In the annals of Hamburg's middle-class Niendorf district, a rather uneventful place, there is one date that will probably be remembered more than any other -- at least for anyone under the age of 40. On January 26, 2006, a Friday, a sensation worked its way through the grapevine in the northern part of the German port city: Michael Jackson himself, the King of Pop, the moonwalker, the superstar, was visiting the neighborhood. Jackson, together with his two children, was staying in an inconspicuous red-brick track home on Garstedter Weg, a run-of-the-mill thoroughfare.
The rumor sounded like sheer insanity at first, but it was true. The fairly tale prince had swept into the typical northern German suburb from California to spend a weekend with an old friend, then-21-year-old Anton and his family. He clearly enjoyed getting the chance to experience normal life again. "Jackson rampaged around the house with the children, played hide-and-seek and hid behind the curtains," friends of the family at the time told the tabloid daily Bild, which had dispatched six reporters to the scene.
Jackson and Anton became friends after meeting 12 years earlier during the taping of Germany's top variety television show, "Wanna Bet," in the city of Duisburg. In the subsequent years, Jackson reportedly visited Hamburg three times, completely incognito, going to the movies and taking walks along the Elbe River. On his fourth visit, though, fans caught wind of the fact that their idol had again tried to shed the confines of celebrity to enjoy a few days of normal life. They created a temporary state of chaos in the neighborhood: Hundreds of screaming youth quickly gathered in front of the single-family home and police had to be brought in to maintain order.
"So Proud to Be Back in Hamburg"
Eventually, a doll-like Michael Jackson appeared at the window on the first floor and waved to his fans, but just for a few seconds. Then he held up a piece of paper to the window: "I am so proud to be back in Hamburg. You make me so happy." Meanwhile, Anton's younger sister went out front and began gathering postcards, records, posters, poetry albums and anything else they had brought with them. Thirty minutes later, she returned to the front door -- everything she had been given had been signed by Jackson.
No pop star since Elvis has enjoyed the kind of popularity Michael Jackson had in Germany. Despite his increasingly bizarre mannerisms, his fans here stuck with him for years. Indeed, when Jackson was accused in the US of being a child abuser, his German fans organized solidarity marches; some even sported large Michael Jackson tattoos. Jackson returned the affection, too. Elvis Presley, the King of Rock 'n' Roll, only coincidentally came to Germany as part of his service in the Army in 1958, but Michael Jackson came voluntarily, again and again -- and not just when he was on tour.
Jackson appeared several times on German television on Thomas Gottschalk's huge Saturday night show "Wanna Bet," and even raised money for the German Red Cross. Privately, he really seemed to enjoy visiting the land of the Lorelei, the Black Forest and the Neuschwanstein fairy tale castle. Two times in a row in 1997 and 1998 he visited the Phantasialand amusement park near Cologne -- despite the fact that he could have just stayed home at his own park, Neverland Ranch. The pictures showed him soaring sky high, whooping it up with children, or, conversely, with a deadly sad face sitting alone on a wooden horse on a children's carousel that was far too little for him. One time, Jackson showed up, unannounced, at Hamburg's Hagenbeck Zoo and had his picture taken with the zoo's director and one of the park's elephants.
The Adlon Incident
After a while, though, his increasingly eccentric behavior even started to get on the nerves of German fans. Michael Jackson used to say that he wrapped his children in scarves publicly in order to protect them from the paparazzi, but the images of veiled kids was a strange one for most Germans. His most damaging appearance here, though, and the one that caused many fans to turn on him, was his visit in 2002 for the "Bambi" pop music awards. During the visit, he held his nine-month-old son Michael Baby Prince out the window of one of the top floors of Berlin's luxury Adlon Hotel for fans to admire. The infant nearly slipped from his hands and Jackson had to apologize as the incident threatened to become a major scandal. But the damage had already been done. Another bizarre scene played out at the 76th birthday party of Jackson's father Joseph in Berlin in July 2002. Michael Jackson couldn't be there because of his criminal trial in the US, and the fact that a Michael Jackson impersonator serenaded the singer's father on his birthday merely added to the bizarre atmosphere of the event.
Slowly, even here in Germany, the buzz surrounding the "King of Flop," as one newspaper here described him, quieted to near silence. He popped up in the news again in April 2006 when a court bailiff in Frankfurt forced the auction of his logo in order to cover unpaid bills. It was a humiliation for the pop star, no doubt. At the same time, a German paid a proud €85,000 for the logo. And recently, at the start of April, Bild reported on apparent plans by a German mobile phone operator to bring Jackson to Berlin in autumn 2010 for a concert.
The "King of Pop" has left behind a legacy in Germany -- more than he did in most other parts of the world. And now it will be up to his fans here to preserve it. Fans of Elvis have seen to it that even 30 years after the singer's death in 1977, he is still fondly remembered in Germany.
On Friday, the Berlin branch of the famous Madame Tussauds placed the wax figure of the fallen pop star at its entrance and open a book of condolences in which fans could write down their memories. And at the Adlon Hotel, where Jackson stayed for just one night in the grand presidential suite, a spokesperson said Friday: "We deeply regret his death."