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Up With People ushered in today's Super Bowl halftime show

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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.

I'm talking about Up With People, the unlikely progenitors of the modern-day Super Bowl halftime show. 

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 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. (Check it out on YouTube here.)

Before Up With People came along, the Super Bowl halftime show consisted mostly of university marching bands and high school drill teams. 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. 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 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.

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."

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 Beyonce.

 

Jonathan Mahler is a sports columnist for Bloomberg View and the author of the best-selling Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning and Death Comes to Happy Valley.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 3, 2013 B6

History

Updated on Sunday, February 3, 2013 at 2:20 PM CST: adds YouTube video link

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