Long before superstars took over the Super Bowl halftime show, there was Up With People.
Between the marching bands of the earliest games and Michael Jackson’s appearance in January 1993, four halftimes were filled with hundreds of energetic, clean-cut kids who danced, sang and had smiles so perfect they could make a dentist weep.
It was a four-scoop helping of wholesomeness before the era of big acts and (sometimes) big headaches.
There were no wardrobe malfunctions, middle-finger salutes, phallic shadows, bleeped-out lyrics or homemade American flag ponchos. Just a legion of well-choreographed teens and 20-somethings singing tunes for that year’s Super Bowl theme.
Over an 11-year period, from 1976 to ’86, Up With People was the headline act at Super Bowls X, XIV, XVI and XX. The group has more Super Bowl halftime appearances than any other act. Including its pregame performance at the 1991 game, Up With People has played five Super Bowls, more than all but five NFL teams.
But each year about this time, Eric Lentz starts seeing “the lists.”
Before every Super Bowl, writers revisit every aspect of the game’s history, with top 10s of the best and worst games, plays, venues, commercials ... and halftime shows. Each year, it seems, Up With People takes a beating.
Fortunately Lentz, Up With People’s senior vice president and executive producer, has a thick skin.
“We see the pundits and we see the top 10s and the bottom 10s, and we show up on all sorts of lists,” he said recently from the organization’s offices in Denver.
More often, the “pundits” aren’t kind.
Wrote one reviewer in 2011 of best/worst halftime acts: “Book Up With People once? Shame on you. Book Up With People four times??? Shame on us all.”
And this one, by the San Francisco Chronicle in 2010, that rated Up With People’s Motown tribute at the 1982 game in Pontiac, Mich., as the worst show ever:
“I hope you were throwing the football in your front yard during halftime shows in the 1970s and early 1980s, which all seemed to feature Up With People or Carol Channing. Up With People always had a creepy-weird cultish quality, with exaggerated dance moves, brightly colored yet chaste clothing and industrial-grade happiness. The group’s ‘Salute to Motown and the 1960s’ was the worst of its four Super Bowl appearances. The performances featured the whitest people in the world performing music mostly identified with African-American culture. Imagine watching the cast of ‘Bonanza’ performing in a Tyler Perry play.”
To be fair, Up With People had several African-American performers that year, and that particular performance has been praised, too. A Washington Times story in 2012 ranked the group’s Pontiac show as ninth best and refreshingly wholesome when compared to more recent acts, noting: “[they] were as inoffensive as puppies eating ice cream and apple pie.”
To Lentz, the shots just bounce away.
Maybe their act wasn’t cool. Maybe Up With People’s performances (alive forever on YouTube) look corny, old-fashioned and woefully out of place, sort of like Pat Boone rapping.
“I laugh it off,” Lentz said. “I consider the source. I don’t let it bother me because what your organization is about, at the end of the day, is not putting on Super Bowl halftime performances. It’s about changing lives. Not just the lives of the students that travel with us, but the lives of the families we stay with, the people we do service for and every community tour, showing that young people can communicate a positive message of understanding.
“That may sound like a company line, but it’s true, otherwise I wouldn’t have been working here for 15 years.”
• • •
It may surprise some to find out that Up With People is still singing and dancing across the globe.
Founded in 1965 as an organization to promote good will and perform community service, Lentz describes it as a cross between “Glee” and the Peace Corps: The Glee Corps.
It’s smaller than it was back in its Super Bowl era. It now sends out about 200 cast members (from the U.S. and other nations) to tour each year rather than the 600 or 700 in the ’70s and ’80s.
The group performed at the opening of the Rose Parade as recently as 2011, but it’s no longer in demand to play big sports events.
Lentz knows times have changed too much for Up With People to do another Super Bowl. Now, mega-celebrities are selected months in advance and hyped to bring in the largest audience possible. With the game, cutting-edge commercials and a headline act at halftime, the Super Bowl is a ratings bonanza, and UWP doesn’t fit.
“I think [it's] the reality of how the entertainment industry works now and the corporate dollars,” Lentz said, explaining the change. “Obviously this year you’re going to see Beyonce with Pepsi splashed all across her, right? The industry and landscape have changed so significantly. Personally, would I like to see us back? By all means. I think Up With People could do an amazing job with halftime. ... But realistically, we would need a major corporate funder and we’d probably need a name [performer to pair with], because that’s what people are used to now.”
Dr. Robert Thompson watched those Up With People halftime shows and agrees with Lentz.
