Friday, Oct. 16, 2009 | 4:38 p.m.
In many famous instances, God-given talent serves as the proverbial double-edged sword. It can propel a person to worldwide fame, send him to an early grave, or both. Michael Jackson, at once legendarily gifted and personally tragic, experienced both. And it was in the wake of Jackson’s death that a kid able to mimic his best dance steps, and capture an audience in a full-scale Broadway production show, surfaced on the Strip.
Elijah Johnson is quite a kid, to be sure, and this weekend, he closes out his contractual obligation to portray Young Simba in “The Lion King” at Mandalay Bay. His last show is Sunday’s 4 p.m. matinee. Stepping in is another promising young performer, Aubrey Johnson of Brooklyn. The show’s other cast change will be Diamond White of Detroit (coincidentally the same city that produced Johnson) as Young Nala.
Johnson was among the all-star-esque cast that Disney shipped to Vegas to launch “The Lion King” at Mandalay Bay.
I’d first noticed Johnson back in May, the night the show opened, as he flaunted his remarkable talent and what those who reside in show business call “stage presence” that far outpaced his 11 years. That wonderful gift was reinforced at the Michael Jackson tribute performance at the Palms’ Pearl Theater in August, where his take on “Dancing Machine” was a real (pardon the reference) thriller.
But as you watch this kid and track his career, you can’t help but wonder -- even cynically -- about who is running the show and his or her motives. The obvious comparison, at its most pronounced level, is Joe Jackson’s handling of Michael. The results of that parenting can be debated ad infinitum, as Jackson died of unnatural causes at a time when he had far more entertaining planned.
In the case of young Elijah, it is refreshing to know that his father, Carleton, is a from-the-gut guy who has an intuitive sense of people. As he says, “I’m a people person, I read people, and now that’s my job.” Carleton gave up his 18-year career as an IT specialist (most recently for GMAC) and high school basketball coach to focus on the development of Elijah. “I feel, on the whole, you should allow kids to be kids, make sure you do things in their best interests, not the business’s best interests.” He learned from observing the career of Jackson, for decades an iconic figure in the Motown home of Detroit, and picks out the positive elements and discards the chaff. “One thing about Michael Jackson that I always tell Elijah is the hours he put in to be great, but not just for the music business. This can be applied to his homework, anything he puts his heart in, to work hard to be the best he can be.”
It might sound a little maudlin, but Carleton -- who has been in Las Vegas full-time as his wife, Marta, has stayed in Detroit with Elijah’s 4-year-old brother, Jeremiah -- recognizes talent when it’s in front of him. He was the one who told his son that if he wanted to watch someone really dance, he should advance from Chris Brown to Michael Jackson. “It was ‘Thriller,’ first, then the moonwalk,” Elijah said. “I thought Chris Brown was the best dancer ever, but then Dad said, ‘You have to see Michael Jackson,’ and taught me how to do the moonwalk.”
While in Vegas, Elijah has been performing schoolwork through an online educational service (not sure if Mandalay Bay is part of the Clark County School District, actually) as the family considers his post “Lion King” career. Carleton says the next step is auditions in Los Angeles for TV work, “probably” signing with Maloof Music and Entertainment (which has already been reported by my man Robin “URL” Leach) and pitching his own Vegas show covering the likes of Jackson, James Brown, Sammy Davis Jr. and “a few others” (can we add Pat Boone, to further show off the kid’s versatility?). He also is close to finishing a CD.
Near the end of our chat, Carleton mentioned his younger son’s gift for entertainment. “What’s amazing is Jeremiah is wonderful, he’s more advanced even than Elijah was at his age.” The outgoing Young Simba agreed, saying, “Definitely. You’d think he’s 30 years old!”
Yep, we need to meet this kid. I suspect we haven’t heard the last from this clan, not by a long shot.
