Music News & Reviews

Rich Copley: Not-so-super memories of the Super Bowl halftime shows

One of the New Mouseketeers featured in the 1977 Super Bowl's Disney-themed halftime show was Lisa Whelchel, who went on to play Blair on The Facts of Life and be runner-up on Survivor: Philippines.
One of the New Mouseketeers featured in the 1977 Super Bowl's Disney-themed halftime show was Lisa Whelchel, who went on to play Blair on The Facts of Life and be runner-up on Survivor: Philippines.

The first Super Bowl I watched on TV? That's easy: the 1980 matchup between the Los Angeles Rams and Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Rams were my first favorite football team, thanks in large part to it being Warren Beatty's team in the 1978 comedy Heaven Can Wait. (The fact I was picking football teams based on movies was a strong indication where my life was going.) Unfortunately, quarterback Vince Ferragamo and the real-life Rams didn't fare as well as Beatty's Joe Pendleton and Co., losing to Pittsburgh, 31-19.

That, I remember.

The halftime show? Not a thing.

It was not the Bee Gees, Donna Summer or some other chart-topper from those days, as we have now. It was two groups that seem unlikely in today's era of blockbuster, big-name Super Bowl shows: Up With People and the Grambling State University Marching Band.

Both were Super Bowls mainstays during that time. Up With People, the Denver-based educational organization with a performing arm, was the halftime act at five Super Bowls during the 1970s and '80s.

Yes, there was a time when the Super Bowl was about the football game, and the halftime show was an afterthought, or so it seemed. Today, anticipation for the things surrounding the game — Super Bowl ads, Beyoncé's halftime show this year — rivals anticipation of the game itself and makes the Super Bowl a certifiable pop culture phenomenon.

A few years back, when the Super Bowl was getting slagged by many for booking Jurassic rockers including the Rolling Stones and The Who for the halftime shows, it could have been worse.

If you doubt that, YouTube is here to testify.

Take, for instance, the 1977 halftime show, when the game was played in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. The competitors were the Minnesota Vikings and Oakland Raiders. The show was produced by the Walt Disney Co. and featured a marching band, cheesy singers in Mickey Mouse sweaters and "the new Mouseketeers!" including a sprite named "Lisa!" whom we would later come to know as Lisa Whelchel — Blair on the long-running sitcom The Facts of Life and runner-up on the recent Survivor: Philippines. The show also was supposed to include a crowd-participation card trick, though here in the Herald-Leader's features department, we can't figure out what that was supposed to be.

Probably the most unwatchable clip we could find on YouTube was a two-minute snippet of Up With People playing Super Bowl V in 1971. As an NBC sportscaster announces "Up With the People," the bright red- and yellow-clad group plays, dances and clearly lip-syncs to Someone Smiled.

(Beyoncé, if you lip-sync on Sunday, there is a precedent.)

It's not that the Super Bowl halftime shows were devoid of stars.

In 1973, the University of Michigan Marching Band performed with guest Andy Williams warbling a version of Barbra Streisand's People. Two years later, the Grambling State Marching Band played a tribute to Duke Ellington; his son Mercer Ellington and the Duke Ellington Band rolled into New Orleans' Tulane Stadium on an A-Train float.

Ella Fitzgerald even made a Super Bowl halftime appearance in 1972 with Carol Channing and trumpeter Al Hirt. We could not find video of that, which might be just as well for the artists' reputations. Channing also appeared at Super Bowl IV in 1970, and Hirt was on hand for the first Super Bowl, in 1967, along with the Grambling State and University of Arizona marching bands and the Anaheim High School drill team.

No matter how much announcers told us these were "marvelous" and "spectacular," when you look at videos of some of these shows, it's hard to imagine many of them kept people from heading to the refrigerator or bathroom or concession stand.

I distinctly remember watching the Cincinnati Bengals' first Super Bowl against the San Francisco 49ers in 1982. But if I have a memory of the Up With People halftime show, hosted by Kentucky's then-first lady and CBS sportscaster Phyllis George, I have mercifully repressed it.

For better and worse, Super Bowl halftime shows started to become memorable and engage contemporary star power in the 1990s. They were still trying to fit the performers in higher-concept ideas of halftime entertainment — see the Disney-esque appearance by New Kids on the Block in 1991 and a mismatch of Olympic figure skaters and Gloria Estefan to celebrate winter in 1992 — Miami Sound Machine? Gloria Estefan? Winter?

The first time I can recall hanging in to watch a Super Bowl halftime show was 1993, also the first time the performance doubled as a rock concert, this time starring Michael Jackson in all his self-aggrandizing glory. He was still charting hits, things had not gotten too weird, and when he moonwalked across the stage, it was 1983 again.

Jackson's stand was the performance that changed the Super Bowl halftime show forever, setting the template for what happens annually now: a performance by one of the biggest names in pop. There were missteps along the way. The next year, 1994 in Atlanta, was the first of several in which the stage was so overloaded with stars — including Kentuckians Naomi and Wynonna Judd — that it turned the event into a mishmash. That most notably happened in 2004, when Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake created the infamous wardrobe malfunction that briefly exposed Jackson's breast to the world.

In the 21st century, the shows have been at their best when left to one brilliant artist: Prince's showcase of his greatness in 2007 and U2's moving post-9/11 appearance in 2002. It doesn't always work, but that it frequently does is one of the biggest reasons we keep tuning in to this game every year, even if our team is not playing.

There is a game, isn't there?

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