- The Washington Times - Friday, February 4, 2005

He had little experience and less practice. Also, he couldn’t sing. But the show needed bodies, so here was Bruce Erley, standing on a stage in the middle of the Rose Bowl. Microphone in hand.

A packed stadium looked on. Soon, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Los Angeles Rams would play the second half of Super Bowl XIV. But not yet. Not before hundreds of perky, possibly animatronic youngsters delivered a Technicolor tribute to the Big Band era.

Not before Erley suffered his own brand of wardrobe malfunction.

“The outfits were so hideous,” said Erley, 50, president of a Colorado marketing firm. “Guys wearing rugby shirts, big, thick, red, yellow and green stripes. White collars. Denim jeans. Girls wearing denim skirts, full color shirts.”

Erley laughed.

“I had my Afro, and I’m a white guy,” he added. “You have to remember that in 1980, we were still coming off the disco period.”

Before Janet Jackson’s nipple. Before Paul McCartney’s piffle. Before Michael Jackson healed the world alongside 3,500 schoolchildren — oops! — Super Bowl halftimes belonged to the most unlikely showstopper of all.

Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome … Up With People!

Surely you recall: pep squad smiles, energetic sprints, reflective Mylar placards. Back when Miss Janet was anything but nasty — and Wacko Jacko still had his original face — Up With People was the NFL’s go-to act, as inoffensive as puppies eating ice cream and apple pie.

They saluted the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Wished America a happy birthday from atop a midfield cake. In their fourth and final Super Bowl performance, Up With People commandeered the Superdome to present the City of the Future: an array of inflatable skyscrapers, tumbling from above like water-filled prophylactics.

Pop in the tapes. Check out the shows. It really did happen.

“My wife was actually one of the performers on the field,” said Terry Schade, 44, who worked on Up With People’s Superdome technical crew. “We have a video of it. I tell our kids, ‘You see that little green and orange dot? That’s mom.’ ”

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The NFL needed oomph. For the first Super Bowl halftime in 1967, the league trotted out a pair of college marching bands. Three years later, singer Carol Channing circled Tulane Stadium on a float.

By the mid-1970s, however, musty salutes to Duke Ellington no longer sufficed. Besides, Pete Rozelle and company feared that an event titled Super Bowl X might be misunderstood.

“Back then, ‘X-rated’ was a big deal,” said Erley, Up With People’s spokesman at the 1986 Super Bowl. “The league wanted something wholesome, upbeat.”

Enter Up With People. Founded in 1965, the nonprofit organization had two guiding principles: offer a positive alternative to the social strife and disillusionment of the era and do it through song and dance. At its peak, the group sported 700 youth volunteers split into a half-dozen performing casts, hopscotching the globe.

Square as a picture frame and more likely to sing ditties like “What Color is God’s Skin?” than stage a war protest, Up With People fit the NFL’s apolitical bill.

“We were considered milk and cookies,” Erley said. “They didn’t have the term at the time, but we were a great red state program.”

Herb Hutner, a Los Angeles businessman and friend of Rozelle, prodded the commissioner to consider the group. Hutner’s daughter, Lynn, was married to Steve Colwell, one of Up With People’s founders.

In late 1974, Colwell answered his phone. Rozelle was on the line. Could the group put on a show?

“They still wanted to use music but have a whole new look on the field,” said Ralph Colwell, Steve’s brother and director of the first three Up With People halftime shows. “It was really up to us to come up with an idea, kind of a prototype for future Super Bowls.”

Up With People casts went from city to city, living with host families and performing community service. They played one of Richard Nixon’s inaugurations and the 1972 Munich Olympics. Still, the Super Bowl was unique.

When choreographer Lynn Morris first heard the news, she wasn’t sure what to think.

“The Super Bowl? I said, ‘What’s that?’ ” recalled Morris, 70, who now lives and works in Las Vegas. “I never did know who was playing in the game.”

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Mud. Everywhere mud. Morris sat on the roof of a truck trailer, shouting directions in the drizzle.

Dance! Smile! Take apart the stage!

On it went, eight hours at a time. Down came the rain, 10 consecutive days leading up to the 1980 Super Bowl. The practice field turned soggy.

“The NFL brought us little raincoats,” Morris said. “It didn’t rain on the day of the game, but the [Rose Bowl] field was mud. They covered it with green sawdust. So we run out, and everybody is covered in it. It was fabulous.”

The halftime productions took two years of planning. Mark Conzemius, who performed in the 1986 show, practiced with his cast next to China’s Great Wall. On a cold December day, they danced and sang to rock music while clad in coats and gloves. A crowd gathered.

“People were wondering what in the world was going on, didn’t know what the Super Bowl was,” said Conzemius, executive director of the Eastern South Dakota Catholic Community Foundation. “The Chinese government wasn’t sure what to think of us.”

Up With People’s 1976 debut transformed the halftime aesthetics, introducing pop music, elaborate staging and choreographed numbers. During the show, the group blew out its giant on-field speakers.

Four years later, it placed Mylar placards under every stadium seat. The goal? Turn the Rose Bowl into a giant mirror ball. The resulting reflection blinded network cameras.

For the finale, Up With People set off fireworks attached to fake palm trees, part of a Coconut Grove-themed set.

“People got caught under the exploding palm trees and burned their shirts,” Morris said. “One of the players left his jacket on the field. He got holes in it. It was great fun.”

At the Rose Bowl, cast members sat with Johnny Carson. In New Orleans, Schade enjoyed an all-access game pass and reserved stadium parking next to Saints owner Tom Benson.

“For most of the game, I sat with the Chicago Bears cheerleaders,” Schade said. “I’m thinking, ‘This is the way to watch the Super Bowl.’ ”

In 1980, television viewers nearly saw too much. As one of Morris’ female assistants ran onto the field for a jitterbug number, her skirt fell off.

“She danced with one hand, held her skirt up with the other,” Morris said. “We all laughed about that the other day. Remember when we had a wardrobe malfunction?”

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David Letterman turned to sidekick Paul Shaffer, sarcasm oozing from every pore. It was 1986, one night after the Super Bowl.

That halftime show — wow! Paul, did you see Up With People?

Yeah, they’re some group. But you really have to see them in a club.

Such was the beginning of the end. Never cool to start with, Up With People became passe. The NFL needed bigger names, someone to keep casual viewers tuned in during oft-boring blowouts.

Out went perky youngsters. In came Diana Ross, Christina Aguilera, *NSYNC. As the Super Bowl drifted, so did the culture at large. MTV reigned supreme. Up With People added rap but to little avail.

Beset by financial woes, the organization shut down in 2000. WorldSmart, an offshoot student travel program, began operating last year. The song and dance acts are no more.

“I don’t feel an affinity for it,” Schade said. “Nothing against the individuals, but the legacy of Up With People is the show.”

Speaking of shows: Last year, Erley held a Super Bowl party for a group of Up With People alumni. When Jackson’s nipple ring made an unexpected halftime cameo, one thought came to mind.

“They didn’t have to worry about that [stuff] when we were doing the show,” he said with a laugh. “If Up With People was still around and I was with the NFL, I’d make that call the next day.”

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