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Memorial 'bordered on a miracle'

It could have been chaos, but the Staples Center service was instead a well-planned balm for grieving fans.

July 08, 2009|Harriet Ryan and Andrew Blankstein

It had all the makings of an epic disaster: short notice, family tensions, multiple freeway closures, a potential crowd in the hundreds of thousands, divas galore, even a circus that was waiting in the wings.

Somehow, with help from the largest deployment of Los Angeles police since the 1984 Olympics, the producers of the Michael Jackson memorial at Staples Center managed to pull off a smooth-running, emotionally affecting event that was a balm to mourning fans and didn't bring the city to a standstill.

"There were no arrests, no traffic accidents, no uses of force by officers and nothing resembling a problem," said Assistant Police Chief Earl Paysinger. "Quite frankly, it bordered on a miracle."

Said Wendy Hill, a nurse practitioner from Pasadena who attended the tribute: "It was the most amazingly controlled, most well-organized event I have ever been to."

In the days leading up to Tuesday's memorial, the odds seemed to favor chaos. Police were predicting that up to a million people might try to converge on the site of any Jackson funeral or tribute. Fans were flying into Los Angeles from all over the globe, expecting to participate in some sort of public event.

The Jackson family and the promoter of Jackson's most recent comeback attempt, AEG Live, seemed uncertain about what to do. Jackson's death had caught everyone by surprise, and the family had other priorities, including a tug of war over the estate and a potential battle for custody of the pop star's three young children.

An event the size and complexity of Jackson's memorial would normally take months to plan, but the men who gathered in an office across from Staples on Thursday had only five days, three of which stretched over a holiday weekend. What the group planning Jackson's service lacked in time, they made up in experience. They included director-choreographer Kenny Ortega; veteran awards show producer Ken Ehrlich; Randy Phillips, chief executive of AEG Live; and Tim Leiweke, president of the parent company, Anschutz Entertainment Group.

"I don't even think we discussed titles," Ehrlich said. "Everything was overridden by the fact the clock was ticking."

Assisted by hundreds of others, they worked 12- to 14-hour days mapping out a show that would be both celebration and memorial. Jackson's brother Randy served as a liaison with his mother, Katherine, and the rest of the family.

"They had veto power over everything that happened, every guest, every speaker," said Phillips.

There was not time for a dress rehearsal, but the singers who performed Jackson hits gathered Monday night for about six hours to go over their numbers, Ehrlich said.

Once Staples Center was selected as the venue, the most pressing question became who would sit in the approximately 17,500 seats in the sports arena. More than 1.6 million people registered in an online lottery. Many who won tickets sold them.

"We did everything in our power on such short notice to distribute this many tickets for free. Controlling scalping in a country that runs on free enterprise is difficult in any circumstance," Phillips said.

The producers also had to deal with journalists from around the world. More than 3,000 media outlets applied for credentials and a total of 2,200 passes were distributed, said Jesse Derris, a public relations manager at Sunshine Sachs & Associates, which represents the Jackson family. He said the requests had to be handled manually because there wasn't time to set up an automated system.

Police, meanwhile, were trying to figure out how to contain and control what threatened to be an unmanageable crowd.

Paysinger said the key was sending out a clear message that no one would get into -- or even near -- Staples Center without a ticket. It became a mantra in the day leading up to the event, repeated constantly on local television and radio news.

"We drove home the message that people were better off watching at home, there was nothing to see," Chief William J. Bratton said. "It was all about good planning and good coordination."

The department deployed 3,200 officers, but they were hardly needed. In the end, fewer than 1,000 fans appeared on the streets outside the Staples Center area, and the most serious incident involved a man without a ticket who resisted leaving the cordoned-off area and was later detained for exhibiting "diminished mental capacity," according to Lt. John Romero. He was not arrested. A second man was detained for trying to sell tickets but was later released.

The Police Department sent 1,000 officers home when it became clear that they weren't needed, Paysinger said.

The crowds were so light that the day was a bust for people trying to cash in on the event. "It's not the way I expected it to be," vendor Fatou Sambe said as she packed up armloads of unsold Michael Jackson-themed T-shirts. She sold only 100 of her 1,000. "I expected a lot of people and a lot of sales. In fact, I was counting on today."

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