Up, up and away
Kevin Michaels has a unique perspective on the Balloon Boy saga that has unfolded over the past two days. The plight (and flight) of the plucky Heene family caught his attention yesterday as a balloon built by Richard Heene soared above the great Coloradoan landscape, presumably with little Falcon aboard. What we know now, other than when Richard Heene gets his hair cut, he requests “The Shemp,” is Falcon is grounded (literally if not in a punishment sense), and this is one oddball story. Maybe even a hoax, given Falcon’s “you told me we did this for a show” comments on CNN yesterday. But aside from the peripheral melodrama, Michaels took interest in the balloon itself, because he is chief executive officer of the new-to-Vegas Cloud 9. This is the largest helium-filled, land-tethered balloon on the planet (our planet, specifically) and can carry 30 passengers 500 feet above the Strip. Seven stories across and 11 stories high, Cloud 9 is filled with 210,000 cubic feet of helium. In other words, the HeeneCraft would be but a pimple on the derriere of the Cloud 9 vessel.
And, infinitely more important, there is no chance Cloud 9 would ever bust free of its moorings and soar accidentally over Vegas, or anywhere else. “That was an isolated act on a family-made, crude balloon,” Michaels said. “We’ve got a couple of million dollars tied up in our balloon and a tether that can hold 40 tons, or 20 times the weight of the balloon that we’ve got, including the gondola.” Michaels added, “In 17 years, on four continents, in 46 operations around the world, it has never snapped or broken.” Cloud 9 has actually been closed for four of its six days of operation for high winds. “We do not fly if the winds are higher than 20 mph,” Michaels said.
When I asked the high-flying CEO if Cloud 9 might offer some sort of “Balloon Boy” package, where 6-year-olds ride free, Michaels just laughed and said, “I think that would be a little too weird.” Maybe, but not for the Heenes.
Tarot Fever -- catch it!
A reminder that the afore-referenced Leach will be onstage at Stage Door Theatre at Town Square this evening for Matt Donnelly’s Celebrity Tarot Lounge. The Robin appearance is the 7 p.m. performance. At 10 p.m., it’s Terry Fator and Steve Wyrick. Saturday at 7, it’s “Mythbusters” host Adam Savage, and at 10 it’s poker stars Annie Duke and Andy Bloch. Producer Emily Jillette says it’s been tough to get the word out for these uniquely entertaining showcases, which feature improv comics performing skits inspired by the reading of the celebs’ tarot cards. We appreciate anything odd, different, especially if it involves celeb puppeteers, poker players and the wife of Penn, so check this show out.
A pattern has emerged, post-Garth Brooks-to-Vegas announcement. A lot of his fans, at least the fans who have contacted me, have complained about that high ticket price ($125 apiece without fees). Steve Wynn, who said that scalpers have hoarded and profited mightily from Brooks’ $25 tickets during his tours, is already the one being blamed for “gouging” Brooks’ middle-class fan base (check out comments to earlier blog posts for evidence of this trend). Wynn says the high prices are to ward against scalpers’ bundling of inexpensive tickets, which would subsequently be re-sold for many times their value. For the shows at Encore Theater, there is a limit of six tickets per purchase (they go on sale at 8 a.m. Oct. 24 at the Wynn box office), tickets will be issued day-of only, and a photo ID is required upon receipt. Regardless, I’m expecting this ticket price, which covers all seats at Encore, will continue to be a source of complaint from Brooks’ value-driven devotees. I also expect Brooks might consider a backing band and some measure of production for these concerts. Over the span of five years, a cowboy and his guitar may not seem worth $125 a shot -- even with a shot of Jack. Just a hunch. But hey, give credit to the hotel for already erecting a Garth Brooks billboard near the McCarran Airport tunnel. He has officially arrived.
Book ’em, Danos
Perry Danos has two components working in his favor for coverage in this column: He’s Greek, and he happens to be in our building right now. Just met him, actually. Fine guy. He’s at the Orleans Showroom on Monday and Tuesday nights, 8 p.m. shows, in his “New Voice of Vegas!” show. Danos is a longtime nightclub performer who sings just about anything but hip-hop. Today he splits his time in Chicago, L.A. and Nashville and is looking for a toe-hold in Vegas. I plan to check him out, return the in-person visitation.
Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at twitter.com/JohnnyKats.