Coming and Going: Touring Michael Jackson's Home Town, Gary, Ind.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Michael Jackson's Hometown ABCs

Michael Jackson's exalted journey ended last week in Los Angeles at Forest Lawn cemetery, but the tour's not over yet. Fans who won't stop till they get enough of the musician are returning to his early years, when Jackson was just a Little Prince of Pop living and performing in Gary, Ind.

"We've had people from all over. I've had calls from Canada, and people are coming from Arizona and California," said Janice Bowden, an administrative assistant at the Gary Chamber of Commerce. "Gary is next to I-80/94. People know they are passing through Gary and now stop."

Born in the steel-industry town a half-century ago, the seventh child of the Jackson family lived in Gary until 1968. After school and on weekends, he and his four brothers who made up the Jackson 5 would perform in the working-class city 30 miles southeast of Chicago. Said Gordon Keith, who originally signed the Jackson 5 and produced the group's first two singles, "When you have a tough time, you put more soul and feeling into what you are doing."

Tour bus company JWR Tours (866-717-8687,; $55) recently unveiled its King of Pop Hometown Tour, which departs Saturdays from downtown Chicago and visits MJ spots. If you prefer to go solo, here are some main attractions from the days when the Gloved One was just a sweet-voiced boy named Mike.

-- Jackson family home (2300 Jackson St.). The performer grew up in a modest house that until recently was inhabited by a cousin. Fans have been leaving flowers on the lawn and plastering well-wishes and banners on the windows, doors and trees.

-- Mr. Lucky's Lounge (1100 Grant St.). In 1964, the Jackson 5 held one of their first performances in this now-defunct lounge. The new owner has expressed plans to sell the hardwood stage and exterior bricks for those who want to own a piece of Jackson history.

-- Garnett Elementary School (21st Avenue) and Roosevelt High School (730 W. 25th Ave.). Jackson attended Garnett (now closed) and performed with his brothers in a talent show at Roosevelt (they won). Roosevelt is the city's first and only school built for African Americans, and its students included three Jackson siblings: Rebbie, Jackie and Tito.

-- Knights of Columbus Building (333 W. Fifth Ave.). The brothers performed at a variety of venues, including the ballroom of this historic brick structure, considered one of the tallest buildings in Gary. It's now an affordable-housing high-rise. They also played in the ballroom of the Hotel Gary (northwest corner of Sixth Avenue and Broadway), now an affordable-housing high-rise for seniors.

-- Gordon Keith home (1025 Taney St.). Keith, who ran Steeltown Records, produced "Big Boy" and "We Don't Have to Be Over 21 (to Fall in Love)" before the group left his label to sign with Motown Records in 1968. "People go by the Jackson house," said Keith, "then they come by my home." The Jacksons used his residence as rehearsal space, and Keith owns the group's first demo record.

-- Small Farms section. The Jackson 5 frequently sang and danced at juke joints and honky-tonk after-hours spots in the more rural parts of Gary. Such haunts as Joe Green's Club Woodlawn, Big Steve's, White Tiger and Yellow Dragon no longer exist, but the ducks probably won't complain if you crank up "I'll Be There" in memoriam.

Michael Jackson isn't the city's only famous son; actor Karl Malden, who died less than a week after Jackson, was raised in Gary. Unfortunately, the Chamber of Commerce could not provide a street address for his childhood home. For more info on Gary, including directions to the Jackson family abode, visit


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Reporting: Andrea Sachs and Scott Vogel

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