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Czech Republic: Jackson's Tour Turns Prague Upside Down

Prague, 6 September 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Screaming masses of fans, teenage girls fainting -- it was a common sight in the 1960's when the Beatles or the Rolling Stones set out on a concert tour. Few artists can generate that kind of hysteria in the more cynical 1990's. But U.S. pop star Michael Jackson's invasion of Prague has brought out the kind of fan devotion which has not been seen in decades.

Since his arrival in the historic, central European capital several days ago, Jackson's every move has been accompanied by masses of screaming, jubilant fans willing to do anything for a glimpse of their idol. Outside his hotel, on the bank of the Vltava River, where Jackson's entourage has occupied the top five floors, a permanent crowd of several hundred people occupies a parking lot, hoarsely chanting "Michael, Michael..."

Jackson, 38, has sold tens of millions of albums in his 32-year career as a pop singer and launches a year-long world tour called HIStory with a concert in Prague on Saturday. It is Jackson's first outing since his "Dangerous" tour, which he abandoned in 1993 saying he was addicted to painkillers.

That tour's abrupt end also occurred during a swirling controversy over allegations that Jackson molested several young children in the United States -- a charge the singer tearfully denied in a world television broadcast later that year. Charges were dismissed earlier this year by a U.S. court.

The fans outside the hotel dismiss the allegations, however. They say they believe Jackson is not capable of such a crime and view the allegations as attempts to extort money from the singer.

His public appearances in the city, which have created headaches for the police and caused traffic gridlock, are carefully staged events designed by promoter Serge Grimaux to maximize the effects of the adoring crowds.

"My mandate as a promoter is to turn HIStory into hysteria, and that's what I promised him," Grimaux told RFE/RL

Since Jackson's arrival, "the city has changed...You feel there is a party atmosphere going on in town," he said.

Grimaux admits the furor Jackson creates every time he ventures out creates a certain level of inconvenience for the residents of the city. When Jackson arrived at his hotel on Tuesday, an estimated crowd of 5,000 blocked a major thoroughfare through the city. Street cars were backed up by the dozens and traffic ground to a halt.

"To a certain extent, it is inconvenient," Grimaux said. "On the other hand, he had told everyone since the very beginning that he wanted to be with the people...He wants to go to the museum, to see places.. special.. the unusual. He wants to go to the hospitals. He wants to see kids. He is very concerned about that...He wanted to go shopping today, so he went shopping."

Jackson also wanted to see some of the many historic sites in the city, including the Charles Bridge. But his approach to the bridge yesterday was typical of the furor his visit creates.

In the narrow streets of Old Prague, Jackson's caravan of vehicles -- which includes numerous television and press vehicles that follow his every move -- was helplessly blocked by a crowd of several hundred screaming fans only a few meters from the bridge. It took about half an hour for Jackson's security to clear a path that allowed his mini-van to speed out of the area.

"I mean the car was surrounded," said Grimaux. "One of the cars used was a Jaguar and it's been a bit damaged. The people were walking on it...That's why he is driving in a van...the van is a bit higher."

In a city where bureaucracy still complicates the lives of everyday citizens, where getting a building permit is a chore requiring the approvals of several officials, Grimaux has managed to do something most people would consider nearly impossible.

He is staging Jackson's concert in a public park overlooking the city. The park, usually filled on the weekends with strollers, ball players and picnickers, will be closed to all but the ticket-paying public. A major east-west thoroughfare which runs beside the park will also be closed to traffic, including street cars and buses, as will a tunnel leading into the area. And to the annoyance of some, Grimaux received approval to erect a 10-meter statue of Jackson, high on a hill overlooking the park and the city.

Getting all the necessary approvals was actually easier than expected, said Grimaux.

"I must tell you, the first person I approached was the mayor of Prague 7 (a city district). He said: 'Do you want to do this, really?' I said: 'Yes, I really want to do that.' He said: Okay, I'll work for it to happen, but if I get it, don't back off.' "

"That was, for me, the most important deal I made," said the promoter. "Because this guy, from the moment I met him to the moment I had a deal, made it happen in five days. Unbelievable, but it took five days."

The concert is expected to attract more than 130,000 people to the park's Letna plain. Special trains and buses will come to Prague on Saturday from all parts of the country and neighboring Germany. More than 30,000 tickets have been sold in Germany, where Jackson canceled a concert because of a dispute over taxes.

Jackson's Prague date has avoided the controversy of some other stops. In South Korea, civic and religious groups reacted bitterly to a decision to let Jackson play two concerts in Seoul in October. They said it was unbelievable that the government agreed to make an "amoral singer" the teenagers' idol. A planned stop in Casablanca was canceled by Moroccan authorities, without explanation.

The concert will be overseen by 1,200 police officers, including Interpol, which will safeguard the area against a potential bomb attack. About 40 doctors and 150 health workers will also be on hand.

Grimaux said the preparations are not much different from what was provided during last year's Rolling Stones concert, which also attracted about 130,000 fans.