Lucille Walker was widowed 23 years ago and never remarried. She’s 78 now, and holding up well, though there was a touch of sadness in her eyes when she greeted a recent visitor at her home in Irvine, Calif. A documentary on her late husband had recently been scuttled. The director had stopped returning calls. Lawyers were involved.
As she leafed through old programs, telling stories about her husband, her spirits rose. She pointed to a 1986 TIME magazine cover bearing a spectacular image of the Statue of Liberty, wreathed in pyrotechnics on the occasion of the monument’s 100th birthday. Nobody did bright work like Tommy Walker, who produced that jubilee. There were a few snags. “The Secret Service said, ‘Tommy, you can’t put the fireworks there,’ ” Walker recalled. “And Tommy said, ‘We are going to put fireworks there. We’ll get Navy SEALs to patrol the waters at the base of the statue.’ And that’s where those fireworks went.”
Three months later, Walker went in for his third open-heart surgery. He died on the operating table. He was 68. “It’s such a shame,” his wife lamented. “Tommy gave his life for entertainment. And nobody knows his name.”
It is a shame. Before the Dos Equis guy, Tommy Walker might have been the most interesting man in the world. In 1934 he performed in Berlin as an 11-year-old trumpet soloist and drum major in his father’s American Legion band. Later, while starring in three sports at Black-Foxe Military Institute in Hollywood, he remained active in the academy’s band but still found time to act in a handful of MGM productions. That’s Tommy playing the drum major in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. He joined the Army in 1942, scouting behind enemy lines, earning a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. At USC, after the war, he was the Spirit of Troy drum major—in addition to kicking extra points. Tommy the Toe would descend from the stands, shedding his band uniform, replacing his tall shako with a football helmet. The Redskins offered him a tryout.
Instead, Walker became USC’s band director. His peppy, whimsical halftime shows, featuring card stunts and pigeon releases, caught the eye of Walt Disney, who hired him in 1955 to stage the opening ceremonies for a theme park in Anaheim. Walker stayed for 12 years at Disneyland, and many of its iconic flourishes—fireworks above the castle; Tinker Bell descending along a wire from the Matterhorn—were his creations.
A master of pageantry and sworn enemy of subtlety, Walker was also a charismatic man whose wide circle of friends included Pete Rozelle. Before the first title game between the AFL and NFL champions, in 1967, Walker urged the young commish to cough up a few bucks for a glitzy halftime show. “Why would we spend all that money?” Rozelle shot back. “That’s when everybody goes to the bathroom.”
Walker was adamant that he could craft a spectacle so engaging that viewers would gladly postpone the call of nature. In the end he produced three such extravaganzas, for Super Bowls I, IV and VII. Even though those galas made up a mere fraction of his oeuvre—like the sonnets of Shakespeare or the skateboarding medals won by Shaun White—Walker can still be described, accurately, as the Father of the Super Bowl Halftime Show. Considering the overhyped and often incoherent monstrosity into which that event has evolved, he almost certainly would have preferred that you not.
In the tense moments before the armies of Sauron storm the fortress of Helms Deep in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, it is the dashing archer Legolas who offers this advice to the bow-wielding battalion around him: “Their armor is weak at the neck.”
“The halftime show is the neck of the Super Bowl,” says Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television & Popular Culture at Syracuse. “It’s where the broadcast is most vulnerable.” He is speaking of the show’s susceptibility to counterprogramming, such as in 1992, when Fox hijacked 20 million CBS viewers from Super Bowl XXVI’s saccharine “Winter Magic” halftime with a riotous episode of In Living Color.
Thompson, who calls Super Bowl Sunday the most successful national holiday “since Lincoln gave us Thanksgiving,” regards the big broadcast as “three parallel programs.” The first is the game. The second is the “film festival put together by the advertising industry.” Which leaves the neck. While the Super Bowl halftime may be the most-watched musical performance in the world most years, Thompson says, “it is certainly not the most beloved.”
David Hill, the longtime CEO of Fox Sports, describes the halftime show as “America’s multigenerational entertainment for the year.” Precisely. For the NFL, the conundrum of annually choosing the performer is similar to a family—grandparents, parents, kids—trying to agree on one Las Vegas act to see. Don Rickles? Blue Man Group? The Mac King Comedy Magic Show?
