- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 27, 2009

LONDON | Michael Jackson was due to make his triumphant return to the stage in London next month - but instead his sudden death has left millions of fans feeling they’ve lost a lifelong friend.

The dramatic death of the brilliant singer seemed to obscure his recent controversies and kindle warmer memories of the child star and the show-stopping, moonwalking headliner.

The worldwide chorus of grief united the famous - statesmen and superstars alike - and the legions of ordinary people who grew up with “Thriller” and “Beat It.”

“It’s horrible news, so unexpected,” Italian actress Sophia Loren said by telephone. “The world has lost an icon and music has lost treasures. He wrote songs that generations of yesterday, today and tomorrow will all keep on singing. What he wrote was amazing.”

Ms. Loren and her children had been frequent visitors to Mr. Jackson at his Neverland ranch in California, developing an enduring friendship.

“I hope that Michael will find that peace that maybe he did not have in the last 15 years.”

In London, shocked fans gathered at the Lyric Theatre, where a live show based on Mr. Jackson’s record-selling album “Thriller” is being performed, and waited for news about refunds for some 750,000 tickets to his sold-out, 50-night run.

A spokeswoman for AEG Live - the promoters for the London concerts - declined to say how ticket refunds would be handled.

There were poignant memories of Mr. Jackson’s final public appearance when he came to London for a March news conference to announce his “This is it” concerts, which he said would mark his farewell to the London stage. A candlelight vigil Friday night at London’s Trafalgar Square was planned to honor the singer.

Former South African President Nelson Mandela issued a message through his foundation saying Mr. Jackson’s loss would be felt worldwide.

Mr. Jackson sang at a birthday concert for Mr. Mandela in 1998. In 1999, according to local media reports at the time, he lunched with Mr. Mandela at a small gathering at which the South African anti-apartheid leader celebrated both his 81st birthday and his and wife Graca Machel’s first wedding anniversary.

Former Beatle Paul McCartney, who recorded with Mr. Jackson before they had a falling out over ownership of the Beatles catalog, said his prayers went to Mr. Jackson’s family and fans.

“It’s so sad and shocking,” he said. “I feel privileged to have hung out and worked with Michael. He was a massively talented boy-man with a gentle soul. His music will be remembered forever, and my memories of our time together will be happy ones.”

In Ireland, where Mr. Jackson made his temporary home in a castle south of Dublin in 2007, people remembered him as a kind and loving man. Eugene Lambert, Ireland’s best-known puppeteer, recalled his son’s puppet performance at a birthday party for Mr. Jackson attended by the singer’s three children.

“Michael and the kids seemed to enjoy the show equally,” he said. “My son sang happy birthday to Michael, who seemed genuinely touched by the attention. Michael rang me that night to thank me for the show. He said he hoped he’d be as happy at his work as I am at my age, and of course I’m 80.”

Mr. Jackson’s death prompted broadcasters from Sydney to Seoul - where the news came early Friday - to interrupt morning programs, while fans remembered a “tortured genius” whose squeals and sliding moves captivated a generation and who sparked global trends in music, dance and fashion.

Several world leaders weighed in.

Britain’s Prime Minister Gordon Brown said his thoughts are with Mr. Jackson’s family. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez called it “lamentable news,” though he criticized the media for giving it so much attention. Former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, who had met Mr. Jackson, said: “We lost a hero of the world.”

“I don’t think anyone can be indifferent to Michael Jackson, my husband included,” French first lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy told RTL radio in France. “I will enormously miss his voice, his songs and his presence in our world,” she said.

In Romania, where a tumultuous Jackson concert in 1992 helped mark the country’s new freedoms after the fall of the Soviet bloc, a condolence board went up in downtown Bucharest. Radio and TV stations played his music and broadcast clips from the concert.

“My heart is heavy because my idol died,” said Byron Garcia, security consultant at a Philippine prison who organized the famous video of 1,500 inmates doing a synchronized dance to “Thriller.” The video has had 23.4 million hits on YouTube.

Mr. Garcia said the inmates in Cebu will hold a tribute for Mr. Jackson on Saturday with their “Thriller” dance and a minute of prayer.

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