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A smile and hello: Meeting Michael Jackson in Berlin

June 26, 2009 |  1:02 pm

Jackson When I arrived in Berlin in June 1988 for the start of what turned into the Particularly Bad Shoes and Brown Gravy Tour (more on the name later), I knew Michael Jackson also was making a tour stop there.
Jackson, at the height of his fame, was in the middle of his 16-month "Bad" world tour, which at the time became the largest grossing and most attended tour in history.

I was embarking on a dog-and-pony show tour staged for the benefit of Western media by sports authorities in East Germany, which then was at the height of its athletic fame (or infamy).

Our tour got its (unofficial) name after we were served brown gravy on everything -- including sliced pineapple in Leipzig -- and my colleague, Jere Longman of the New York Times, accurately observed there were two kinds of shoes in East Germany: bad shoes, and particularly bad shoes.

Anyway, no sooner had I checked into my hotel in what then was West Berlin than I realized Jackson also was a guest in the hotel, because there were hundreds of fans on the street chanting his name.

But I didn't think anything more of my relative proximity to the pop superstar until I was walking from my room to the elevators so I could join some friends for dinner.

In a hallway stood two very large men, who tensed as I approached.  They were outside the open door of a room I was passing.  When I reached the open door, I looked inside the room, and there, unmistakably, was Jackson, looking right in my direction.

I said, "Hello.''  He smiled and returned the greeting. The bodyguards, expecting me to ask for an autograph or something else that would bother their charge, seemed taken aback when I simply kept walking, satisfied with the exchange of pleasantries.

As it turned out, Jackson would be inadvertently involved in some communist chest-thumping not unlike what I would see in East Germany.

The Washington Post reported that Jackson and East German figure skating icon Katarina Witt "squared off on opposite sides of the Berlin Wall this evening in an East-West battle of the bands that delighted the city's music fans and gave headaches to East Germany's Communist authorities. Witt hosted a concert in East Berlin -- featuring Canadian singer Bryan Adams and the British group Big Country -- that clearly was designed to placate fans barred from traveling crosstown to hear Jackson performing in the western side of this divided city.''

The Post said East German authorities counted 120,000 fans at their open-air concert, exactly double the total given for Jackson's open-air performance.

Three months later, East Germany, a country of 16 million, would win more gold medals at the 1988 Olympics than the United States, nearly 20 times more populous.

That was East Germany's final Olympics as an independent nation. The  Berlin Wall fell in 1989, and the two German countries re-unified in 1990.

In 2002, Jackson ignited a firestorm of criticism when he dangled his infant third child over the fourth floor balcony of his Berlin hotel room.

It was not the same hotel where I saw him in 1988.

Michael Jackson in 1988 was in a different place in every sense of that phrase.

Then as now, his smile and "hello'' are indelible to me. They are my lasting memories of a 5-second encounter that was better than any autograph.

Photo: Michael Jackson's 1988 concert poster in Berlin.

-- Philip Hersh