Friday, September 16, 2011

When I "Moonwalked" With the King of Pop (first published July 2, 2009)

   The sudden death last week of arguably the world's most recognized entertainer sent shock waves across the globe and instigated a frenzy of communications via the Internet and mainstream news outlets. As generations of fans mourned the pop icon, I summoned up memories of working for Michael Jackson 25 years ago.
As his reputation soared, Michael Jackson announced he would tour with his brothers one last time. Ironically, the five-month event was called "The Jacksons' Victory Tour," named to spotlight "Victory," the brother's latest recording, yet none of that album's songs was performed during its 55-shows. In 1984, the tour was the most expensive, most lavish ever produced and became the most lucrative with an estimated gross of $50 million.
After the spotlight on The Jackson Five faded, Michael embarked on a solo career while brothers Jackie, Tito, Jermaine, Marlon and Randy languished in the shadows. As Michael emerged with two smash solo recordings and his compelling stage presence matured, the "Victory" tour catapulted him to megastardom while his brothers were merely supporting players and onlookers. Jermaine did have a nightly solo set during the tour, to support his solo album, but it was a short-lived fling at stardom.
As news of the upcoming tour snowballed in the spring of 1984, I paid little attention. I was aware of Jackson's escalating popularity and increasing accomplishments, but I was blasé about his music and persona, even after seeing his funky, innovative footwork during "Motown 25: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow," the 1983 television special that stunned most of the 47 million people who tuned in and triggered the King of Pop's juggernaut career.
As that summer began, I was laid off from my public relations job at Radio City Music Hall, but one vice president arranged an interview for me with the man handling public relations for the "Victory Tour." My yearning to work on a concert tour, and the opportunity to be part of the biggest one ever put together, prevailed over my nonchalant attitude about Michael Jackson.
With the tour scheduled to kick off on July 6, my potential employer was headed to Kansas City, so he interviewed me at Kennedy Airport as he waited in line for his ticket. After a brief conversation, he hired me as one of two Publicity Coordinators. I caught up with the tour two weeks later in Jacksonville, Florida.
In each city along the way, away from the prying eyes of the media, Jackson would frequently fulfill the wishes of terminally ill children who requested to meet him through organizations, such as the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Those instances were my only encounters with the sheltered star. One of my tasks was to escort the youngsters and family members to Jackson's hotel suite where the singer spent time with the youngsters. In his familiar hushed tone, he always expressed his gratitude to me after he introduced himself to the youngster and parents as Michael's manager looked on.
My other responsibilities were basic. Before each show, I distributed press credentials and tickets to approved print and electronic media representatives. Most of them also requested pre-show venue access to see the massive stage set up. I'd accompany them in, around and out of the stadiums. Once the concert began I coordinate the set-up for video crews to connect to the production's video feed and get footage from the first two new numbers for use on local news broadcasts.
When the TV crews departed I hovered near the stage vigilantly looking for unauthorized photographers in the front rows. The guilty ones had no choice but to surrender the illicit film if they wanted to stay for the remainder of the concert.
At every performance I was amazed at how females — and a few males — responded when Jackson first appeared on stage. I recalled archival footage of Frank Sinatra's swooning bobbysoxers, Elvis Presley fanatics and passionate Beatles fans' reactions, but watching pre-pubescent girls, teenagers and adult women scream, as tears streamed down their cheeks, was mind-boggling.
Aside from the excitement of the tour and the long hours I put in most days, an unusual incident occurred in, of all places, the City of Brotherly Love. The Jacksons held a closed-door luncheon with sickly local children in the Philadelphia hotel where they stayed. I was posted nearby to handle press inquiries. A local television crew arrived, but I reminded them the media was barred. The crew, nevertheless, proceeded, so I backed up a few steps, stretched my arms across the narrow hallway and warned them to stop. They kept coming, so I gently placed my hand on the camera. Suddenly, the cameraman struck me in the forehead with his camera. I was briefly stunned then realized I was bleeding. I yelled for assistance and hotel personnel came to my aid and escorted the TV crew out. I was taken to a local hospital emergency room where the small laceration was closed with several stitches and a dressing placed over it.
When I arrived backstage before concert time, several stagehands came over and promised to "take care" of the TV crew if they showed up that evening to cover the show. The tour press contingent huddled and decided to alert the station's assignment editor not to send the same trio in order to avoid another incident.
The "Victory Tour" was seen by over two million people in 21 cities across the United States and Canada, nevertheless, while ticket demand was overwhelming at the start, scheduled shows in Phoenix and San Francisco later in the tour were canceled due to insufficient ticket sales. Regardless, fans at all the shows went wild from the opening number to the last note.
Over four decades, the trailblazing entertainer demonstrated an incomparable talent that sparked early, burned brightly and left a musical legacy, the likes of which few performers ever achieve. To adoring fans, Michael Jackson's music and concerts will remain foremost memories; however, the allegations, accusations and odd behavior that poisoned his later life, and made him a recurring target of absurd tabloid rumors and occasional fodder for stand-up comics, stain the genius and accomplishments of an innovative pop icon.
The pressure of life in a fishbowl generated a string of pain and shortcomings that hampered Michael Jackson's glory and lingers in the wake of his premature death. As the vultures start to pick at his assets, hopefully, he will rest in peace after a life of ecstasy and agony.