Phila. reacts to Michael Jackson's death

Posted: June 26, 2009

Tweeting and texting, phoning and yelling in the street, Philadelphia-area residents shared the news last night of the death of Michael Jackson, the oddity and icon who perplexed and entertained America for decades.

Not so much a person as a once-in-a-lifetime event, Jackson was part car wreck and part comet, and the 50-year-old's passing on a warm summer night galvanized people in the city and environs.

"I was devastated," said Neil Shore, 39, a disc jockey at the Camden Community College radio station, WDBK-FM (91.5). Shore was at a Camden Riversharks game at Campbell's Field for a station promotion.

Shore, who teaches broadcasting at Lumberton Middle School, said a friend texted him the news and he broke down crying.

The first person he called was his former wife, Elyse. They had slow-danced to the Jacksons' "I'll Be There" in high school, then married 11 years later.

Shore recalled attending the Jacksons' September 1984 concert at John F. Kennedy Stadium, a show that people around here still talk about.

Struggling to downplay the bizarre aspects of Jackson's life - the accusations of inappropriate behavior with children, the peculiarities in dress, and the numerous efforts to alter his face and aspect - Shore wanted the world to remember the man's music most of all.

"He was the Beatles of my generation," Shore continued. "Kids today only think of Michael Jackson as some wacky guy."

Summer Freeman, another disc jockey at the Riversharks game, said Jackson was so much a part of Americana, he had become a "public possession."

Recently laid off from WUSL-FM ("Power 99"), Freeman, 31, said her mother had bought her leather pants like Jackson used to wear, which her male cousins fought to try on. For Freeman, it was an enduring memory on a sad night.

Remembrances were robust and loud at Woodard's Barber Shop in the Wynnefield section last night, where Jackson famously had his hair cut before a Spectrum show in 1980.

Apparently much of Philadelphia remembers the haircut, because, after Jackson died, owner Robert Woodard's phone began ringing incessantly last night.

Telling the tale, Woodard said he had gotten a call from the famous Philly DJ Georgie Woods that Jackson, then around 20, needed a haircut, and that his brother Randy needed a shape-up.

"I'm bringing them up," Woods told Woodard.

Sitting in Woodard's chair, Jackson spied Woodard's burgundy 1947 Cadillac parked outside the shop and asked him to let him rev it around the block.

"No," Woodard sputtered quickly. He told Jackson it wasn't possible because the car had no engine.

Last night, Woodard slyly recalled that the Caddy certainly did have a motor under the hood. He just didn't want Jackson driving his car.

So Jackson settled for a chance to sit in the driver's seat, with Woodard in the back. Someone took a photo, and it has hung in a place of honor in Woodard's shop ever since, along with shots of Charles Barkley and the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

Woodard smiled as he spoke, and it was almost as if he could see Jackson in his chair, the two bantering about that old car.

"He was a very special person," Woodard said. "You only get that once in a lifetime. I would pray that people remember him as the greatest performer of all time."

In 1990, Jackson twice visited Donald Trump in Atlantic City to discuss the possibility of performing at the opening of the Taj Mahal, recalled Scott Cummings, who worked as a bodyguard for Trump and escorted Jackson during those visits.

"He was so meek and mild," Cummings said last night. Sometimes he needed to ask Jackson to repeat himself because he spoke in a whisper. Cummings said Jackson struck him as "somebody that never grew up, didn't know how to act in public," compared with other entertainers, who demand attention when they walk into a room.

On one occasion, Trump asked Jackson whether he had ever seen a million dollars in cash, and Jackson said no. So they headed to Trump's vault, and Trump showed him the money. Jackson held some of it. "You could see it in his face," Cummings said of Jackson's excitement at holding the cash.

On another occasion, Jackson was walking through a crowd of young people and somebody grabbed his fedora. "Don't worry about me. Go get my hat," Jackson said, adding that it was a treasured possession. A New Jersey state trooper retrieved the hat and Jackson had "tears in his eyes," Cummings said.

Amidthe pain and reminiscences last night, customers at the Cut It Out hair salon in Old City rushed to their cell phones to confirm initial rumors about Jackson's death.

"Michael Jackson's funeral will be bigger than Princess Diana's and Elvis' combined," salon owner Frank Mitchell predicted.

Last night, Kanika Gossett, 33, was sitting in her Olney home, tweeting her "followers" with her Michael Jackson memories – the moonwalk on the 1983 Motown 25th anniversary TV special; the "Smooth Criminal" video lean; how her uncle, a guitarist for the Stylistics, stayed in the same Los Angeles hotel as the icon and got a picture with him.

Then, on CNN, she saw people gathering outside Harlem's Apollo Theater. Around 8:30 p.m., she had an epiphany: "One of the ways Philadelphia can remember him is to come to the Uptown" Theater, where the Jackson 5 once performed, she tweeted.

Gossett herself got to the now-shuttered North Philadelphia theater on Broad Street near Susquehanna Avenue around 8:45 p.m., only to discover that someone had placed a white teddy bear, holding a red heart, with "Michael Jackson" scrawled in black marker, under the marquee.

Gossett opened the doors of her minivan so passersby could hear the musical Jackson tribute that was playing on WDAS-FM. A young Michael Jackson was crooning: "I wanna be where you are. . . . "

"No matter how you want to remember Michael Jackson," Gossett said, standing with her twin 12-year-old girls, Kiana and Brianna, and Dougie, her Pomeranian, "you can't take away his inspiration. He inspired so many artists - Usher, Chris Brown. He was just a phenomenal entertainer."

Meanwhile, on Hector Street in Conshohocken, Lydia Simon, 45, was adjusting to the shock.

"It's devastating," said Simon, who works at a Hampton Inn. Referencing the death of Farrah Fawcett earlier in the day, Simon said, "Two stars in one day. It really makes you appreciate life."


Contact staff writer Alfred Lubrano at 215-854-4969 or alubrano@phillynews.com

Contributing to this article were Inquirer staff writers Kristen E. Holmes, Liz Wagner, and Matt Katz.

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