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Michael Jackson: A requiem for a king

Family, friends and fans bid farewell to an icon.

July 08, 2009|Geoff Boucher and Maria Elena Fernandez

In the end, they brought Michael Jackson to the one place where his life always made sense -- beneath a spotlight and in front of his adoring fans. The superstar, in a gleaming gold coffin, was celebrated in a Staples Center memorial service that was beamed around the world and, like the icon himself, strove mightily to be all things to all people.

With family, celebrity peers, politicians, preachers and even professional athletes taking turns at the microphone, the polished but emotional service was meant both as a farewell and as a deeply sympathetic framing of the star's complicated legacy.

The Rev. Al Sharpton brought the crowd to its feet by drawing a direct cultural line between Jackson's incandescent 1980s pop success and the 2008 election of President Obama. "Those young kids," Sharpton said of Jackson's massive crossover audience, "grew up from being teenage comfortable fans of Michael to being 40 years old and being comfortable to vote for a person of color to be the president of the United States of America." Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) praised Jackson as "a uniquely American hero," and music veteran Smokey Robinson judged him to be, simply, "the greatest performer of all time."

Sharpton and several other speakers alluded to media persecution of Jackson, who died June 25 at age 50, but one speaker who had known Jackson for more than four decades suggested that the reality is not that tidy.

"Sure there were some sad times and maybe some questionable decisions on his part, but Michael Jackson accomplished everything he ever dreamed of," said Berry Gordy, the Motown Records mogul who signed Jackson to his first record deal after an audition in the summer of 1968.

There were many memorable images, but for the years to come the signature moment may have been the public debut of sorts of Jackson's 11-year-old daughter, Paris Michael Katherine Jackson. Protected and, literally, veiled for much of her life, the youngster said through tears:

"I just wanted to say, ever since I was born, Daddy has been the best father you could ever imagine. And I just wanted to say I love him so much."

The ceremony was by turns somber, evangelical, thunderous and hushed. There was humor, as well. Former Los Angeles Lakers star Magic Johnson recounted how his nervous first visit to Jackson's mansion ended with the pair sitting on the floor and feasting on Kentucky Fried Chicken; Brooke Shields, who was an especially moving speaker, told how she used to tease Jackson about his most famous fashion choice.

"I'd tease him about the glove," Shields said, referring to the solitary silver glove that became Jackson's trademark. " 'What's up with the glove?' and 'If you're gonna hold my hand, it better be the non-gloved one because the sequins hurt.' "

Audience members danced along with some musical performances and stifled tears at some of the many tributes to the singer. There were also shouts from the audience of "Power to the people," "Long live the king," and "We miss you, Michael!"

The memorial, a mix of measured grief and show-biz spectacle, was seen across the globe on television and computer screens and covered with the intensity of an election night and the overkill of a Super Bowl Sunday.

Forty-seven theaters in 24 states showed the event live. As a local event, it was a surprisingly smooth affair; there was a 30-minute delay to the scheduled start time, but the predicted crush of crowds outside the arena never materialized, which Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton credited to "a steady drumbeat of media coverage in recent days" telling fans without tickets they wouldn't be permitted near the downtown venue.

Excluding invited guests, the estimated 17,500 attendees were selected from about 1.6 million who sought entry.

The event was produced by Ken Ehrlich, the longtime producer of the Grammy Awards telecast. Other key figures included Tim Leiweke, president and chief executive of AEG, and, somewhat surprisingly, Bratton, who was a presence just off stage throughout the service. He also worked the press line before the event (which, to underscore the circus atmosphere, required stepping over manure left in the wake of his mounted officers) and personally guarded the gilded casket as it arrived at the arena's underground garage.

The event that seemed so smooth and precise to television viewers was more chaotic up close. Ehrlich made a number of major decisions on the fly, such as asking Robinson to open the service by reading letters from Diana Ross and Nelson Mandela. "I think this might work," Ehrlich said, rushing to hand the letters to the surprised singer, who then calmly climbed the steps to the stage, looked into the camera and greeted the world. Ehrlich also had the lighting changed for the entire arena a few minutes into the show. "It's way too hot in here," he told his lighting crew, using a shorthand expression for glare.

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