To Philadelphians, Michael Jackson belonged to them and they to him.
As thousands of fans packed the Staples Center, in Los Angeles, for a star-studded memorial service to the King of Pop yesterday, about 100 people in Philadelphia converged on North Philadelphia for a tribute of their own outside the legendary Uptown Theatre, where a young Jackson and his brothers graced the stage several times in the 1960s and '70s.
Some participants, including famed songwriter/producer Bunny Sigler, said that the Uptown was the perfect location.
"Michael Jackson was here and he turned the place out," said Sigler, who was instrumental in creating the "Sound of Philadelphia."
"I'm glad Philadelphia got involved," he said of the commemoration that spread across continents.
The evening vigil lacked the glitter and glamour of the West Coast homage, but the revelry bordered on worship of the life of a man who not only touched the lives of Philadelphians, but whose music and philanthropic acts seeped into the consciousness of the people.
"His legacy is in our hands," said Mannuell Glenn, talk-show host for 900 AM WURD. "We control Michael Jackson's legacy, in our hearts, in our minds and our souls."
There was nothing sorrowful about the candlelight vigil held under the marquee of the long-ago shuttered theater, on Broad Street near Susquehanna Avenue, home to dozens of black soul artists who made stops there during tours on the "chitlin' circuit."
From senior citizens with fanny packs around their waists to kids waving Michael Jackson posters, they sang singles such as "PYT," "Bad" and the crowd pleaser, "Thriller."
When Daryl Walker heard the news of Jackson's June 25 death, he said, "I cried my little heart out."
Walker, 17, who jump-started last night's event with his rendition of "I'll Be There," said that he fell in love with the pop icon when his mother played his records as a kid.
"Michael Jackson gave me the inspiration to get my own style," he said.
Decades older than Walker, Herman Williams, 60, of Uber Street near Susquehanna Avenue, was about Walker's age when he dedicated entire days to watching performances of Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, Smokey Robonson and the Jackson 5 at the Uptown, Williams said.
"I came here in the morning and saw five shows for $2.50," he said. "It was 75 cents for kids. I'd sit in one of the first two rows and never leave."
His mother, Anna, who was engaged to a member of the quintet The Vibrations, would hang out backstage with Jackson, who he said grew fond of his mother.
"She couldn't watch the memorial service [yesterday] because she remembered when Jermaine and Michael used to play with her," said Williams, who never met the singer himself.
Standing a short distance away, Revella Bowser held onto her walker while she shuffled to "Beat It" wearing a red T-shirt with an imprint of Jackson's "Thriller" album cover on it.
As a teen, Bowser, 62, of Olney, was a food runner for "Mom Pearl," who used to cook fried chicken, collard greens and potato salad for the likes of Georgie Woods and the Jacksons, she said.
"Michael loved chicken," Bowser recalled. She often joked with the artists as they dined on soul food while a young Michael, who she said was either 7 or 8 at a time, usually kept to himself.
"He was real quiet, very shy," she said.
In its heyday, lines of eager fans went down Broad Street and snaked around the corner.
Opened in 1929, Uptown became the premier music venue for black artists from the 1950s to the '70s before closing its doors in 1992.
The 2,000-seat theater served as a nightclub, a movie theater, even a church before falling into disrepair. Now multicolored graffiti, aged party flyers and mold adorn its front doors, a blank marquee no longer showcasing showstopping headliners.
Aissia Richardson, vice president of operations for Uptown Entertainment Development Corporation, has been working to restore the old venue to its glory days.
"Our feeling in redeveloping Uptown, is that we can bring entertainers back in our area," she said. "People don't have to travel to Center City to catch a show. They could get it right here."
Renovation plans have stalled due to lack of resources, she said - a 2009 finishing date had been pushed to 2011, she said.
Among plans for the theater, an image of Jackson will be added to the mural on the side of the building; and a museum of Rhythm and Blues and gospel artists who've performed there.