“The aim is to engage as many generations as you can,” says Mark Quenzel, Senior VP of Programming and Production for NFL Network. “Entertaining everybody is a challenge, no doubt about it.”
Actually, clarifies Thompson, it’s impossible. “If Tom Petty makes some people deliriously happy, plenty of other people are asking, ‘Tom who?’ ”
Petty was one in a series of six consecutive safe and familiar old-fart ensembles booked by a league still traumatized by the R-rated finale to the Super Bowl XXXVIII halftime show, in 2004. The camera that captured Janet Jackson’s right breast that night after it was exposed by costar Justin Timberlake did so from a football field away. The offending boob was on air for all of a second. Yet that was long enough for CBS to get slapped with a $550,000 fine from the FCC (later voided by the courts); long enough to stoke the outrage of politicians concerned about the moral decline in America. It was long enough to entice 35,000 new subscribers to TiVo, to inspire YouTube and to make “Janet Jackson” the most searched name in Internet history.
Paul Tagliabue, then the NFL commissioner, went immediately into a prevent defense. Until Nipplegate the league had given the networks wide latitude in creating their own halftime shows. (CBS had subcontracted this one to MTV, which was informed afterward that it would never work another Super Bowl.) Now, laments Hill, “the NFL chooses the artist, the producer, the director.” Which is a shame, he adds, “because a lot of the fun of doing the Super Bowl is the halftime show and the lead-up to it.” Minus that, “it’s just another huge game.”
How would the league cleanse the nation’s palate one year after wardrobe malfunction entered the lexicon? Early money was on the aggressively bland ensemble Up With People, which had already performed at four Super Bowls. Concluding, apparently, that Americans had already suffered enough, Tagliabue signed off instead on 62-year-old Paul McCartney, whose raciest moment would come during “Get Back,” when he sang of the “lowww-neck sweater” rocked by the “mommy” of one “Loretta.” Subsequent halftimes showcased the Rolling Stones, Prince, Petty, Bruce Springsteen and The Who—a span that might fairly be described as AARP With People.
The NFL has since ventured outside the category of Old Fogies Rock—and been rewarded for it. The Madonna halftime show two years ago stands as the most-watched ever (112.5 million viewers). Beyoncé came in a close second last February. On both occasions ratings edged upward as the teams broke for halftime.
In case you’ve been on a silent retreat in the Himalayas since last summer, Bruno Mars will top the halftime marquee on Sunday. At 28 he’s younger than any headliner in 13 years. But he and all the post-Nipplegate halftimers have this in common: They’re chosen in hopes that their appeal might stretch, like one of Keith Richards’s neck wattles, across multiple demographics.
Thompson remains underwhelmed. “People pay almost $4 million for 30-second ads [during the broadcast]. This is the most valuable cultural real estate of the year. You’ve got a captive audience of over 100 million. And this is what they come up with? If I was trying to help an alien understand who we are as a nation, the last thing I would show them is a Super Bowl halftime.”
But what if the aliens were already two steps ahead? What if they’d already infiltrated the Super Bowl halftime show? Seriously, how better to explain Up With People?
On an impossibly tiny CBS set at Super Bowl X, host Brent Musburger has just handed off to Phyllis George, who is effervescing about the wholesome youths about to take the field, a chipper troupe whose talent level falls somewhere between high school variety show and Waiting for Guffman. George emphasizes what a privilege it will be to hear “these great kids” produce “some of the greatest sounds in American history!”
That would prove to be a highly generous assessment of the ensuing performance by Up With People, an admirably diverse and deeply earnest act that would later be parodied on The Simpsons as the group Hooray For Everything. On this sunny day in Miami, they open with their insipid eponymous staple, “Up With People”—Up, up with people! You meet ’em wherever you go!/Up, up with people! They’re the best kind of folks we know!—a number so bland as to make the music of Bobby Goldsboro seem esoteric by comparison.
