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A Salute to Salutes! When the Super Bowl Halftime Show Was for Dorks

Photo: Gin Ellis/Getty Images

There is a guy on TikTok named Rocky Paterra who makes these videos that perfectly capture the dynamic between me and my sports-loving family. He plays a theater kid hopelessly trying to connect with his dad over football, asking questions like, “Dad, when the quarterback brings the team into a huddle, do you think they’re being supportive or stern?” The whole affair makes no sense to him, but he’s trying to find a way in, in the only way he knows how. “A hundred yards telling a hundred stories!” he breathlessly exclaims. It’s funny because it’s such a mismatch of subject and sensibility. Here’s this flamboyant little lad, trying to apply dramaturge to the big game! One chuckles at the thought!

It didn’t used to be this way. Decades ago, before A-listers and Pepsi sponsorships, before dad-rock bands and Justin Timberlake terrorized America, Super Bowl halftime shows used to be the sort of thing you’d expect to be put on at a community center by Corky St. Clair. They were hokey and corny and certainly had theater-kid energy, holding millions of football fans captive in their seats. Sometimes these displays of glorious, campy pageantry had a theme, like a very large school assembly, and sometimes they were more run-of-the-mill patriotic, marching-band fare. These early decades of Super Bowl shows were about ideas, not stars, and they were beautiful chaos; the closest that modern halftime shows have come to this vaudevillian vibe was Katy Perry’s left shark. And so as we brace for a 2022 halftime show that is unlikely to include fictional IP, jetpacks, or arena-size puppets (but a girl can still dream!), we’re paying homage to this simpler, weirder era of Super Bowl spectacle, as we proudly present Vulture’s salute to halftime salutes of yore.


1967: Super Sights and Sounds

Led by trumpeter Al Hirt, the very first Super Bowl halftime show was a musical extravaganza that opened with a Rodgers and Hammerstein number (“The Sound of Music”) and featured 300 pigeons, 10,000 balloons, and a Western shootout skit in which cowboys “shot” some members of the marching band. The climax was two guys taking off in actual functioning
jetpacks. They were just throwing everything at the wall, and it all worked. 


1973: Happiness Is

This tribute to … the concept of happiness, I guess, features Andy Williams crooning a Barbra Streisand song while a marching band spells out the word L-O-V-E with a heart for the O. Also: more pigeons.


1976: 200 Years and Just a Baby: A Tribute to America’s Bicentennial

Up With People did the Super Bowl halftime show four times. This is a matter of grave concern. As far as I can tell, UWP was like a rainbow- spandex Peace Corps traveling around the world, only instead of doing acts of service like digging wells, they mostly sang even cleaner versions of Free to Be You and Me songs. The parody version of them in The Simpsons is called Hooray for Everything! and they perform a halftime show called “A Salute to the Western Hemisphere: The Dancin’-est Hemisphere of All!” It’s scary stuff.


1977: It’s a Small World

This Disney-themed show performed by the New Mouseketeers starts out as an oppressively lame tribute to their mouse overlord. The “Small World” segment, which parades people in stereotypical costumes around a big globe, is certainly … something.


1980: A Salute to the Big-Band Era

Oh no. Oh no no no no no. They’re back. Someone let Up With People onto the field again, and this time they’re in primary colors. If you thought their clean-cut take on grooviness was bad, this time they’re channeling the 1940s. That means this asexual Borg is doing some of the most sexless couple’s doo-wop dancing you’ve ever seen, set to Andrews Sisters songs and the “Chattanooga Choo-Choo.” There’s also a conga line. It’s so bad it’s mesmerizing.


1982: A Salute to the 1960s and Motown

Up With People is back, and THEY’RE DOING THE MONSTER MASH!


1983: KaleidoSUPERscope

This one rules. It’s just people walking around with colorful fabric and umbrellas, set to the best synth music you’ve ever heard in your entire life. The transitions are these cutaway interstitials of trippy kaleidoscopic effects. At the 2:10 mark, the broadcast accidentally cuts to the control room, where a woman in a sweater is fully blocking the camera’s view of the show. If you’ve ever seen the Main Street Electrical Parade at Disneyland, which is set to a fabulous synth composition called “Baroque Hoedown,” you’ll be pleased to learn that this was put on by the same producer, big-brain mastermind Robert Jani. Who is Robert Jani? The first line of his Wikipedia entry calls him “an American event producer who specialized in spectaculars.” This clears up nothing at all, but this halftime show soothes my soul.


