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.
Roos had joined Up With People after finishing his freshman year at the University of California at Berkeley, taking a break from college to travel around the world with his cast. General Motors sponsored the trip to Michigan — Up With People was heavily dependent on its close ties to corporate America — so the group performed at some local GM facilities before their engagement at the Silverdome.
At the Super Bowl, they sang a Motown medley, building up to the grand finale: the human car. Roos was part of the hubcap. “It’s mortifying,” Roos says now. “It felt like we were an act in a high-school talent show.”
Watching the video on YouTube, it’s hard to disagree. Although, in fairness, they weren’t much worse than the rest of the era’s halftime shows. Like, say, the NFL’s awkward stab at multiculturalism in Miami in 1979 — the “Caribbean Carnival,” which featured a boat-shaped float “sailing” over a blue tarp, with musicians playing regional tunes at each port. The Haitian band never showed up, the tarp got snagged on the base of a goal post, ripping the sea, and the float’s motor conked out near Puerto Rico. Or the 1989 show in Miami, which featured an Elvis impersonator and “the world’s largest card trick.” Or the 1992 show in Minneapolis, with Brian Boitano and Dorothy Hamill skating on sheets of Teflon spread over the field.
Up With People’s last Super Bowl performance was in 1986 in New Orleans. By this point, the group’s cultural moment had passed; it was morning in America. Rozelle had grown sick of them, anyway, reportedly telling his staff years earlier that there were three words he never wanted to hear again: Up, with and people.
Still, the Uppies left their mark on the game. As campy as they may look now, they created the concept of the halftime show as a free-standing cultural event of its own. It took a little while for the NFL to figure out what sort of acts its viewers really wanted, but if not for Roos and his fellow Uppies, we might very well be watching the Southern University marching band on Sunday night instead of Beyoncé.
(Jonathan Mahler is a sports columnist for Bloomberg View and a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine. He is the author of the best-selling Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning and Death Comes to Happy Valley. The opinions expressed are his own.)