The magician Rob Zabrecky is rail-thin, with raven-black hair and the piercing eyes of a B-movie hypnotist. To the unfamiliar he might appear eccentric, bordering on psychotic, though ever dapper in his modish, tailored suits. Years ago he was an up-and-coming rock & roll star. That’s all over. He’s now an up-and-coming magician, a calling with a much longer career span.
Zabrecky has a lot of obsessions: tap dancing, the Carpenters, avant-garde music from New York, and pop singer Michael Jackson. Last February, after performing in the nightclubs of Tokyo, Zabrecky returned to Los Angeles and the sort of uncertain financial future common to most professional entertainers. “With magic, the curve is very high,” Zabrecky explains. “You have your Siegfried and Roy, your Lance Burton and the guys who are on TV, and then there is everybody else, who are the working magicians and will take the birthday parties and corporate shows. It’s a lot of feast or famine.”
On the morning of February 21 Zabrecky’s phone rang. It was a producer he knew, Roy Johns. “I have a very interesting proposition,” Johns announced. “It’s for a major celebrity, and it’s a birthday party. Today.”
Zabrecky politely declined. He had a busy day ahead, with several TV commercial auditions followed by a night performing at the Magic Castle.
“You should consider it,” Johns countered. “It will be an interesting afternoon. It’s for an extremely high-profile client.”
Zabrecky took the bait and asked who. He was stunned when Johns told him the gig was for Michael Jackson. He says he couldn’t get the word yes out fast enough. Johns instructed him to be at Jackson’s Beverly Hills home in three hours. He would be performing at a birthday party for Jackson’s 7-year-old son, “Blanket,” as part of a variety show. The other performers included a Hula-Hoop act, a jump-rope team and a juggler.
Zabrecky says it seemed unreal. He had kissed his first girl at the Moonlight Roller Rink back in the ’70s while Jackson’s Off the Wall played on the sound system. “I’ve always been fascinated by him,” he says. “Throughout the years I would periodically turn to my wife and ask, ‘What do you think Michael Jackson is doing right now?’ Musically he lost me at Bad, but what became more important was the evolution of his character and the strangeness of him. I couldn’t wait to see what he was going to do next. The whole idea of meeting him was just dreamlike. I had no idea what I was even going to see.”
Jackson’s house was off Sunset Boulevard in the affluent Holmby Hills neighborhood. Zabrecky arrived and found people gathered outside the property. He thought they were performers, but it became apparent that they were actually fans waiting for a glimpse of their idol. Zabrecky approached and they accosted him, asking what was happening inside. He managed to push past to a large metal gate. He could see several security guards in suits on the other side. Before he even announced himself, the gates opened.
“The thing that struck me as odd was that there were two big Christmas wreaths on the gate, and it was already late February. Someone should have tossed them in the trash. They were totally dead.”
Zabrecky was ushered inside and the guards demanded his phone, which he gave them. He glanced around and was surprised by what he saw. “It was your typical Beverly Hills mansion,” he explains. “But the thing I noticed right away was that it didn’t look cared for. The landscaping was neglected. Having seen pictures of Neverland and his Encino house, I was really surprised by that. The plants all looked like they could use a good watering. It wasn’t Grey Gardens, but it definitely seemed in disrepair.”
Zabrecky and the other performers were kept in a room to the side of the house. He could see a large backyard with a swimming pool. He turned to the Hula-Hoop man and asked if the whole thing seemed kind of strange. “Honey, this is the weirdest,” the man replied.
Zabrecky was informed he would go on second, after the juggler. They would perform next to the pool, and their audience would be seated in four lounge chairs already set up. It was then that they realized there would be no guests — just Jackson and his three children. “We were surprised,” Zabrecky recalls. “And it felt kind of sad. No friends, no balloons. I didn’t even see a birthday cake.”
As walkie-talkies buzzed, the four of them suddenly appeared, heading toward the pool. “They looked just like a family of ducks,” Zabrecky says. “Michael was leading with the kids following, from tallest to smallest. He was wearing black-satin pajamas and looked very fragile. The kids looked surprisingly normal. They seemed like a happy little family, which I wasn’t expecting. They were all smiling.”
When the juggler finished, the producer signaled, and Zabrecky headed down to take his place. He noticed another dying Christmas wreath, on a door of the pool house. “I thought that was a little odd. But the whole place had a slight feel of neglect. I kept fixing things with my eyes. As I reached the pool, I saw this little broken-down pirate ship floating in the water, knocking against the tile. It really resonated with me. I think because of the whole Peter Pan thing.”
Jackson and the kids began to giggle as Zabrecky approached in his black suit and Norman Bates persona. Jackson was wearing his trademark fedora and sunglasses and only his jaw line was visible. They seemed to enjoy the magic show, but after a few minutes, a paparazzi helicopter appeared overhead. The kids immediately recoiled, each of them pulling a cloth veil over his or her head. Zabrecky stopped. The kids remained hidden for about 30 seconds until the helicopter left, and then everything returned to the way it had been. “They seemed to view the helicopter as some sort of bad force,” Zabrecky notes. “Blanket especially. It was like an air raid.”
He resumed his act and was pleased to see Jackson and the kids laughing at the right moments. But as he began a monologue about being different and an outsider, while cutting out paper dolls, one with two heads, he realized he’d lost them. “I thought they would love it and think I was brilliant for knowing how they felt, but they were just staring at me blankly,” he says. “It was obvious that they didn’t understand. I think it was just totally outside their experience. I was talking about neighbors and being the weird boy next door, and they have probably never even had neighbors. They live totally insulated lives.”
He moved into his shrinking-card finale and they were with him again, laughing and clapping. Even the security guards seemed to be enjoying the show. When he finished, Jackson and the kids applauded enthusiastically, thanked him and told him the show was great. As he walked away, Zabrecky says he was elated. “I had just performed for Michael Jackson,” he says. “I had watched and listened to him so many times, and then I felt like I had this little moment, where I got to show him my art. It was pretty huge.”
Then, last Thursday Zabrecky was driving back from Las Vegas with two magician friends. As they passed through Barstow his wife suddenly texted the shocking message: “MJ dead — turn on radio.” He says he immediately switched on the radio just as the announcers were confirming that Jackson was indeed dead. “It didn’t seem real, and it was very sad,” Zabrecky recalls. “He seemed like someone who was probably at the end of his musical career, but the family life seemed surprisingly light, from what I saw. He might not have been the King of Pop anymore, but the four of them seemed like peas in a pod — an army of four. And I wondered what would happen to them without him.”