NEW YORK – Thousands of Michael Jackson fans converged on Harlem's famed Apollo Theater Tuesday for a public tribute to the performer, clutching photographs, cheering and dancing to his music at the legendary venue that launched the one-time child star's career.
Activist the Rev. Al Sharpton gave a rousing speech praising the pop star to hundreds of fans who crammed into the theater as others waited in line outside to pay their respects.
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"Michael made young men and women all over the world imitate us," Sharpton said. "Before Michael, we were limited and ghettoized. But Michael put on a colorful military outfit, he pulled his pants up, he put on the one glove, and he smashed the barriers of segregated music."
A black fedora with a white glove draped across its brim sat on a lone stool on the theater's stage, surrounded by elaborate arrangements of white lilies.
Fans left teddy bears, letters and homemade posters compiled from various images of the star. One carried a sign that said: "Michael we never can say goodbye: no no no no."
Constance Percival, who decades earlier camped out in front of Madison Square Garden to get tickets for a show during Jackson's "Bad" tour, had tears in her eyes after attending the Apollo tribute.
"Seeing people united for Michael shows that the world can come together as one," the 33-year-old Brooklyn resident said, looking at the multiracial crowd that turned out to honor the artist who had a hit with a song with the lyric, "it don't matter if you're black or white."
Among those moved to dance was film director Spike Lee, who joined Sharpton on stage to groove to "ABC" and "Rockin' Robin."
The line outside stretched 10 blocks north to 135th Street at one point, organizers said. Some fans sang their favorite songs and danced in the street as they waited.
"I thought that in my time I'd have the opportunity to see him in concert," said Victoria Campomames, who did a brief moonwalk on the sidewalk as "Rock With You" played from a nearby store. "This is about the closest I'm gonna get."
Campomames, wearing a Jackson-style spangled black jacket, fedora and white gloves, took the day off from her job at a grocery store in Morrisville, Vermont, for the all-day tribute at the fabled venue that helped make him a star.
Thousands were paying their respects at the theater, which was letting in 600 people at a time to listen to Jackson's music, watch a video tribute and leave flowers and memorabilia.
The event seemed half concert and half family reunion. Even a security staffer or two could be seen dancing in the aisle.
The tribute began shortly after 2 p.m. EDT, but many people had lined up hours earlier.
Ebony Johnson, 19, arrived at midnight to secure a spot near the front of the line, clutching a Jackson scrapbook she started when she was 14. An image of the star was tattooed on her left arm. She said she got the tattoo last month in anticipation of his planned comeback shows in London.
"I love him so much — I can't explain that in words," she said. "I felt like Michael was my family."
Admirers wrote messages on a wall of remembrance outside the 125th street theater. "God bless and be with you M. Jackson," wrote one fan. "We all share your grief. Love always," read a message to his family.
Fans began assembling at the Apollo soon after Jackson's death Thursday in Los Angeles. It has continued to serve as an impromptu memorial site ever since.
The pop icon's ties to the theater go back to 1967, when The Jackson 5 won the Apollo's Amateur Night contest. The appearance is credited with helping to launch the brother act's career, which later propelled Jackson to solo stardom.
Jackson last appeared at the Apollo in 2002, invited by former President Bill Clinton for a Democratic National Committee fundraiser.
The Apollo also played a role in remembrances for James Brown after his death in 2006, hosting a public viewing of the "Godfather of Soul" for thousands of fans.