Michael Jackson’s public memorial started out more spiritual than spectacular Tuesday, opening with a church choir singing as his golden casket was laid in front of the stage and a shaft of light evoking a cross as Lionel Richie gave a gospel-infused performance.
Pastor Lucious W. Smith of the Friendship Baptist Church in Pasadena gave the invocation, followed by Mariah Carey singing the opening performance with a sweet rendition of the Jackson 5 ballad “I’ll Be There,” a duet with Trey Lorenz.
“We come together and we remember the time,” said Smith, riffing off one of Jackson’s lyrics. “As long as we remember him, he will always be there to comfort us.”
The service began with Smokey Robinson reading comments from Nelson Mandela, Diana Ross and other friends of the King of Pop. Following a long silent period inside the venue, piano music and a gospel choir kicked things off with a stained-glass motif in the background.
An estimated 20,000 people were in the Staples Center as Jackson’s golden, flower-draped casket was brought to the venue in a motorcade under law enforcement escort.
Fans with a ticket wore gold wristbands and picked up a metallic gold program guide on their way in. The pallbearers who placed Jackson’s casket into the hearse each wore a gold necktie, a single spangly white glove and sunglasses.
Jackson’s hearse had been part of a motorcade that smoothly whisked his body 10 miles across closed freeways from a private service at a Hollywood Hills cemetery to his public memorial and awaiting fans.
Some arriving celebrities strolled down a black carpet on their way in. Spike Lee, Wesley Snipes and Barbara Walters were among the celebrities seen at the entrance, the Los Angeles Times said.
The traffic snarls and logistical nightmares that had been feared by police and city officials had not materialized. The thousands of fans with tickets began filing in early and encountered few problems, and traffic was actually considered by police to be lighter than normal.
“I think people got the message to stay home,” said California Highway Patrol Officer Miguel Luevano. “When you have people staying home, it clears up those freeways.”
Deputy Police Chief Sergio Diaz, operations chief for the event, said authorities had expected a crowd of 250,000. Besides reporters and those with tickets to the memorial service, the crowd around the Staples Center perimeter numbered only about 1,000, he said.
“We asked people not to come out and just be on the street and spectate from a distance, and it seems to have worked,” Diaz said.
Police had based their projection of 250,000 people on turnouts for the funerals of Princess Diana and Elvis Presley, along with the recent Los Angeles Lakers NBA championship parade, Diaz said.
Earlier in the morning, Jackson’s family members and dozens of friends, led by his parents, Joe and Katherine, were seen entering a building at the cemetery. News reports estimated as many as 20 helicopters circled overhead.
The public memorial was televised live around the world and streamed over the Internet. Among the celebrities expected to attend the memorial were Stevie Wonder, Usher, Kobe Bryant, Jennifer Hudson, John Mayer and Martin Luther King III.
Outside the Staples Center, Claudia Hernandez, 29, said she loved Jackson’s music as a girl growing up in Mexico. Now a day-care teaching assistant in Los Angeles, Hernandez said she cried watching TV coverage of his death.
“I’m trying to hold in my emotions,” said Hernandez, wearing a wristband to allow her admittance to the service and holding a framed photograph of Jackson. “I know right now he’s teaching the angels to dance.”
More than 1.6 million people registered for the lottery for free tickets to Jackson’s memorial. A total of 8,750 were chosen to receive two tickets each.
Los Angeles was the epicenter of Jackson-mania, but the outpouring of emotion was worldwide. Belgium’s two national public broadcasters planned to broadcast the memorial live, and several hundred Jackson fans gathered at a Hong Kong mall late Tuesday.
Holding white candles, Hong Kong singer William Chan and Taiwanese pop star Judy Chou led the audience in observing a 30-second silence. Many of the fans clutched red roses and wore black; some donned Jackson’s trademark fedora hats.
In America, about 50 movie theaters across the country, from Los Angeles to Topeka, Kan., and Washington, D.C., planned to show the memorial live, for free. Jackson died at age 50 on June 25.
“There are certain people in our popular culture that just capture people’s imaginations. And in death, they become even larger,” President Barack Obama told CBS while in Moscow. “Now, I have to admit that it’s also fed by a 24/7 media that is insatiable.”
The city of Los Angeles set up a Web site Tuesday to allow fans to contribute money to help the city pay for his Staples Center memorial service. Mayoral spokesman Matt Szabo estimated the service will cost $1.5 million to $4 million.
It was not clear what will happen to Jackson’s body. The Forest Lawn Memorial Park Hollywood Hills cemetery is the final resting place for such stars as Bette Davis, Andy Gibb, Freddie Prinze, Liberace and recently deceased David Carradine and Ed McMahon.
But Jackson’s brother Jermaine has expressed a desire to have him buried someday at Neverland, his estate in Southern California.
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