Teresa Tomb was watching for Michael to appear.
It was 2002, the first year for the downtown “Thriller” parade, a re-creation of Michael Jackson’s iconic video by Tomb’s multicultural dance outpost, Mecca Live Studio & Gallery.
Dancers had spent weeks working on the zombie dance. The choice of a dancer to play Jackson was something of an afterthought when Micah Isaacs, 16, quietly volunteered for the role and then blew everyone away with his moves.
Tomb’s expectation was that this would be a friends-and-family affair; no big to-do — just word-of-mouth promotion. They plotted out a route, and they had police support and rolling sound courtesy of WRFL-FM 88.1 playing the song and people with loud car stereos.
Like other zombies in the show, Tomb had found a “grave site” on the route and sat waiting for the parade to come by so she could join the dance.
“I remember specifically being at Phoenix Park, hiding behind the rocks,” Tomb says. “You could hear the music coming, and I was like, ‘It’s coming at us; it’s coming at us. Soon it will be time.’ Everybody was like, ‘Can you see him? Can you see him?’ and I looked up, and I can see our Michael, and then behind him is just a sea of people skipping along behind him. I couldn’t see any zombies. All I could see was the whole audience was so taken with it, they weren’t content to stay on the sidewalks. They all just came onto the street and just skipped behind the zombies and the Michael, and they would cheer and scream every time the dance would start over.
“It was a phenomenal sight — not what we expected at all.”
It was Tomb’s first indication that she was onto something. She had planned it as a one-off event, but as the next Halloween approached people started saying, “You’re doing ‘Thriller’ again, aren’t you?’”
Now, in its 15th edition, Tomb’s “Thriller Parade” has become Lexington’s civic Halloween celebration. On Saturday, in addition to the 8 p.m. performance, there will be a daylong Halloween market at Cheapside Park, an early-evening Halloween variety show at the Courthouse Plaza, and then “Thriller,” now featuring hundreds of zombies and six couples portraying Michael and his scary-movie date, Olga, starting from six points on the parade route.
Tomb looks understandably exhausted while sitting down to discuss the event at the Carver School on Patterson Street, where “Thriller” rehearses.
The original idea was a tribute to a pop-culture phenomenon. Like many teens in the 1980s, she recalls watching the premiere of the video. It was a 15-minute video for a four-minute song on Jackson’s album.
What on Earth were they going to do with 15 minutes, fans wondered as they settled in for the premier on MTV, Dec. 2, 1983. It turned out to be a mini-movie directed by John Landis in his “Beverly Hills Cop” and “American Werewolf in London” heyday. Horror movie icon Vincent Price provided a voiceover, sort of rapping. Home video copies of the film in VHS and Beta became hot stocking-stuffers.
Tomb found out there that was a lot of affection for “Thriller,” and the event grew steadily. Both Tomb and Lexington Parks and Recreation cultural arts director Amber Luallen say a turning point came when Jackson died unexpectedly in summer 2009. A few days later, Tomb was asked to organize a Thriller event to coordinate with Thursday Night Live at Cheapside Park.
“It went to a whole new level after that,” Luallen says.
Now, Mecca is in charge of the dance, but the city, through Parks and Rec,handles the parade, crowd control and surrounding events.
And Tomb marvels at the effort people put in to their zombie costumes and the crowds that come out to see it all, lining streets and parking garages.
“It’s still phenomenal,” Tomb says. “Just the sheer numbers that show up every year, it’s incredible. We never cease to be amazed every year. It’s so much fun.”