Feb. 1 (Bloomberg) — We have grown accustomed to seeing the Super Bowl halftime show as a showcase for aging rockers or mainstream pop stars — so accustomed, in fact, that it’s easy to forget that it was once a showcase for a singing quasi-cult of closeted gay youths.
Yes, I’m talking about Up With People, the unlikely progenitors of the modern-day Super Bowl halftime show.
Remember Up With People?
The group was born in the 1960s, an ensemble of clean-cut youngsters who sang and danced to upbeat songs written expressly to counter the cynicism of the counterculture. (Sample titles: “Freedom Isn’t Free” and “What Color Is God’s Skin?”)
On stage, they were members of a polymorphous shock troop of cultural ambassadors projecting an image of boundless joy — cast members were required to smile for the duration of their performances — not to mention innocence and purity. Offstage, they were normal teenagers and twenty-somethings, which is to say that they experimented with sex and drugs on their tour bus.
Also — surprise! — the male cast members were disproportionately gay. “What kind of guy wants to prance around in a bodysuit on a stage?” says Eric Roos, a former Uppie who now runs a cosmetics company in San Francisco called Nancy Boy Products. “It was a huge percentage of gay guys with the supposition that no one was gay.”
Roos was part of the human car that rolled across the field of the Pontiac Silverdome near Detroit during halftime of Super Bowl XVI in January 1982 — the third of Up With People’s four halftime pageants.
Before Up With People came along, the Super Bowl halftime show consisted mostly of university marching bands and high school drill teams, which made a certain kind of sense: Professional football was still trying to match the popularity of the college game. The National Football League did offer an occasional flourish of its own, usually as part of the pregame ceremonies. For instance, in 1969 — the year that gave America Woodstock — the NFL gave America Anita Bryant, who sang the national anthem at Super Bowl III.
In the run-up to the 1976 Super Bowl, the NFL decided to undertake a more ambitious halftime show. Don Weiss, the executive in charge of game-day operations for the Super Bowl, was on Up With People’s board; the father of a cast member was friendly with then-NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle. During this era of cultural malaise, the combination of the group’s upbeat message and youthful exuberance proved irresistible to pro football.
The Uppies performed at the 1976 Super Bowl in Miami (“200 Years and Just a Baby,” the bicentennial tribute show was called), in 1980 in Pasadena, and, of course, in 1982 at the Silverdome.