1984: Salute to Superstars of the Silver Screen

The CBS announcer cues up this show by calling it “the biggest and most glittery halftime show in Super Bowl history,” and glitter it does. This is another Disney production, so it’s Busby Berkeley by way of Magic Kingdom. It’s mostly the usual “Hooray for Hollywood” hokum, until Minnie Mouse shows up as Carmen Miranda, surrounded by greased-up musclemen holding old nudie magazine poses. This is one for the Disney gays.


1985: World of Children’s Dreams

This song-and-dance cheese-fest has probably the highest production value of any of the halftime shows up until this point … and that’s because it was put on entirely by the U.S. military. Glad to see they were putting that budget toward another jetpack routine!


1986: Beat of the Future

UP WITH PEOPLE IS BACK AND THEY’VE MULTIPLIED. The aerial shots make them look like an ant colony. Were they a cult? What was this?


1987: Salute to Hollywood’s 100th Anniversary — The World of Make Believe

Disney had the reins again and took it as an opportunity to rehash the “Salute to Hollywood” theme. There are some wild costumes here; Chip and Dale wear assless chaps. After Up With People’s hip, contemporary, ’80s medley, this is the second year in a row that the halftime show featured a performance of “Footloose.”


1988: Something Grand

Before Pepsi became the halftime show sponsor of today, halftime shows were brought to you by coke (not the soda). This show featured 88 grand pianos playing at once, the Rockettes dressed as sexy football players, up-skirt shots of cheerleaders, and Chubby Checker.


1989: Be Bop Bamboozled in 3-D

Okay, this one actually was sponsored by Coke; Diet Coke specifically. It was the “first-ever network broadcast in 3-D,” and it’s as absolutely fucking bananas as its name suggests. This clearly had a massive budget and was a huge undertaking, with a whole lead-up campaign where people could pick up 3-D glasses in stores before the game. And what’s the content of the show itself? Did they get a celebrity? Or more jetpacks?

No. They got an Elvis impersonator-slash-magician named Elvis Presto. Rather, they made him up for this halftime show, but present him as if he’s an established superstar, or at the very least an existing mascot. The effect is a sort of Che Diaz uncanniness. The whole show is visually, sonically overwhelming, full of magic tricks, pyrotechnics, poodle skirts, and Grease covers. “It’s about magic tricks but also the 1950s” is just a smidge too thematically incoherent for this to make any kind of sense to the human brain. And that’s watching it in just two dimensions.


1990: Salute to New Orleans & 40th Anniversary of Peanuts

If “1950s plus magic” was a thematic pairing that didn’t make sense, try “New Orleans and Peanuts. You get things like a college marching band spelling out the words “HAPPY BIRTHDAY, SNOOPY” while a giant riverboat emerges, and some of the most terrifying costumes you’ve ever seen. Charlie Brown should not be six feet tall and holding a jazz- processional umbrella.


1991: A Small World Salute to 25 Years of the Super Bowl

Two-thousand children perform in the first-ever all-kid halftime show. That is except for the Disney costume characters (Roger Rabbit!) and New Kids on the Block. A kindergarten-age soloist with a Children of the Damned bowl cut and Shirley Temple tremolo sings “Wind Beneath My Wings” over footage of soldiers in the Persian Gulf War. The kids all wave American flags while George H.W. Bush gives a video address. The whole thing ends with Mickey Mouse saying “thanks to our Armed Forces everywhere” while giant balloon versions of Disney characters deflate around him. You can’t unsee this.


1992: Winter Magic, a Salute to the 1992 Winter Olympics

Snowflakes on parade! Dancing snowmen! Ski-pole choreography set to a show chorus rendition of “Don’t Stop Me Now” with the lyrics changed to be about the Olympics! Dorothy Hamill and Brian Boitano doing simultaneous but separate lyrical figure-skating routines! Gloria Estefan emerging out of dry ice on a floating platform in front of a Statue of Liberty backdrop with fireworks shooting out of its crown! CHILDREN IN HAMMER PANTS DOING A RAP! Minnesota put its whole Superbussy into this one.


