaper about the Jackson Five — and Thelma said to Michael, ‘Why don’t you get that and tell my sister about it.
“I then said, ‘What can I do for you, Michael?’ And he told me, ‘Your sister never has her picture taken for school photos. I’d like to have a picture of her.’ ”
Halterman said that day she instantly became enamored with Jackson’s softspoken demeanor and gentle personality. Upon returning to Ottawa — and getting clearance from Thelma on a suitable photograph — she said she eventually mailed a picture of her sister to the budding superstar, who had begun to truly bloom.
“At that point, they (the Jackson Five) had already been discovered,” Halterman. “And I got a thank-you note from Michael (for the photograph) that said they were going to appear on the ‘Ed Sullivan Shoe.’
“S-H-O-E. That’s how he spelled it.”
Likely because that’s the way Ed Sullivan himself famously pronounced the word.
Halterman told me that in Decembrer 1969 when the Jackson Five made their debut on Sullivan’s legendary variety show, she was watching from her home in Ottawa.
And she recalled that, “Just before I met Michael, I had been at a hairdressers’ convention in Hawaii and had a charm bracelet with a little Tiki god on it. And that day I met him, he kept looking at the bracelet. I told Michael that I had another one, and asked if would he like to have this one. He said he would, and I gave it to him.
“Then, when the Jackson Five was on the Ed Sullivan Show, we all got around the TV at home, and — sure enough — when Michael came out, I saw this little Tiki god dangling off his wrist.”
Now, on this YouTube clip of the Jackson Five’s December ’69 debut on the Ed Sullivan Show, you can clearly see (particularly at the end, when Sullivan shakes Michael’s hand) that Jackson is indeed wearing a bracelet. But I don’t see a Tiki god hanging from it.
Perhaps, I just can’t spot the thing. Or, more likely, Halterman — watching the show on a 1960s TV set (not exactly high-def) — mistook the bracelet for her own.
Nevertheless, Halterman said that moment didn’t mark the end of her friendship with Jackson, as a few years later when Michael was 15, she and her sister renewed acquaintances with the Jacksons.
“We got tickets for a Jackson Five show in Chicago, and made arrangements to see them backstage,” she said. “And when we got there, (Michael’s older brother) Marlon (who also was one Thelma’s former students) ran up and said, ‘I remember you! I remember you!’
“And then Michael came up and said quietly, that he remembered us too. He was such an introvert. Except when he got behind the microphone, and then was an extrovert.”
During the backstage reunion, Halterman said she also met the Jacksons’ pint-sized little sister, Janet, who was decked out in a feather boa that day, and headed for eventual superstardom herself. The Halterman sisters visited with Michael’s mother, as well.
“Mrs. Jackson was with them,” Halterman recalled, “and Thelma told her that Michael always used to bring her presents. Mrs. Jackson said, ‘That’s where my costume jewelry went!’
“It was a nice visit.”
Although there was one part of it that Halterman said she regrets.
“I brought along the thank-you note in which Michael spelled show, ‘S-H-O-E,’ ” she said. “And the Jacksons’ tutor asked to keep it in order to show Michael how he used to spell when he was younger.
“I wish I had kept it. But, I didn’t think anything of it at the time. I mean, who knew he would go on to become, not just U.S. famous, but world famous?”
Since that time, Jackson — in spite of his acquittal during his 2005 trial — also went on to become world-infamous. Halterman told me it saddened her to see the little boy she once befriended change so much, both physically and otherwise.
“I know that he didn’t have a normal childhood at all,” Halterman said. “And their father was very demanding, always making them perform, always wanting to make money … (The Jacksons) were dysfunctional, but talented.
“And Michael, he had this cute, little puggy nose and this sweetness in his eyes. You just saw it. It just breaks my heart to see what’s happened with him now, especially because I’ve seen the other side of Michael.
“He was just such a sweet, cute little kid.”