The crowd of Michael Jackson fans began forming Wednesday morning outside the tiny Gary, Ind., home where the King of Pop was born 54 years ago, an annual vigil that has grown each year since the entertainer's death three years ago.
By Wednesday night a throng of several hundred milled in front of a temporary stage at 2300 Jackson St., peering into the fenced yard at distant Jackson relatives and intimates on the lawn.
"This is where it all began," said Carlo Riley, a Jackson devotee from Denver who wore a futuristic, military-style uniform that mimicked Jackson's late-1980s "Bad" fashion sensibility. "I'm actually surprised there are not more people here. If this were Germany, or anywhere else in the world, people would have been camped out here for days."
The Rev. Jesse Jackson agreed. "It all started here," he said, pointing at the two-bedroom house just off-stage. "(The Jacksons) didn't come out of Julliard."
In the years since Michael Jackson's death, the vigils have grown less impromptu. Smaller crowds return on that anniversary, and the city has hosted celebrations on his birthday each year.
This year marked the first time Jackson's family has been actively involved in planning the event, Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson said Wednesday at a news conference at the city's Majestic Star Casino.
Jackson's mother, Katherine, and his three children, Prince, Paris and Blanket, are expected to participate in commemorative functions planned for this week, including making appearances at a baseball game and a concert, local officials said.
Freeman-Wilson's predecessor, Rudy Clay, courted Jackson's father, Joseph Jackson, and sought to create a Graceland-style tourist attraction around a Jackson Family museum. Freeman-Wilson said the plan is no longer on the city's front burner but that it was important the city celebrate its most famous native son.
"Miss Jackson came to me and said, 'I want to be integrally involved,' " Freeman-Wilson told a crowd of reporters and fans at the news conference, which Katherine Jackson did not attend. Jackson said she wanted Michael Jackson's children "to know where their dad grew up," according to Freeman-Wilson.
The mayor seemed to play a role in cajoling the reluctant younger Jacksons out of their sport utility vehicle to accept a set of T-shirts Wednesday afternoon.
About 30 minutes after Gary Chamber of Commerce Director Chuck Hughes introduced "the most famous offspring in the world," Prince Michael and Paris climbed out of the SUV — Blanket remained inside — and collected their Team Gary T-shirts from the mayor, saying thank you so softly that their voices were nearly drowned out by the clicking of camera shutters.
The King of Pop and the rest of the Jackson clan lived in the two-bedroom house until shortly after the Jackson 5 hit single "I Want You Back" rose to No. 1 in 1969. The house remained in the family. An uncle, who did not enjoy visits from fans, lived there until 2009.
This year the Jackson festivities, themed "Goin' Back to Indiana: Can You Feel It," were to stretch over the week, continuing Thursday with the children attending a game at the city's minor league baseball stadium and ending Saturday with a tribute concert at West Side High School.
Kathleen Mittler, a 28-year-old fan from Dresden, Germany, said she planned a trip to the U.S. to coincide with Jackson's birthday and arrived at 2300 Jackson around 11 a.m.
"I just love his music," she said.