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The Sometimes Forgotten Stage Where Michael Jackson Unveiled the Moonwalk

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The Pasadena Civic Auditorium houses a historic Moller organ, Visit Pasadena commissioned a video to present the organ on YouTube and this is a still from the shoot.

In 1983, Michael Jackson turned down Motown’s request to reunite with his brothers for a performance honoring the record label’s 25-year anniversary. NBC broadcasted the anniversary show as a television special called, Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, and Forever. The special featured Marvin Gaye, Mary Wells, Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder and other popular artists that were involved with the label. Michael eventually agreed to perform after Berry Gordy, Motown’s founder, personally requested his involvement—however, Michael made one stipulation—he wanted a solo spot to perform his own material. At that point in time, Michael had released the Thriller album a year prior, which became the best-selling album in history, a feat that has yet to be claimed by anyone else. He was on the heels of a collaboration with Paul McCartney and voiced the soundtrack for E.T. the Extra Terrestrial. Michael’s status was reaching a boiling point, everyone was coming to that consensus but no one was prepared for the magnitude of the stardom that would be bestowed upon Michael Jackson.

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Motown 25 was filmed on March 25, 1983, at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, an ornate theatre designed in 1932 with the philosophy of the City Beautiful Movement to evoke Italian Renaissance architecture, although its design makes several references representative of the locale. A pattern of ocean waves tapers across the façade, and colors used in its interiors summon the American Arts & Crafts Movement that have become synonymous with Pasadena for its concentration of craftsman-style masterpieces; the Gamble House and the Blacker House, and the Crow-Crocker House are just a few examples.

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On that Friday evening, several moments would go down in music history—the reunions of The Jackson 5, The Miracles, and The Supremes. But those who saw Motown 25 on television when it aired will undoubtedly argue that the most exciting moment of the show, so exciting that 33 years later it still causes goosebumps and watery-eyes, came after Michael performed with his brothers. The other Jacksons left Michael alone on stage for the solo Berry Gordy granted him. Towards the end of Michael’s performance of Billie Jean, he literally slayed the entire country all at once, audience members let out banshee-like screams as he slid across the stage in his first public exhibition of the Moonwalk. Immediately afterwards though, people went silent, it seemed like they were so confused from what they saw, that universally spectators became speechless. Michael performed a bunch of his other signature moves. Then he did it again. He Moonwalked as if to confirm that, what everyone thought they might have seen, was in fact what they saw. That performance was the precise moment in which Michael Jackson soared into insurmountable ultra-superstardom.

The Pasadena Civic Auditorium houses a historic Moller organ, Visit Pasadena commissioned a video to present the organ on YouTube and this is a still from the shoot.

The stage at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium seems to be blessed by the pop culture gods. Before Michael’s Moonwalk, The Emmys setup camp at “The Civic,” as locals call it; and by the end of their run, The Emmys were televised from that very stage for two decades; a bunch of other award shows followed suit. Music legends seem to understand its juju, it was the setting for a television special celebrating the 50-year mark of Ray Charles’ music career, and Carlos Santana filmed a live concert during his 1999 comeback album, Supernatural, which garnered nine Grammys. More recently, the auditorium has been favored among reality talent shows America’s Got Talent, American Idol, So You Think You Can Dance and the like.

The Spazmatics performing at the Civic Auditorium

The Spazmatics performing at the Civic Auditorium

33 Years After the Moonwalk

With the exception of architects who stumble upon Pasadena’s beautiful auditorium, it is widely underappreciated. Pasadena’s locals however, whether they are aware of the bragging rights of their beloved auditorium or not, enthusiastically show pride for it. Every summer, the city throws a party on the plaza in front of the auditorium, and retro-cover bands perform nostalgic songs of yesteryear. Next week, a new wave tribute band called The Spazmatics will take the stage, the band has performed several consecutive years and they are totally embraced by the community. And in late-August, Kenny Metcalfe will perform his repertoire entirely consisting of Elton John songs.

The Spazmatics performing at the Civic Auditorium in Pasadena, California.

The Spazmatics performing at the Civic Auditorium.

While landmarks like the 6th Street Bridge take their final bow to accommodate the modern needs of our evolving city, a grand structure with an interesting past quietly sits in Pasadena, eluding passers-by from the goings-on that have faded from consciousness. But those of us who geek out over LA’s forgotten history can still visit 300 East Green Street and tip our hat to her.

To learn more about the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, go to thepasadenacivic.com.

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The Spazmatics performing at the Civic Auditorium in Pasadena, California.

The Spazmatics performing at the Civic Auditorium.

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