For 14 years, the foot-high gray letters mounted on the outside of Gardner Street Elementary School in Hollywood read: “Michael Jackson Auditorium,” a tribute to the singer and composer who at age 11 attended the school for several months before becoming a superstar.
On Monday, the only word visible on the peach-colored wall was “Auditorium.” The singer’s name was covered with a plywood box and painted over the weekend, after his arrest last week in Santa Barbara County on charges of child molestation.
Principal Celia Ripke said she and Los Angeles Unified School District officials ordered the name’s cover-up in response to requests from parents.
“People who felt they knew Mr. Jackson was guilty were appalled because we work with children. Somehow they thought we were condoning what he had [allegedly] done,” Ripke said. “All of the sudden, because of a name, we’ve been drawn into it.”
Ana Ruiz, a parent of two sons and a nephew who attend the 475-student campus, called Jackson “weird” as she picked up her nephew from kindergarten Monday. She said she was pleased that the sign was covered because “Jackson is not a good symbol for kids.”
But Stuart Backerman, a spokesman for the singer, said in an e-mail response: “I wonder what those parents will say when Mr. Jackson is exonerated!”
Jackson, free after posting $3-million bail, released a general statement Monday on his official Web site -- https://mjnews.us/ -- in response to his arrest: “As you know, the charges recently directed at me are terribly serious. They are, however, predicated on a big lie. This will be shown in court, and we will be able to put this horrible time behind us.”
On Monday morning, a protester named “Feather,” who said she represented transsexuals in support of Jackson, got past security gates, sat cross-legged and pouted in front of the Gardner auditorium for about an hour. School police escorted Feather off campus before most of the children came outside for their lunch break.
“Why did you take it down so fast?” Feather, wearing cut-off jeans and a hooded sweatshirt, asked a school staff member about the Jackson sign. “Why are you trying to make him a scary person? He’s not. We love him.”
Jackson was the lead singer for the Jackson Five when he and his four older brothers moved to Los Angeles from Gary, Ind. Several months after he enrolled at the Gardner campus, the group’s first single, “I Want You Back,” hit the top of the charts on Dec. 6, 1969. Soon, Jackson switched to private tutoring.
In 1989, the Gardner Street faculty named the auditorium after the singer. He showed up for the ribbon-cutting ceremony on Oct. 11, 1989, as the school’s choir sang “We Are the World,” a tune Jackson co-wrote.
Jackson donated money to the school at the time, officials said, but they said they did not know how much and could not find records of it Monday.
An illustration of Jackson’s face was posted in the auditorium in 1989, and another depicting the singer surrounded by children was mounted in the main office. But the auditorium drawing was removed several years ago because it kept falling down, Ripke said. The picture in the office also was removed a while ago to make room for a new intercom system, she said.
Now, the only hint of Jackson’s legacy that remains is a small plaque with his name that is mounted on the southwest side of the school. Ripke said there are no plans to remove the plaque, which simply reads: Michael Jackson Auditorium, Dedicated Oct. 11, 1989. Ripke said there are no plans to take it down because it is not as visible as the now-covered sign.
If Jackson is exonerated, the school may decide to remove the plywood cover and show his name again to the world, said Stephanie Brady, a school district spokeswoman. Administrators “felt we could cover it for the time being,” until the case is settled, she said.
Ripke said she has been getting angry calls and snide remarks from parents about Jackson since she became principal soon after 1993 allegations that Jackson had molested a 13-year-old boy. Although no criminal charges were brought in that case, and Jackson insisted that he was innocent, he eventually settled a lawsuit brought by the alleged victim for a sum reported to be at least $15 million.
“I kept saying, ‘He’s innocent until proven guilty,’ ” Ripke recalled.
But with Jackson’s recent arrest, parents pushed harder for removal of the name, and school officials feared the sign would be a media magnet.
“It puts us in an odd position,” Ripke said. “I’m supposed to be an instructional leader ... we’re not in the entertainment industry.”
Michael Braga, a parent of two children at the school, said he didn’t know what the big deal was.
“My kids are too young to know” Jackson, he said, adding that he moved to Los Angeles from Romania five years ago and was a fan of the singer, who visited the country more than a decade ago.
“I loved the ‘Bad’ album,” Braga said. “In my opinion, the sign should stay up.”