Up With People was founded in 1965 by J. Blanton Belk, then the national director of the Moral Re-Armament movement, in order to provide youth with an alternative to the antiwar movement. “Its cornerstone,” wrote David Allen in the 1967 book Born to Upturn the World, “is the burning, almost competitive spirit to live straighter lives than any men have dared to live.”
So they did, for three more halftimes—or until minutes after their Super Bowl XX show, when Rozelle turned to another NFL executive and said, “Never f------ again.”
The bar was lower in the 1980s; the NFL seemed not to know its own strength. Months before Super Bowl XVI, Jim Steeg walked into Rozelle’s office and declared, “We’ve got to get Diana Ross to sing the national anthem!”
“Yeah, good luck with that,” replied the commissioner.
“They’d never really gone after real star power,” recalls Steeg, one of the founders of the NFL’s special events department, who, incidentally, succeeded in getting Miss Ross.
That experience made it easier, in 1996, to book her as the headliner for the halftime show at Super Bowl XXX, in Tempe, Ariz. Ross had a killer act planned that year, but it ran 131⁄2 minutes. NBC insisted that she trim it to 12. After pleading her case, Steeg got the green light from the network for Ross to take 131⁄2 minutes. Steeg, accompanied by his son Bryce, then 16, stopped by Ross’s trailer to deliver the good news. “She was very happy, obviously,” Steeg recalls, “so she gives me a big hug and a kiss.” Afterward, Bryce looked at his father and said, “Wow, Dad. You really are the man!”
Steeg had been working his way up for a while. The first halftime show he was involved with was “A Salute to the Caribbean,” at Super Bowl XIII, in the Orange Bowl. There, a boat “sailed” from isle to isle. “Except we couldn’t stop at Haiti,” he recalls. The Haitian musicians representing that island had fled, seeking asylum, several days earlier. And halfway through the show, the boat ran out of gas, leaving Steeg to push. “Not at all,” he remembers lying, when asked by a concerned superior whether the boat had malfunctioned.
All of this drama unfolded on top of a 120-yard tarp that subbed as the Caribbean Sea. Inevitably, there was a problem rolling it up: One edge needed to be trimmed—quickly. NFL groundskeeper George Toma shouted, “Has anyone got a knife?”
“About eight knives came flying out of the stands,” Steeg recalls.
He’s still defensive, though, about what he insists was the “most unfairly panned” halftime show ever, the unforgettable-for-all-the-wrong-reasons “BeBop Bamboozled” at Super Bowl XXIII in Joe Robbie Stadium. That show featured “the world’s largest card trick,” performed by the Prince of Prestidigitation, Elvis Presto (in reality, a 33-year-old Solid Gold dancer named Alex Cole).
“It was a really good idea,” Steeg contends. “The problem was, we had to do it in 3-D because Diet Coke sponsored the halftime, and they’d distributed 40 million pairs of 3-D glasses.” To revisit that spectacle is to disagree with Steeg: There was nothing unfair about the reviews, which were savage. During his lead-in—“This is the single proudest moment of my life,” followed by loud background laughter—and just before he donned 3-D glasses himself, halftime host Bob Costas appeared unable to conceal his mortification at what NBC was about to foist upon an unsuspecting planet.
The calculus changed radically in 1992, after ice skaters Brian Boitano and Dorothy Hamill got their heads handed to them by In Living Color comedians Keenen and Damon Wayans. CBS’s Nielsen rating dipped from a 42.1 to a 32.8 during that halftime, and the NFL suits had seen enough. Overnight it was decided: The days of jayvee, dinner theater–caliber entertainment were over. The league sent everyone deep. They decided to go after Michael Jackson.
For a month they got nowhere. Steeg sat down with the King of Pop’s manager, Sandy Gallin, 11 months before Super Bowl XXVII. “I remember pitching them,” he says, “and them not really having a clue what we were talking about.” At a subsequent meeting, producer Don Mischer pointed out that the Super Bowl would be broadcast in more than 120 countries. Now he had Jackson’s full attention.
Steeg recalls Jackson saying, “So you’re telling me that this show is going live to all those places where I’ll never do a concert?” A pause. “I’m in.”
