Michael Jackson, loss leader | Wake County | Indy Week
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Michael Jackson, loss leader 

For the price that longtime Raleigh politician, funeral home president and civil rights activist Bruce E. Lightner paid to present a meagerly attended Michael Jackson memorial service Tuesday afternoon at the Raleigh Convention Center, he could have buried a family of three or four. According to AARP, an average American funeral costs about $10,000 by the time the gravesite and the casket are procured, the flowers have been purchased and the hearse has been rented.

“He paid $24,495,” said Roger Krupa, director of the convention center. Krupa brandished a photocopy of the check from the Martin Luther King Celebration Committee, which Lightner co-founded in 1982. “Oh, and 25 cents.”

As the Raleigh high school hip-hop duo Certified Ladies danced on a stage raised at one end of the 100,000-square-foot Exhibit Halls A and B, Lightner frowned at those numbers. “I’m $18,000 in the hole,” he said, offering what seems to be a conservative estimate, considering the facility fee and the rental of four large projection screens spread throughout the hall were offset only by the sale of a few hundred tickets at $5 each.

Local television reports convinced Lightner that at least 3,000 people would attend the afternoon service. Most of the area’s TV stations were indeed on hand, with one of WRAL’s remote broadcast antennae raised high above a van parked along McDowell Street. A platform filled with television crews overflowed, but fans filled only about 300 of the 5,000 gleaming black plastic chairs arranged into rectangular grids on the hall’s concrete floor.

The audience was predominantly middle-aged and African-American. Many folks sported Michael Jackson tribute T-shirts they’d purchased in the lobby. The four merchandisers each paid $100 to sell their goods in the Convention Center, and two hours into the service, at least one had not recouped the expense. Onlookers on lunch breaks wandered in throughout the day, snapping pictures with cell phone cameras before leaving.

On June 26, the day after Jackson died, representatives from the Martin Luther King Jr. All Children’s Choir contacted Lightner about presenting a local memorial service for the King of Pop. Lightner, who says he prefers jazz to Jackson, originally planned the event for the Time Warner Cable Music Pavilion at Walnut Creek, another property overseen by Raleigh Convention Center. When Jackson’s funeral was postponed from Friday, July 3, to Tuesday, though, Lightner moved the event to the Raleigh Convention Center due to a conflicting Aerosmith concert at the amphitheater. That concert was subsequently canceled, Lightner noted Tuesday with a rueful smile.

The nearly four-hour program, entitled “Raleigh’s Tribute to the Late Michael Jackson,” opened with about 90 minutes of local performers and speakers, including Raleigh’s Mayor Pro-Tempore, James West and WQOK 97.5 FM radio host Brian Dawson.

The Children’s Choir offered a short tribute to Jackson, while three young Raleigh hip-hop groups—Certified Ladies, Troop 41 and Leviticus—presented selections from their respective repertoires, including “We Jigg,” “I Hustle,” and “Shee Badd.” Those songs are not by Jackson, and the group’s pleas for the audience to dance were largely ignored.

The program’s most rousing moment came when a female singer with Durham’s Stanley Baird Trio told the crowd, “If you know somebody named Michael, come to your feet.” Apparently, many attendees knew someone named Michael.

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