GARY — Giovanni Taliaferro sliced carefully through thick bubble wrap to get his first glimpse at one of the hundreds of pieces of music memorabilia set to be installed over the next two weeks at the Hard Rock Casino Northern Indiana.
After pulling the plastic aside, Taliaferro held up a mosaic portrait of a young Jermaine Jackson from his 1960s days as a Jackson 5 vocalist and bassist handcrafted out of broken vinyl records by Canadian artist Rob Ubels.
Similar portraits of all 11 members of the Jackson family, who rose to international music superstardom from a tiny, crowded house on Jackson Street in Gary, eventually will line the entryway to the Hard Rock Live performance venue inside the new Gary casino.
They'll be among dozens of explicit and implicit nods to the Jacksons' musical legacy visitors will see when the $300 million Northwest Indiana entertainment destination opens at 5 p.m. May 14 adjacent to the Borman Expressway at Burr Street in Gary.
The centerpieces of the collection include Michael Jackson's iconic white glove, his famous red jacket with 27 zippers worn in the "Beat It" music video, and Joseph Jackson's Airline Town and Country guitar used by his children in their earliest performances in Gary.
"This is definitely an amazing piece that's rightfully home in Gary, Indiana," said Taliaferro, director of memorabilia design for Hard Rock International.
A 37-foot-tall-by-15-foot-wide version of that guitar also serves as the casino's entrance marquee, and an artistic representation of it, with embedded references to each member of the Jackson 5 and their musical accomplishments, runs the length of the casino's center aisle toward the Hard Rock Cafe restaurant.
Indeed, anyone looking up from the 1,650 brand new slot machines and 80 table games in the Hard Rock Casino will be hard pressed not to see a priceless piece of memorabilia linked to the Jacksons, or musicians they discovered or performed with.
There's Janet Jackson's suit from her Velvet Rope tour, Paula Abdul's outfit from her "Cold Hearted Snake" video, stage costumes worn by Kym Mazelle, Christina Aguilera, John Lennon, Lady Gaga, Mariah Carey, Elvis Presley, Snoop Dogg, Elton John, and two dozen others, musical instruments, record contracts, and other, unexpected items, such as old hotel registers.
"There's a lot of hidden stories, hidden relationships between artists, and that's what we like to celebrate," Taliaferro said. "I could put The Beatles and the Ramones together. Why? Because Paul McCartney used to call himself Paul Ramone when checking into hotels."
Taliaferro said the new casino also is focused on celebrating music birthed in Gary specifically, along with Chicagoland generally, and musicians with Gary ties have eagerly contributed their memorabilia for display, including Jimmy Reed, Deniece Williams, Crystal Taliefero and Big Daddy Kinsey.
"I've received more direct donations from artists that wanted to be part of this project than I have of any project, I would say, in the last five or six years," Taliaferro said.
"There's such pride that these artists have for their hometown. They may not reside here any longer, but they still feel that sense of pride."
The music memorabilia at the Hard Rock mostly will be accessible for up-close looks and photos, even though it'll be behind glass to protect it both from handling and everything else that comes with displaying museum-quality items inside a working casino, especially cigarette smoke.
But Taliaferro still expects the items will be a draw by themselves for lovers of all kinds of music, regardless of whether they also stop to wager a few dollars, eat at the five casual and fine dining restaurants, pick up a souvenir in the Rock Shop, or take in a live performance during their visit to the new casino.
"A big part of what makes Hard Rock, Hard Rock, is the memorabilia," Taliaferro said. "And there are so many pieces here that will be on display for the first time."