“Michael worked harder than anybody [who’s done the halftime show], before or since,” says Steeg, who remembers seeing Jackson still rehearsing his act at seven the night before the game, in a tent outside the Rose Bowl.
And it showed. Jackson, rocking a bandolier-draped frock coat on loan, apparently, from Muammar Gaddafi, was sensational. The final moments of that show were the most viewed in the history of television at the time.
“All of a sudden,” says Hill, the entertainment world saw the value of the Super Bowl halftime show: “That it gave them a worldwide platform to strut their stuff.” The NFL has never looked back and now reserves that precious cultural real estate exclusively for blockbuster musical acts.
Scheduled to rock the Superdome at halftime of Super Bowl XXXVI, in 2002, was MJ’s younger sister, Janet Jackson. But she pulled out after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Fox’s planned theme for the pregame show, yet another tribute to Mardi Gras, was scrapped in favor of “Hope, Heroes and Homeland.” Before the game—credit for this inspired idea goes to Tagliabue—the Boston Pops played Aaron Copland’s “Portrait of Lincoln.” Narrating, and exuding varying levels of gravitas, were four former presidents, plus Nancy Reagan.
The task of finding a replacement for Jackson fell to the NFL’s top marketing executive, John Collins, who’s now the NHL’s COO. Shortly after drawing that unenviable gig, Collins saw U2 perform at Madison Square Garden. During one of the band’s half-dozen encores that night, the names of the nearly 3,000 people killed six weeks earlier scrolled slowly across the domed roof of the arena. “At first people didn’t know what was going on,” Collins remembers, “and then you heard, Oh, my God!, as they realized. People were reading the names of victims they’d known. It was a heavy moment—an amazing moment.”
Collins immediately knew the act he wanted for his halftime. Within two days Bono wasn’t just on board with the idea, he was passionate about it. Not surprisingly, this being the cautious, finger-to-the-wind NFL, that enthusiasm was not entirely reciprocated. How would it look, an Irish band commemorating an American tragedy? One TV exec pointed out that a U2 special on NBC had drawn underwhelming ratings.
Not among the handwringers: Roger Goodell, then the league’s COO. “He was all for it,” says Collins. “Roger gets it.” And while Tagliabue had initial reservations, he overcame them. U2 was a go, and the scrolling names would be reprised in New Orleans. The purpose of that solemn roll call, Bono had explained to NFL execs, was to remove the focus from the statistics, the number of deceased, and return it to the individuals.
Stunning in its impact at the Garden, the name-scrolling was exponentially more powerful as Bono belted out “Where the Streets Have No Name” to an international TV audience. The next day Collins got a note from U2 manager Paul McGuinness: “I almost feel sorry for whoever’s next.”
Lucille Walker hands a visitor a yellowing press guide from what’s billed as the “Super Bowl Fourth World Championship Game.” Tommy’s halftime show that day, “Way Down Yonder,” blew away anything that had come before. Walker employed 20,000 balloons, 50 American flags, 3,000 pigeons, 37 muskets and three cannons—the weaponry reserved for an on-field reenactment of the Battle of New Orleans, “complete with exploding cannons and British redcoats being felled by troops under the command of General Andrew Jackson and his unlikely compatriot, the pirate Jean Laffite,” according to an appreciation of Walker that appears on the website Mardigrasunmasked.com.
Also noteworthy, the appreciation goes on to say, “was the prominence of African-Americans . . . and a jazz funeral procession, with members of local second line clubs strutting across the field. The shebang ended with a mini Mardi Gras parade.”
“Re-creating a funeral procession on the field—who ever did that before?” asks Lucille, flipping through a stack of black-and-white photos from that day. By now the sun is low over the man-made lake in her backyard. Before bidding her visitor adieu, she offers a confession: For years, she has been unable to force herself to watch more than a few moments of any Super Bowl halftime show. She’s reminded of what’s missing.
“They don’t have anybody who has the showmanship anymore—the pageantry. That’s what people want. And that’s what we’re missing.”
Are you listening, NFL? She wants more pageantry. More patriotism. More risk-taking! And, if possible, more homing pigeons. Get back to where you once belonged.