Thompson, the founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University, said the group probably was a bit out of place even when it was doing Super Bowls, noting comedians were making fun of it at the time. But that might say more about society than Up With People.
“I think generally, since the 1980s, we have been so deeply mired in irony and the era of postmodernism, and anything with that degree of sincerity and that lack of irony generally ends up being targets,” he said. “People make fun of it. A lot of people make fun of anything that’s hyper-sincere and doesn’t engage in the kind of deep irony that’s been so much a part of the way we communicate, especially the way younger people communicate. And I guess by younger, I mean anybody under 65.”
The fact the NFL didn’t invite Up With People back to do the 2005 show -- after Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” in 2004 exposed her right breast -- was a final signal the group isn’t coming back.
“They were so wholesome,” said Thompson. “How could you say anything against the message of breaking cultural barriers and creating understanding and all that kind of stuff? And I think as nice as they were, today they would seem completely out of place in a Super Bowl halftime show. Although I’m surprised -- and there was some talk after the Janet Jackson thing -- that that might have been just what the doctor ordered. But no, they went back in 2005 to Paul McCartney. He was the safe choice.”
Plus, Thompson knows the NFL had to change its show. Halftime was the most “disposable part of the broadcast,” he says -- a time people could step away. The NFL has now made that must-see, too.
Those superstar acts are more in line with the violence (game) and glitz (commercials) of the entire telecast than Up With People would be, Thompson said. Even a wardrobe malfunction isn’t all that incompatible.
“All those people [were] complaining, ‘Oh, Janet Jackson’s breast was exposed for half a second! It’s destroyed all the children!’” Thompson said. “Whatever made them think that the rest of what went on during the Super Bowl was really good for children?
“Fourteen beer commercials associating beer with happy times and all those [erectile dysfunction] commercials and the violence of the sport? They made it sound like Janet Jackson’s breast was exposed during the playing of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’ The Super Bowl is not that.”
• • •
Jim Steeg was an executive in the NFL for 30 years and the league’s senior vice president for special events -- in charge of just about everything related to the Super Bowl (including halftime entertainment) -- from 1979 to 2005.
To Steeg, Up With People was the perfect act for the '70s and '80s. He and the NFL were pleased with the group’s performances and the crowd receptions were positive -- a reason UWP did four halftimes. But the times and technology that made the group appropriate 25-35 years ago have evolved.
Back then, there were no giant screens that allowed people sitting in the upper deck to see the face of a superstar performer. Back then, nobody thought to recruit a mega act to do a halftime show. At that time, said Steeg, the theory of the halftime show was that it needed to “fill the field” so every person in the crowd would be close to the performance. A lone performer on a stage at midfield would have been lost to ticket-buyers.
“You couldn’t have a centrally focused, one-person type performance,” Steeg said, noting the lack of giant video boards. “What you were seeing was what you saw right in front of you. You didn’t have the ability to look to your right or your left or, in the Jerry Jones world, look up above to see what was going on down on the field.”
So, the idea was to provide a “spectacle,” and Up With People could do that with 500 people weaving, dancing and singing across the turf.
Giant video boards, willing celebrities and changing expectations soon made UWP obsolete as a halftime option, but Steeg says their act should be seen through the lens of that era, not this one.
“This was before everybody thought that stars wanted to participate,” he said. “That ’82 [show], they seemed like the absolute perfect match because they could do all the Motown music, and that was before you’d think about having Smokey Robinson or Gladys Knight or whoever perform in the halftime show. It was foreign to the thought process.”
To Steeg, that show in Pontiac was terrific.
“I love that halftime show because it was Motown and we were in Detroit and it was a great tribute to [Motown stars], and I’m not sure anybody else could have done it better than they did,” he said. “Then this transition starts to come a little bit where you get a star, or B-level stars, until you got to the A list.”
• • •
On Super Bowl Sunday, Lentz and others in his organization will do what they often do and trade messages about Beyonce’s halftime show.
“We all blow up each other’s Facebook walls when we see the latest performance and whether Up With People should be back, or good riddance that we’re not,” he says, laughing.
But he knows the shows today have far more “wow factor” than UWP can offer.
“The Black Eyed Peas, if you go back and look at them [in the 2011 show], you don’t see so much the performer as the technological wizardry,” said Lentz. “And that’s what makes us unique. ... There’s a reason our name has the word people in it. Our performances are not about star power. They’re about the power of hundreds of young voices coming together to express a belief in world peace, which is basic and a little bit naïve, but that’s what we believe in. So I like seeing that power coming together.
“I just don’t know if the world would want to see that over Beyonce and the Black Eyed Peas.”