Hard Times for Street Performer

Man who channels Michael Jackson out of work since September
Brian Woolridge

Brian Woolridge, performing in the alley next to the Michigan Theater.

Since 1995, Brian Woolridge has been dancing in downtown Ann Arbor. But soon, he might pack up his boom box and bags of Michael Jackson CDs and leave the town and the state after 14 years of regularly performing his King-of-Pop moves here.

Ann Arbor residents might know Woolridge as “the Michael Jackson guy.” He’s the one moonwalking in the alley on Liberty Street near the Michigan Theater on weekends. People strolling by wave to him as he spins and slides, Jackson’s vocals echoing against the alley’s graffiti-splashed walls and out onto the street.

But his life isn’t all dance. Woolridge lost his job in September, and he says he hasn’t had much luck looking for work. He’s not sure about his plans for the future, but they may involve leaving Michigan.

A soft-spoken man, he furrows his brow as he recalls his struggle to gain unemployment benefits. He said he had to go to a couple court hearings. “I had to fight for it,” Woolridge said.

He’s been doing a little cleaning work, but he’s not searching for anything more right now. “I’m going to wait for my unemployment time to run out,” he said. “It’s kind of hard to say what the next step is going to be.”

That probably means he’ll wait until the end of the summer to make his next move, he said.

Brian Woolridge with his boom box and Michael Jackson CDs in the alley next to the Michigan Theater.

Brian Woolridge with his boom box and Michael Jackson CDs in the alley next to the Michigan Theater.

He makes some money from his dancing. When The Chronicle stopped by earlier this month, the cardboard box he’d set up at the mouth of the alley was filled with a thin layer of dollar bills and coins. Woolridge said he makes about $50 per weekend. When he started, it was $100 or more. Now, he says he guesses he’s just getting old.

Woolridge, who grew up in the Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti area, started his downtown performances after noticing that the alley he currently occupies wasn’t being used for anything. He’s had no formal dance training and says he learned just by watching Jackson. Although he didn’t want to be a professional dancer when he was younger, he recalls that he did want to be an entertainer.

“I liked entertaining people, and Michael did it,” Woolridge said. “I grew up with Michael Jackson. He was always my favorite.”

Woolridge took a shot at greater fame this past March when he traveled to Chicago to audition for NBC’s “America’s Got Talent.” “I guess I did ok,” Woolridge said. “But they didn’t call me back.”

For now, Woolridge is still stationed in his alley, equipped with his boom box, CD collection and a worn-looking black fedora. “A lot of people say, ‘Keep dancing,’” Woolridge said. “I really don’t know how much longer I’ll keep doing this.”

Brian Woolridge performing to Michael Jackson tunes in the alley next to the Michigan Theater.

Brian Woolridge performing to Michael Jackson tunes in the alley next to the Michigan Theater.

About the author: Helen Nevius, a student at Eastern Michigan University, is an intern with The Ann Arbor Chronicle.


  1. May 28, 2009 at 12:17 pm | permalink

    This sucks. I mean, the fact that he might have to leave, sucks. I’ve overheard his songs (and consequently walked around singing them) more times that I can count.

    I think this article nicely illustrates how this crappy economy affects people, things and events that we don’t normally think about…I mean, we would have noticed his absence, but might not have made the connection that it was b/c of the economy. (It could have been that he just stopped voluntarily or whatever)

    On the bright side of life, congrats on having an intern!!

  2. By Jeff Irwin
    May 28, 2009 at 12:18 pm | permalink

    Thank you for this article. I’ve always loved that “Michael Jackson guy” and it’s great to put a name and a face to him after many years of enjoying the man in the mirror/alley. It’s especially funny to me that although I would almost never choose to actually listen to Michael Jackson – I go out of my way to pass that alley whenever I can in hopes of catching Brian’s work.

    It’s guys like Brain that make Ann Arbor a special place and I hope that he can be happy here for many years to come. Good luck Brian.

  3. By Robert
    May 28, 2009 at 1:37 pm | permalink

    NO! Don’t leave Michael Jackson guy!

    I think the Michigan theater should employ him. It would seem the most logical thing.

  4. By 'Ff'lo
    May 28, 2009 at 2:00 pm | permalink

    Hope he works something out. Did you hesitate at all to out him as “not searching for anything more right now” while the unemployment lasts? I woulda.

  5. By Wystan
    May 28, 2009 at 8:17 pm | permalink

    Here are some more links to photos and information about the Michael Jackson guy: photos

  6. May 30, 2009 at 12:33 am | permalink

    Great article. Made me think. What happened to Shakey Jake.
    I haven’t seen him in several months. Has he died or hopefully
    Just relocated.


  7. By Mary Morgan
    May 30, 2009 at 12:38 am | permalink

    JDH, Shakey Jake died in September 2007. Here’s a link to an article we published in February about a life-size wire sculpture that was commissioned of him – I believe you can still find it at Peaceable Kingdom.

  8. By GK
    June 26, 2009 at 12:57 pm | permalink

    We need him now more than ever! Someone get him to Top of the Park stat!

  9. June 26, 2009 at 4:16 pm | permalink

    Geoff Larcom writes on Twitter:

    @glarcom: Brian Woleridge, Ann Arbor’s Michael Jackson dancer, will be out performing in his customary place by the Michigan Theater this weekend.