1995: Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Forbidden Eye

Must be seen to be believed. Extremely offensive on a million levels. And yet completely goes off in a way no other halftime show has ever done before or since. Disney produced this show as basically a lavish live commercial for the new Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland (a ride so good I’ve literally had dreams about it), and its sheer theatricality makes up for all the other crappy Disney halftime diversions that came before it. Could this be the only halftime show that has a plot?

The narrative is that a bad guy has literally stolen the Vince Lombardi Trophy, and as he wields it above his head and hundreds of dancers swirl around him, an unbelievably massive temple rises from the stage. And who should be at the center of that temple but miss Patti LaBelle, lip-syncing for her life and completely committing to the tone of the piece. Shirtless men fan her while she moves about the stage, pyrotechnics shooting off to match her riffs.

And just as she hits her last notes, who should be on fire and parachuting out of the sky but Indiana Jones and Marion! Gag! There’s prerecorded dialogue that plays as they stage-fight their way to the temple, culminating in Marion lighting a dude on fire. The temple disappears and is replaced by a “nightclub” where Tony Bennett croons, the characters kiss, and Indy throws a henchman into a grand piano, like a cartoon in real time. Spikes shoot out of the ground as the temple reemerges and the characters return the trophy to its rightful place. Real person Patti LaBelle is back to congratulate fictional character Indiana Jones on a job well done, and she performs another number, this time with a laser show. The grand finale is Tony Bennett and Patti Labelle singing “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” while fireworks shoot off and hundreds of dancers in deeply unacceptable costumes wave their hands in the air. This wasn’t a Super Bowl halftime performance. It was a defining moment in culture.


1997: Blues Brothers Bash

Another halftime show starring fictional IP, the Blues Brothers Bash begins with a prank. Just as the halftime show is about to begin, a news logo appears onscreen and voice-over says, “We interrupt this program for a Fox News Channel special report.” It cuts to the newsroom, where anchor Catherine Crier warns viewers to be on the lookout for escaped criminals Joliet and Elwood Blues, accompanied by future Blues Brothers 2000 character “Mighty Mack” McTeer (the movie didn’t come out until 1998). And then you better believe Dan Aykroyd, Jim Belushi, and John Goodman straight-up performed a full musical set for the halftime show, with appearances by ZZ Top and James Brown.


2000: Tapestry of Nations

The last-ever halftime show to be more about a concept than a headlining act was a real fantasmagoria of what-the-fuck. To usher in the new millennium, Disney staged a trippy, New Age, future-pagan ritual that was part Cirque du Soleil, part Julie Taymor, and allll EPCOT, baby. A live orchestra with choral members dressed like shapeless space-nuns and drummers crowned in Pinhead spikes plays an overture that sounds like Yanni picking the nose of God. Silk performers descend from above, while interpretive dancers jump around on sticks and a giant effigy the height of the entire arena rises from the ground, arms outstretched.

Then the puppets come in. The puppets are huge and faceless, featureless. Christina Aguilera and Enrique Iglesias sing a duet about putting “your hand on the future.” Cut to Edward J. Olmos:

“The sage of time has returned
To rekindle the human spirit
And lead us in an earthly celebration
That unites the world.

Once again as it does every thousand years,
The gateway of time has reopened
Giving us hope for a better tomorrow.”

He keeps talking in zen spoken-word paeans like this while more interpretive dancers flood the stage. “Behold the great millennium walk,” says Olmos, and the giant puppets do a dance. The music sounds like the sort of stuff you’d hear on one of those Putumayo “World Music” CDs found at the Barnes & Noble checkout in the ’90s. That is, until Phil Collins comes in with “Two Worlds,” the opening track from the greatest album of all time, Tarzan: An Original Walt Disney Records Soundtrack.

Toni Braxton closes the show with a ballad about the future, standing in front of a giant dove puppet. Children circle around her, waving dove hand puppets. The show closes out with fireworks. In this ten-minute display of pre-9/11 optimism, I think Disney may have … invented a new religion? From here on out, Super Bowl shows would be about stars putting on straightforward concerts, with few puppets or pigeons to be seen. How bittersweet, that this bonkers salute to the future was the end of an era.

A Salute to Salutes! When Super Bowl Halftime Was for Dorks