King of Pop is mourned in land that gave him refuge

Michael Jackson stayed with Hamburg family he befriended during a show in 1995.
Michael Jackson fans gather at a makeshift memorial in the German city of Munich.
Michael Jackson fans gather at a makeshift memorial in the German city of Munich.

BERLIN // Michael Jackson made several secret trips to Hamburg to spend time with an ordinary family he had met backstage during a show in 1995, and even seems to have regarded Germany as a temporary refuge from his troubles at home. Germans have been remembering the bizarre story of how the King of Pop struck up a friendship with Anton Schleiter, then 12, and his father, a music industry executive, after meeting them at Germany's biggest Saturday night TV show, Wanna Bet?, where he had performed the world premiere of Earth Song.

He visited them for eight days in the summer of 1997, living in their ordinary red-brick home in Hamburg in the run-of-the-mill residential district of Niendorf. They would go on bicycle tours and collect shells on the banks of the river Elbe in the dead of night without anyone knowing at the time. Further incognito visits followed until January 2006, when local media discovered that the superstar was in town together with two of his children, Paris and Prince, and predictably treated it as a sensation. A radio station offered ?5,000 (Dh25,700) for a photo of him, and hundreds of fans laid siege to the house. Mr Schleiter called the police who did not believe the story at first and asked to see Jackson's passport. The local chief of police then handed over his card for Jackson to autograph, and arranged for a fence to be put up around the house.

Eventually Jackson appeared at the first-floor window and held up a note that read: "I am so proud to be back in Hamburg. You make me so happy." Anton's younger sister opened the front door to collect postcards, albums and posters from the fans. Half an hour later she returned. Jackson had signed them all. "He rampaged around the house with the children, played hide-and-seek, crept behind curtains," Bild newspaper cited a friend of the family as saying at the time. Jackson did not return to Hamburg after that.

In their coverage of Jackson's death, German newspapers have been recalling every available detail of his secret escapes from the limelight, and have also recounted the famous baby dangling incident in 2002 when he was criticised for precariously holding his nine-month-old son Prince Michael Jackson II out of the fifth-floor window of Berlin's Adlon Hotel to show him to the crowd of fans below. Mourning fans have cited his frequent visits to Hamburg, Berlin, Munich and elsewhere in Germany as evidence of his fondness for the country.

The affection is mutual. Germany is not famous for producing international rock stars and has a tendency to cling to any associations it has with them - with the Beatles, it was their early formative days in Hamburg. With Elvis Presley, it was his time doing military service in Germany between 1958 and 1960. And with Jackson, it was the visits, which is one reason why he has retained a massive and loyal fan base in Germany despite all the negative publicity surrounding his child abuse trial in which he was acquitted in 2005. "It's well known that he liked Germany a lot and he often said so," said Nina Schwanzer, head of one of Germany's biggest Michael Jackson fan clubs.

"Despite all the negative press and his trial we've had a surprisingly large number of new members aged 12 to 15 join us in recent years, even though no new album has come out," said Ms Schwanzer, 26, who has been a fan since she was 11. "He was a thrilling entertainer but it was his personality that really fascinated me. I think he was a highly intelligent person and I saw him as a role model in his strength of character in bad times, and in terms of standing by things and people that are important to you. And he always had warmth for his fans. He seemed to really care and would organise pizza deliveries for them."

In addition to his concerts, Jackson appeared on Wanna Bet? twice, and came to collect music awards little known outside Germany. He visited the Phantasialand amusement park near Cologne twice, in 1997 and 1998. In June 1988, more than a year before the fall of the Berlin Wall, he held a concert in front of the Reichstag building in West Berlin.

Published: July 3, 2009 04:00 AM


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