Published July 11, 2009
GARY, Ind. – Michael Jackson's boyhood hometown bade farewell to the King of Pop on Friday with a celebration of his life and music.
More than 6,000 people showed up for an upbeat memorial event that featured performers singing and dancing to his hits, video montages of Jackson and comments from the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Gary's mayor and people who knew Michael Jackson when his family lived in Gary.
Mayor Rudy Clay said Jackson had made the city known worldwide and told the crowd that he has moved on to a better place.
"He's going to put on those golden slippers and he's going to dance all over God's heaven," Clay said to the more than 6,000 people gathered at the Steel Yard, Gary's minor league baseball park.
Clay later unveiled a 7-foot-high granite slab with an etching of Jackson standing on his tiptoes with the words "King of Pop" and his birth date and death date. Clay said it would be the first item in a Jackson museum he hopes to see the city build.
People in the crowd said the celebration was fitting for the King of Pop.
"It brought back a lot of memories," said Betty Nicholson, 52, of Gary, who said she used to perform at some of the same talent shows as Jackson and his brothers. "The show was fantastic."
Organizers said more than 30 members of Jackson's family attended the event. Joe Jackson, a former crane operator at nearby U.S. Steel, arrived surrounded by security just as Jesse Jackson was finishing speaking.
In his remarks, Jesse Jackson praised Jackson's parents for the job they did raising their family while living in a small two-bedroom house in a working-class neighborhood.
Kellee Patterson, the first black Miss Indiana in 1971, was the first singer on stage and performed "Gone Too Soon," a song Jackson recorded in memory of Ryan White. White, who died in 1990, contracted HIV through a blood transfusion to treat his hemophilia. He drew national attention in the 1980s when as a 13-year-old he was banned from a school near Kokomo. Jackson became friends with White.
Later, 500 dancers dressed like zombies recreated the "Thriller" video, with one man taking Jackson's role and leading them.
One video montage included a speech Jackson gave in 2003 when he visited the city for the only time after his family left in 1969, when he was 11. He finished by saying: "Gary, you are family, you always will be, I love."
People who knew Jackson when his family lived in Gary spoke about what a thoughtful young man he was and recounted how the Jackson 5 once performed at Garnett Elementary School, charging students 10 cents apiece.
Some of the biggest applause came before the memorial started, when Jackson's hits were playing and young children and teenagers went out to the dugout and mimicked his moves.
Many in the crowd left about 2 1/2 hours into the show, after performers sang "We are the World," although the event continued for an additional 40 minutes, including an uncomfortable 25 minutes of the master of ceremonies killing time while waiting for the final singer to arrive.
The Jacksons moved from Gary, located 30 miles southeast of Chicago, after the Jackson 5 recorded their first album. Streams of fans have visited the Jacksons' former home since the pop star's death last month.
Peter Mata, 33, a bill collector from Streator, Ill., was first in line at the ballpark before Friday's memorial celebration. He drove 100 miles with his 14-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son and arrived on Thursday night.
"I just had to come. It's Michael Jackson," he said.
Other fans said they had tried unsuccessfully to get tickets to Tuesday's service at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.
"I figured I'd do the next best thing and pay my respects here in Gary," said Greg Packer of Hungtington, N.Y., a 45-year-old retired highway maintenance worker. "I wanted to experience this live with other Michael Jackson fans."