'King of Pop' falls from grace with the hometown crowd in Gary, Ind.

Chicago Tribune

GARY, Ind. - The marquee of the old and shuttered Palace Theater, on the corner of 8th Avenue and Broadway, speaks volumes.

The letters once spelled out, "Jackson Five Tonite," the result of brainstorming from a publicist trying to link the steel city's past to its present and, possibly, future when the Miss USA Pageant briefly made Gary its home in 2001 and 2002. Now the "o" is missing and the "f" dangles, ready to fall with a strong gust of wind.

It's one of the few visible links between Gary and the celebrity family it once embraced.

"For several years, they were Gary's own - the Jackson Five and him [Michael Jackson] by himself," said John Long, sipping a beer at Red's Keg, a bar in the heart of Gary. "But they've been gone so long and gotten so big, nobody really cares anymore. I know I don't care about his trial. I really don't think anybody cares about his trial."

But with regular coverage of Michael Jackson's child molestation trial, they can't help but follow the proceedings, which are in their eighth week.

They may not be talking about it publicly, but they know what's going on.

"With this trial, I think people here have gotten more embarrassed the longer it's gone on," said David Rutter, managing editor of the Gary Post-Tribune. "He's gone from a homegrown son that made it big to someone that people would rather not talk about. He's fallen further here than anywhere else in the world because he was once supported as a hometown kid. Any goodwill he may have had here, he's used up. Some things, even talent doesn't override."

That's the general feeling of people in the town Jackson moved away from in 1969 at age 11, when he and his brothers had their first national hit with "I Want You Back."

"I couldn't care less about him, one way or another," said Shannon Custin, 40, who was about to start her night shift at Red's Keg. "And I know a lot of people around here feel the same way."

About a half mile away from Red's, a group of men stood in front of the Coney Island, a small diner not far from where the Jackson family once lived. "He was raised right down the block," said 66-year-old Alan Campbell. "But everybody around here says he's been so disrespectful to the area he grew up in, they don't pay no attention to him anymore. They are finished with him."


Jackson returned to Gary in the summer of 2003. It was the first time he had been back to Indiana in more than 20 years. His return caused quite a stir, with Jackson's black stretch limousine, flanked by police and security guards, pulling up to fans who had gathered outside City Hall.

Gary Mayor Scott L. King awarded him the key to the city ("Now that you have the key, you don't have to be a stranger," the mayor told him.) and talked about a joint venture between Jackson and the city - a future Michael J. Jackson Performing Arts Center. Jackson would help the city raise funds for the project, and help with the marketing of the project.

There were other stops. Jackson popped into a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant, buying food for stunned customers, dropped by nearby Roosevelt High School (which his brothers attended), then made a trek around the corner from his school to his boyhood home at 2300 Jackson St.

"It gave Gary a day where everyone could see their favorite rock star," said Antonio Leavell, 40, general manager of the Gary Crusader newspaper.

"It was definitely a lift for Gary. Everybody was happy to see him, even though he had not been here in several years. A lot of promises were made about how the city was going to establish a relationship and bring some of what has been missing back to the city of Gary. But what can you expect if nothing has been done with him for numerous years?"

Publicity stunt

Many in Gary considered it a publicity stunt. Jackson happened to be in Indianapolis the day before for a court-ordered deposition in a copyright infringement lawsuit, and the molestation allegations that would lead to his trial had again surfaced.

The belief was Jackson was using his hometown to show a warm and fuzzy moment in his life.

"It's like he came back to see us when he got in trouble," said 17-year-old Jasmine White, a senior at Roosevelt High School, which presented Jackson with an honorary diploma and a letterman jacket during his visit.

"He needed some good publicity so he comes over here with all these people. But he's never done anything for us. He doesn't really care about us." Plans for the performing arts center have fizzled - just like talk of a possible Jackson theme park in Gary - leading some to believe that the mayor was staging his own publicity stunt to take advantage of Jackson's visit.

"I think they were using each other," said the Post-Tribune's Rutter, who also writes a weekly column for the paper.

"It was a joint effort by both sides. The issue of him coming back to town and helping with a performing arts center lasted about a day and a half. Then it just disappeared, vaporized into thin air, never to be heard again."

LaLosa Burns, a spokesman for Mayor King's office, insisted that wasn't the case.

"There has always been talk of having something in our city that represents the Jackson family - particularly Michael Jackson," Burns said.

"When we got a phone call from his people - they called us - we thought, 'Wouldn't it be great to have his name attached to such a facility?' Everyone knows why it's on hold."

Lola M. Hayes still lives across the street from the Jacksons' old home, an unassuming tiny white structure about the size of a two-car garage.

The locals say a relative of the family owns the house. There isn't a plaque or sign to show that the famous family ever lived there.

Hayes has lived in the neighborhood since 1951. She said she keeps track of the Jackson trial on TV.

"I really don't know what to think," said the 97-year-old, shaking her head. "They keep bringing new accusations up all the time."

Hayes watches the trial daily, mostly, she said, because of her ties to the Jackson family.

"They lived right across the street there," Hayes said, motioning to the little house on the corner. "The kids used to play here in my yard." Back at Red's, about six people sat at the bar, watching a Cubs game. Somebody asked Red's owner Louis "Red" McClain, a former Gary bus driver who knew the Jackson family, what he thought of the trial. "I'm not going to be the judge and jury," the gravel-voiced McClain said. "Everybody's entitled to a fair trial. The kid's from Gary, and he did more good than bad, I'm sure of that."

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