Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Jackson fans celebrate at Apollo!

Apollo Theater
Thousands of fans queued for hours outside the building

by Claire Prentice
BBC News, New York

The streets outside New York's legendary Apollo Theater buzzed with the music and memories of Michael Jackson on Tuesday.

Thousands of fans flocked from all over the globe to pay their respects to the singer who had numerous hits worldwide, including Thriller, Billie Jean and Beat It.

They were there to see film director Spike Lee and the Reverend Al Sharpton kick off a two-day memorial event in honour of the star, who died last Thursday.

Many fans began queuing before daybreak. They sang, danced and told stories about the man dubbed the "King of Pop" while they waited for the doors to open.

They were greeted by Apollo historian Billy Mitchell who asked: "Who are we here for, family?"

"Michael," came the deafening response.

Jackson merchandise

All along 125th Street, vendors selling Michael Jackson T-shirts, DVDs, CDs, badges, photos and posters were doing brisk business.

Their yelled sales pitches merged with the sound of Michael Jackson's hits, which blared out from ghetto blasters dotted along the pavement.

Dean Powell had already sold out of hastily printed T-shirts and planned to do without sleep so he could spend the following night printing Jackson bandanas.

"Everything is selling like hot cakes," said Mr Powell.

"I can't print enough of the stuff."

Merchandisers
Local entrepreneurs saw a boom in demand for Jackson merchandise

Michael Jackson began his career at the Apollo and so it seemed a fitting place to say farewell.

He first appeared at the fabled Harlem theatre with his brothers as The Jackson Five in 1967, when they won the Apollo's Amateur Night contest.

The appearance is credited with launching their career.

Despite the long wait, the mood on the street on Tuesday was festive, even when the skies opened and the rain began bucketing down.

"We came to pay our respects to Michael," said Junko Kitagawa who had travelled from Tokyo and waited in line for four hours.

Next to her, Sharone Tremain wore a single white glove as a tribute to the star. She had called in sick to her store job and was entertaining the crowds with some impromptu dancing Thriller-style.

"I ain't gonna miss this for nobody," said Ms Tremain. "I grew up listening to Michael Jackson. I just had to be here to say goodbye."

It was a sentiment echoed by many.

Inside the auditorium of the Apollo, the mood similarly upbeat.

Spike Lee danced on stage to Rockin' Robin and ABC and told the crowd to celebrate Jackson's life and his contribution to African-American culture.

"It's all about the love," said Lee to roars from the crowd.

On stage sat a black fedora and a white glove on a stool, bathed in light and surrounded by elaborate arrangements of white lilies.

A huge screen showed a video montage spanning Jackson's musical career.

Reverend Al Sharpton and Spike Lee
Reverend Al Sharpton and Spike Lee took to the stage

Six hundred fans at a time were allowed inside for a series of 45-minute memorial services.

They listened to Jackson's music and lay tribute notes, teddy bears and homemade posters at the foot of the stage where Jackson first performed as a boy.

Some wept. Many sang and danced in the aisles.

Mr Sharpton announced a minute's silence, at 1726 EDT (2226 BST) - the time fans on America's east coast learned of the star's death.

Fans held hands with friends, neighbours and strangers.

Outside, thousands waited patiently in a queue which snaked all the way up from 125th Street to 132nd Street.

Traci Lewin, 22, arrived early in the morning with her friends to make sure she got inside.

"It was like a party inside," she said afterwards.

"Everyone was singing and dancing and screaming, 'go Michael'.

"When Al Sharpton spoke, it became very quiet and sad."

She added: "I still can't quite believe he has died."

Fans began converging on the Apollo as soon as news broke of Jackson's death on Thursday.

In the days since, thousands have flocked to sign a tribute wall, so thick in signatures that a third, and in some places fourth or fifth, sheet of paper or plastic has been put up.

"He stole America's heart at a very young age," said Abhishek Patel, 23. "He is the king of our generation of music. He influenced so many people."

Michael Jackson hat and glove
Jackson's famous hat and jewelled glove sat at the front of the stage

Monica Harley stood in line with her 70-year-old mother.

"He was a genius," she said.

"He really loved people and that came through in his music. May he rest in peace."

On Wednesday, the weekly Amateur Night at the Apollo is to be dedicated to Jackson.

The sold-out event will feature a moonwalking competition.

In a statement, Jonelle Procope, president of the Apollo Theater Foundation, said: "We will always remember Michael in our hearts as a true Apollo legend, known for his professionalism and grace.

"Our sympathy goes out to his entire family. He will be deeply missed."

Michael Jackson last appeared at the Apollo in 2002 at the request of former President Bill Clinton, for a Democratic National Committee fundraiser.


BBC NEWS REPORT.

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