Michael Jackson’s Boots That Were Made for Moonwalking
The new Michael Jackson installation at the Autry went up yesterday, and the first thing that came
to the minds of MJ designers Michael Bush and Dennis Tompkins when they saw it was how well it clicked with all the other Hollywood cowboy memorabilia.
“It really looks like it fits in with everything else,” Tompkins said while watching the lighting guys put the finishing touches on the case, which displayed two entire outfits, a belt, a pair of metal-encased boots, a design sketch and a rhinestone glove. “John Wayne’s around the corner and Roy Rogers is over there. Michael’s stuff just seems right at home.”
Tompkins and Bush, who designed for Jackson for 25 years, spent several months working with Jeffrey Richardson, the Autry’s associate
curator for film and pop culture, choosing items from the wardrobe of the King of Pop that were inspired by western themes. The costumes all went into a case in the Imagination gallery, which focuses on Hollywood’s interpretation of the West.
“The idea is to show people that Michael used western influences,” Richardson said. “That influence continues even if people don’t realize where the ultimate inspiration came from. It didn’t come from Michael. Michael was taking from other things.”
As they took a first look at the installation yesterday, Tompkins and Bush sat for an interview with Chris Connelly, of Good Morning America.
“The first thing out of his mouth was, ‘They want a piece of me?’” Bush told Connelly when asked about Jackson’s reaction to the prospective exhibit. “He was so exited they wanted a piece of something he wore to be in a western heritage museum.”
How Michael Jackson came to the Autry is an interesting story in itself. Yadhira De Leon, Autry public relations manager, met Tompkins and Bush at the
Grammy Museum in early 2009. A casual conversation led to an e-mail from the team the next day to ask if the Autry was interested in a Flip Wilson suit by the famed Nudie Cohn that they owned.
“I sent it to Jeffrey, and Jeffrey wrote back and said, ‘Yea, but do they have anything from Michael?” De Leon said. “Jeffrey said, ‘Let’s talk to them! Let’s see what’s going on.’”
Of course, the designers had access to the things they themselves had crafted for Jackson’s concerts and public appearances. But Tompkins said he and Bush also had been acquiring wardrobe items from television shows and movies as far back as 1990. That year, they
came across Jackson’s blue satin fringed shirt and suede bell bottoms — used in a 1977 Jackson
Family television show — at a Rose Bowl flea market sale. It was part of a lot full of costumes worn by actors and singers, mainly for television specials and series.
“At that time, nobody was saving that stuff,” he said. “It was used once and then thrown away or cut up to make something else.”
Richardson’s question about whether Jackson ever wore anything western got them digging, and they found it. They then began the research to see if they could find any video that showed Jackson performing in the outfit. They found that in a second-hand shop. In the number, MJ and the rest of the family sing and dance to a medley version of “Cisco Kid” and “I Shot the Sheriff.” It’s
vintage Michael Jackson, with sharp moves and even sharper production values. One can see where sequences like the “Thriller” dance came from.
In their search, Tompkins and Bush also looked for more recent pieces, and they found several bib-front shirts Michael had worn during his solo career. The one they finally picked for the display was inspired by something Bush once wore on stage while working with Jackson: a pair of red-and-black leather cowboy boots.
“Michael looked down at them and said, ‘I want a jacket like that,’” Bush said. Later, the jacket became a shirt, and the shirt went on Jackson’s back for an appearance in Australia.
Then there are the boots: a pair of western-style cowboy boots covered in chromed metal that look like something out of a suit of armor, that Jackson wore to the White House when he met President George H. W. Bush. Talk about a moonwalk.
Tompkins said Michael had some very specific preferences when it came to wardrobe. For example, he always asked that pants be slim-fitting and not flared. He didn’t want the complicated dance moves he worked so hard on to get lost in the fabric.
Looking at the display, one gets the distinct idea that the West and showbusiness, as concepts, are inseparable and, in some measure, indistinguishable from each other. Each has always involved larger-than-life characters whom the rest of us strive to emulate. If you look at it that way, there’s no way Michael Jackson could be left out of that pantheon. He definitely belongs.
See below for the Good Morning America segment on the Michael Jackson installation.
And here’s the ABC Channel 7 version: