GARY, Indiana – Before there was the sprawling Neverland ranch in California, before he became a superstar with the best-selling album of all time, "Thriller," a tiny house in the industrial city of Gary was home for Michael Jackson.
Since Jackson's death, two women from the Chicago area, about 30 miles from Gary, have started "The King of Pop Hometown Tour," taking busloads of tourists on a four-hour trek through Jackson family landmarks in northwest Indiana. The highlight is 2300 Jackson St., a small white-sided house as big as a two-and-a-half car garage where the Jackson family lived - with nine children - nearly four decades ago.
"This is a tour of motivation and inspiration," guide Denise Jordan Walker tells riders, as her partner Tecora Rogers readies the bus to leave. "We are not taking you to a gated community. We are not taking you to Neverland. We are taking you to Gary, Indiana."
On cue, a music video of the Jackson 5 plays on overhead screens as the bus pulls off from Chicago and travels south down the highway. A young Michael Jackson sings, "I'm going back to Indiana. Indiana here I come. I'm going back to Indiana. That is where my baby's from."
The women said they always wanted to host a Jackson-themed tour of Gary, but had put the idea aside to focus on a Chicago jazz music tour instead. After Michael Jackson's death in June, requests started pouring in, Walker said.
"It hasn't changed that much since the Jacksons lived here," Walker said. "It's pretty much like time stood still. We want to paint a picture and let people really feel what the Jacksons went through on a day-to-day basis."
Off the highway in Indiana, the bus drives through a heavily industrial area along Lake Michigan before stopping in front of the steel mill where father Joe Jackson worked. The tour goes on to the hospital where the Jackson children were born and the elementary school they attended. It also highlights the beginnings of the Jackson 5, with stops at Mr. Lucky's Lounge, where the group first performed, and the house where the Jacksons recorded for Steeltown Records in 1967.
While stuffed animals, cards and signs still decorate the outside of the Jackson home, the inside remains closed. The tour, however, has partnered with the owners of a mirror-image house across the street, allowing for a walk-through to get a feel for the Jackson home.
Later on, some tour-goers point at the marquee next to Roosevelt High School in Gary, which reads, "We celebrate the life of Michael Jackson."
The ride is broken up with video interviews with Gary residents who knew the Jacksons and videos of Michael Jackson songs, like "Remember the Time" and "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough." The music has some riders bopping their heads and tapping their feet. When Jackson sings one of his high-pitched "Ooohs..." the tour-goers "Ooh..." along with him.
There's even Jackson trivia. Tour guides call out questions: "Who was Michael Jackson's first wife?" or "What song was about his favorite pet?" Riders yell back the answers, "Lisa Marie Presley" and "Ben."
The trip is taken on a smaller charter tour bus that seats about two dozen people to allow for Gary's narrow side streets and to fit underneath low-hanging electrical wires.
One rider, Mallorie Garner, 58, said the tour offered her perspective on the beginnings of such a famous family.
"It helps you appreciate where they started and how far they came," Garner said.
Another rider, Danielle Smith, a 21-year-old student, said she attended memorials after Michael Jackson's death. Seeing his childhood home put the singer's career into perspective for her, Smith said.
"To truly understand Michael you have to go where it all started, his beginning, their experiences in Indiana," Smith said. "It was really calming because I knew that's where he grew up, but there's a feeling of loss."
Tour guides researched the Jackson family's time in Gary to offer a glimpse into their early days, Walker said.
"They have this vision of Michael, he's bigger than big," Walker said. "But he had to come from somewhere. He had to have dreams. Neverland could never have happened without Gary."