Sources: Times Free Press – By Shawn Ryan | All Things Michael
Jesse Hullender, center, poses with Meleeke McCants, left, and Danny Ware after the Black Jacket Symphony performance of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” at the Tivoli Theatre. Ten-year-old Meleeke sang songs from Jackson’s days with the Jackson 5, while Ware was the vocalist for the rest of the show. Photo: Shawn Ryan
He appears in the aisle of the Tivoli Theatre, right down front, as the Black Jacket Symphony bounces through Michael Jackson’s funky, bubbly “The Way You Make Me Feel.”
Eyes are drawn to him — black hat, just like Michael’s; red jacket, just like Michael’s’ mirrored shades, just like Michael’s and, of course, the single silver-sequined glove, just like Michael’s.
And then he starts dancing, throwing down some of Michael’s moves.
“I saw him! He was in the middle of the floor, and man, he was jammin’!” Black Jacket vocalist Danny Ware, who sounds as much like Michael as Michael, says effusively after the show last Saturday, standing in the Tivoli lobby.
Yes, 16-year-old Jesse Hullender loves Michael Jackson, has since he was about 11 years old. He’s listened to the albums, knows them by heart. He has danced as Michael in talent shows at Bradley County’s Ocoee Middle School and Walker Valley High School, where he’s now a sophomore.
“I like his music,” Jesse says, slowly and quietly, after the Black Jacket Symphony show. “It’s my favorite dance style.”
Jesse, you see, has autism, a case so severe, when he was diagnosed at 4 years old, doctors said he’d probably end up in a mental hospital. For life.
“He was so bad … we were told he’d probably have to be institutionalized, that he’d never speak, that he didn’t have any imagination,” recalls Monte Wilson, his grandfather. “It about broke our hearts; I almost tear up thinking about it now.”
“All I knew about autism was the movie ‘Rain Man,'” says his mother, 34-year-old Lindsey Johnson. “I remember praying every night for God to keep me alive at least long enough for Jesse to know who I was and how much I loved him.”
But Jesse has taken those predictions and moonwalked over them. He speaks just fine, although carefully and cautiously in short sentences; he shakes hands and makes eye contact, unlike many with autism, and doesn’t seem ill at ease in a crowd; he is doing well in school and wants to be a chef when he graduates.
“His favorite shows are ‘Hell’s Kitchen and ‘MasterChef.’ He loves Gordon Ramsey,” his mother says.
Knowing how much Jesse loves Michael Jackson, Wilson decided to surprise him when the Black Jacket Symphony came to town with its note-for-note, song-by-song performance of “Thriller” plus a selection of Jackson’s greatest hits. To get it right, they even hired Ware, a Michael Jackson impersonator from Orlando, Fla., to handle lead vocals.
Wilson bought tickets to the show but didn’t tell Jesse; instead, he told him there was a talent show that night downtown and maybe Jesse could get dressed up and do his Michael Jackson impersonation in it. Jesse didn’t know he was going to the concert until they walked up to the Tivoli.
“I was in shock from the very first moment,” Jesse says.
But he got over it quickly, spending a lot of the concert dancing in the aisle, unable to stay seated.
And that thing that doctors said about no imagination? His grandfather just laughs and, in the Tivoli lobby, points to Jesse’s outfit and hip-shaking joy at the show.
“No imagination?” Wilson asks, hugging Jesse shoulder-to-shoulder. “Just look at him.”
“Jesse is my miracle,” his mother says. “He inspires me to be a better person, and I admire his perseverance and his determination.”
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