TORONTO – While most Canadians who watched Tuesday’s star-studded Michael Jackson memorial had tuned into television coverage or followed it online, a select few actually made the pilgrimage to Los Angeles for the service and described the experience as “surreal.”
At least a handful of lucky Canadians were known to be in attendance at the Staples Center in Los Angeles as the King of Pop was feted by a cast of musical luminaries, family and friends.
Twenty-five-year-old Jason Veltri of Thunder Bay, Ont., applied for tickets as a lark – he admits he isn’t even a huge Jackson fan – but when he was among the 8,750 winners out of more than 1.6 million applicants, he immediately booked a flight down to L.A. to be a part of history.
“The fact that I was sitting there while they brought his body in … the stars, the singers, the performers, the speakers, it was unlike anything I’ve ever been at before,” a breathless Veltri told The Canadian Press when reached on his cellphone immediately after the service.
“It was overwhelmingly powerful and very emotional.”
He said his personal highlights of the service came when Jackson’s family paid tribute to him.
“It has to be the fact that Jermaine Jackson got up there and sang ‘Smile’ for Michael – the fortitude that it takes to do that, the guts that it takes to do that while still mourning his brother’s loss, was pretty powerful,” he said.
“And especially at the end too with (Michael Jackson’s) daughter, Paris, getting there and talking about him being the best father that she’s ever had, or the best dad in the world, that was very, very powerful.”
“So You Think You Can Dance Canada” judge Blake was another Canadian who ventured down to the Staples Center, though the L.A. resident didn’t have a ticket.
He said he wanted to soak in the atmosphere before going home and “drowning (his) sorrows on the couch.”
“It’s mayhem right now, the people are going crazy, I’ve seen a lot of different stuff – celebration, crying, just crazy, crazy fans,” the Mississauga, Ont., native said on the phone prior to the memorial.
As McGrath joined countless others following the memorial on television or online, a small group of fans in Toronto took to the streets outside the MuchMusic headquarters to celebrate Jackson’s life.
Vendors sold buttons, framed photographs and T-shirts emblazoned with Jackson’s image, while many fans brought memorabilia from home.
Ron Lew left his nearby office and slipped on a red-and-black nylon jacket – similar to the one worn by Jackson in his “Thriller” video – to join the crowd.
“I came down here because this corner, I saw on television, needed a little extra support,” he said.
The 26-year-old said he’s had the signature jacket since he was born, when his parents wrapped him in it as a baby. He noted sadly that the matching faux-leather pants disintegrated over time.
Many of the other fans in attendance also weren’t even born during Jackson’s prime, but still came down to commiserate with fellow mourners.
“He was a nice man and he loved everybody,” said 14-year-old Toronto native Tatenda Domboka, surrounded by a group of her friends.
Some adults also ducked out of work to watch the coverage.
“I’ve been a fan since ‘Ben’ came out, back in 1972,” said Jeffrey Leitner, clutching a vinyl copy of “Thriller” to his chest.
“I waltzed my first slow dance, with my first girlfriend, my first love, to the song ‘Ben.”‘
While some in the crowd looked skeptically upon the horde of media circulating for interviews, one emotional fan said the hectic scene made sense in bidding farewell to Jackson.
“I think it’s appropriate to publicly mourn, I really do,” said Lorette Luzajic, a fan of Jackson’s for 30 years.
“And I don’t care if it’s a big spectacle or fanfare, that’s what Michael Jackson wants and I think his fans need that outlet.”
Veltri agreed and said he doubted the world will see another pop cultural icon like Jackson any time soon.
“It’s the entire legacy … we’ll never see the scope of what Michael Jackson was ever again,” he said.
“I lived in a moment of history that will never be re-written.”