King of Pop celebrated

Memorial focused on high notes in star's career

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It was more an orderly congregation than an unruly circus, more spiritual than spunky in tone, the crowd that coalesced Tuesday morning to pay its last respects to Michael Jackson. What they got was an often touching, occasionally disjointed 2 1/2-hour outpouring of testimonials celebrating the King of Pop.

As one attendee put it: "At times it felt like a funeral for an eccentric uncle; at others, like the finale of 'American idol.' "

The public memorial drew fans, stars, onlookers, impersonators and street vendors, though hardly in the eye-popping numbers predicted when the service first was announced four days ago.

There also was a lot of griping in the heartland about how much time and attention was being devoted by the media to what one caller on Fox News referred to as "a court jester" and carping even locally about the costs to the city in policing the event.

Because there weren't the expected throngs outside Staples Center, police deployment began to dissolve even as the memorial unspooled. Still, $4 million was earmarked by authorities for the memorial, though donations from the public to offset the city funds are being solicited.

Inside, the concerns melted away: Throughout the 150-minute show, there were standing ovations for several of the performances and pin-drop silence for some of the testimonials.

The most jaw-dropping moment was the appearance of Jackson's three children onstage, highlighted by daughter Paris' wrenching words about how much she loved and missed her father. The most humorous tidbit arguably was Magic Johnson's memory of eating grilled chicken with the singer, who instead, ethereally thin though he was, ordered up for himself Kentucky Fried. And Jermaine Jackson came through with his brother's favorite song, "Smile."

As many attendees put it to commentators afterward, this was their chance to glimpse the personal side of an increasingly elusive superstar, and most said they were moved to have been there -- others, who were simply random winners of tickets, thought being there was "cool." Because of security concerns, the LAPD asked the Mann Chinese in Hollywood to cancel its free broadcast. (A live digital broadcast went forward in 37 other locations nationwide, including several California multiplexes.)

How well such a low-key event full of speeches played on television, and in morning hours in the summer to boot, remains to be seen.

Online, the answers were more immediate: Facebook users were averaging 6,000 status updates a minute, about 2,000 more than occurred in January during the inauguration ceremony for President Obama. Almost overnight, a virtual sequined glove has become the most popular gift in Facebook history, as more than 800,000 replicas have been exchanged by site friends. As for cell phones, the Jackson tribute ringtone jukebox is the best-selling in Verizon Wireless history.

TV ratings data won't be available until today, but it is expected that the ad-free broadcast -- aired by a dozen major players domestically and many internationally -- will go down as one of the decade's most-watched events. Not a mega-record by any means, but nonetheless a major draw.

"Simply the greatest entertainer who ever lived," was how Motown founder Berry Gordy described the superstar during his eulogy, a partial answer to why the broadcast networks went all-out with wall-to-wall coverage and were planning even more specials Tuesday evening.

Another is that the media has fueled much of the mania around the star, a view that seems to underlie Obama's comments from Russia earlier in the day.

"There are certain people in our popular culture that just capture people's imaginations, and in death, they become even larger," he told CBS from Moscow. "Now, I have to admit that it's also fed by a 24/7 media that is insatiable."

In any case, the service concentrated on celebratory moments of Jackson's life and his oeuvre, including uplifting renditions from Mariah Carey, Jennifer Hudson and Stevie Wonder and teary remembrances by Brooke Shields and another of the singer's brothers, Marlon. But inevitably, there were intrusions of all the questions remaining about the singer's life and death.

Gordy hinted at the darker side of the Jackson saga, admitting that "there were some sad times and some questionable decisions on his part" and that the singer was happiest when performing, as opposed, presumably, to just living his life.

The Rev. Al Sharpton was even more blunt, addressing the singer's children directly: "There wasn't nothing strange about your Daddy. It was strange what your Daddy had to deal with."

During his much-applauded eulogy, Sharpton also put the emphasis on Jackson's efforts in "putting on his glove, pulling up his pants" and breaking down the color barrier with his art.

In its coverage, BET made an overt effort to accentuate the positive: Correspondent April Woodard said she wanted to hear none of the stories of drug use or alleged child abuse that dominated the final decade of the 50-year-old entertainer's life.

"We're not going to talk so much about the speculation or allegations surrounding his death," she said. "What we are going to talk about is a celebration of his life."

As much as the focus Tuesday was on the message and not the mess surrounding Jackson, the mainstream and tabloid media inevitably will return to the many issues left unresolved in the wake of his June 25 death.

One obvious subject was embodied onstage in the form of the three children -- all three sans veils, party masks or guarded gates. Like all kids, they fidgeted, Blanket clutching a Michael Jackson doll. Almost certainly, Paris' tiny cracking voice will go down as an emblematic moment, portraying her father as a human being rather than a pop icon.

Whether there will be an all-out custody battle over the two elder kids enjoined by birth mother Debbie Rowe remains to be seen. Not to mention the whole mystery surrounding Blanket, who presumably does not know -- and might never -- his biological parentage.

In watching the retreat of the hearse from Staples -- final destination still unclear -- the issue of how Jackson died and what precise role drugs and doctors played in it will resurface.

Finally, the third issue -- the one likely to occupy the media for years to come -- is the probable battle over Jackson's estate, the determination of his assets and the settling of his debts.