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Michael Jackson memorial a day fans will never forget

It was a show unlike any L.A. had ever seen. Fans emoted; some folks groused.

July 08, 2009|Louis Sahagun, Corina Knoll and Carla Hall

In a city fabled for its televised car chases, bejeweled Oscar shows and boisterous Lakers parades, residents and visitors alike have grown accustomed to spectacle, planned and spontaneous.

But Michael Jackson's category-defying memorial -- part variety show, part teary service -- drew fans both giddy and sad from around the world, all compelled to bond with one another and take in the moment.

They left their cynical bones at home, for the most part. But they did bring their cellphone cameras.

The lucky 17,500 who had won, begged or bought tickets entered Staples Center sober about Jackson's death, but also thrilled to have secured a berth at a once-in-a-lifetime performance of some of the world's most famous pop artists.

"This is something we will tell our children about," said Lindsay Przybylowicz, 29, of Santa Monica. She and her friend Rebecca Regnier, 30, wore black attire and glitter-covered white gloves in honor of Jackson. "There's almost a calming energy in the air."

Indeed, police said there were no disturbances.

Some fans couldn't help but imagine that Jackson himself would have been thrilled. "If he's looking down on us," said Lisa Casillas, 46, of Cypress before she walked into Staples Center, "he's probably saying, 'Why couldn't it have been like this when I was alive?' "

In some parts of the city the memorial played without much fanfare -- or many viewers -- on TVs in restaurants and hotels. At the Montage Beverly Hills hotel, staffers paused periodically to watch the proceedings. As Stevie Wonder crooned, staffer Allan Hughes smiled ruefully. "He's going to make everyone cry," he said.

At Melrose Bar & Grill in West Hollywood, as the memorial was winding down and the lunch crowd coming in, some patrons avoided the TV in the bar area.

"For me, it's just overkill," said personal trainer Robert Lee of the continuing Jackson coverage. "How many days can you watch it?"

Outside Staples Center, there was no such ennui.

Few could match the exuberance of 17-year-old Tia Ralph of Long Beach. At the mere sight of Jackson's image, on a T-shirt or a helium balloon, she screamed: "Michael! Jackson!" then wiped away tears. "I love him so much I feel like fainting."

"We need a Michael Jackson holiday," cried out freelance writer Waset Regir, 38, drawing a laugh from the crowd. "I'd give back Presidents Day for Michael Jackson Day. The presidents never made me feel all warm inside."

In Leimert Park, a group gathered at Lucy Florence Coffee House to observe a moment of silence and watch the memorial on TV. For Kim Jackson-Blaylock, a 42-year-old nurse, Jackson's songs were hallmarks of her life.

"I didn't just want to sit in my house alone feeling sad," she said. "I wanted to connect."

Miles away from Staples Center, those who filled the seats of the Krikorian theater in Monrovia acted as if they too were at Jackson's memorial.

Watching the live screening while munching on popcorn, the audience of more than 150 laughed at Smokey Robinson's joke-filled tribute, sniffled through Brooke Shields' emotional eulogy and clapped along to the performance of "We Are the World."

Despite their casual attire -- flip-flops, jeans and shorts -- people treated the screening as if it were the actual memorial.

"This is the next best thing," Pamela Hung, 19, of San Marino said. "To watch it from home wouldn't have been as good."

Those fans who did get into Staples Center seemed awed by their proximity to the Jacksons and other celebrities.

"It's amazing that the Jackson family allowed us to experience that with them," said Ed Vazquez, a sales manager for AT&T who lives in Valencia.

Brian Rafat, 32, who came from Toronto with his girlfriend, said that when Jackson's coffin was brought into the arena, "You just really felt his presence. It was an amazing experience."

A torrent of cellphone cameras went off as the casket arrived at Staples Center. It was, said Marcella Romaya of San Diego, "the icing on the cake."

Fans walked out spent from the emotion of it all.

"It was the best experience I've ever had in my entire life. I cried the entire time," said Renita Hamilton, 34, from Atlanta.

When Jermaine Jackson sang a tribute, Vazquez said, "there wasn't a dry eye in the house -- including mine."

As people streamed out of Staples Center, vendors made desperate last-minute pitches to sell Jackson souvenirs. In addition to the usual T-shirts and buttons were tiny live rabbits ($25) and turtles ($8).

Not all fans found the Jackson karma they craved in the vicinity of Staples Center. Some went to Neverland, the Santa Barbara County ranch the singer called home before abandoning it. With tractors plowing golden fields a few yards away, a steady stream of visitors trickled by, snapping pictures of themselves in front of the massive gates.

"His memorial is in Los Angeles," said Kyle Phew, 42, who went to the estate with his wife, Celia, from the Bay Area, "but his spirit will always be right here."

Others were drawn to Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills cemetery -- even after the early morning service there for Jackson was over and the Rolls-Royces, the hearse and the circling helicopters were gone.

David and Paola Calvo, 28-year-old twins from Madrid who have been studying in Hawaii and Germany, made hurried trips to Los Angeles.

"We're not here to say goodbye. I don't even want to say goodbye," said Paola Calvo, her words conjuring an echo of Jackson's famous lyric, "I never can say goodbye . . . "

She started to cry.

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louis.sahagun@latimes.com

corina.knoll@latimes.com

carla.hall@latimes.com

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