Tampa, Fla. Way before Prince, Paul McCartney or the Rolling Stones ever stepped onto a Super Bowl stage, there was Shirlee Bertolini. In her donkey costume.
So much has changed since she paraded around the Los Angeles Coliseum field for that very first halftime show.
Truth is, she wouldn’t mind seeing things more like they were in 1967.
“We put on a band show. A fantastic band show,” she said this week by telephone from Tucson, where she’s in her 54th year as the University of Arizona’s twirling coach. “You want to go to a concert, go to a concert.
“Now they’re going to have Bruce Springsteen. So what? You could get a marching band, and it wouldn’t cost you $10 million. I’m sorry, but that’s ridiculous.”
Will Bertolini watch The Boss and a cast of thousands in today’s extravaganza?
“I might,” she said. “Or maybe I’ll get up and have a beer.”
In all ways, the Super Bowl has morphed from a curiosity to a behemoth.
A ticket cost $6 when Bart Starr, Vince Lombardi and the Green Bay Packers beat Kansas City 35-10 in that first game. The top ticket for this weekend’s matchup between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Arizona Cardinals goes for $1,000.
Now, the game is by far the biggest sporting event in America, a semi-national holiday. But back then, before the original National Football League and upstart American Football League merged, many fans weren’t sure how to view it. Or watch it, really, since CBS and NBC both televised the first one.
In fact, it was officially the AFL-NFL World Championship Game in the 1960s. Commissioner Pete Rozelle preferred “The Big One” but that got nixed. The late Lamar Hunt, among the AFL’s founders, suggested “Super Bowl” as a temporary fix. He got the name idea after seeing his daughter bounce a SuperBall.
The halftime shows have mirrored that growth.
Even after Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” tour in 1984 made him a stadium smash, he kept his distance from the No. 1 sports show.
“Initially, it was sort of a novelty and so it didn’t quite feel right,” Springsteen said this week in Tampa. “It’s a great spot now.”
Springsteen said he began to change his mind after a random conversation.
“I was with a young musician one night at dinner and we got to talking about Super Bowls and he said, ‘Hey, why don’t you play the Super Bowl?”’ Springsteen said. “He said, ‘Man, I hope one day we’re big enough to play the Super Bowl’ and I got to thinking about that.”
Top entertainers now covet the 12-minute Super Bowl spot, seen by nearly 100 million viewers in the United States and a worldwide TV audience.
Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers rocked last year in Glendale, Ariz. Sting, U2, Stevie Wonder and Britney Spears are among the other stars in the last decade. Janet Jackson gave the most memorable performance — her “wardrobe malfunction” in 2004 sparked a national debate.
Things were a little haywire in the first one, too.
In 1967, a Disney official asked Jack Lee, the director of the Arizona marching band and composer of the school’s “Bear Down” fight song, to put together a halftime show. A salute to American music was planned, but there was one problem: Even with 250 band members, Lee needed more people.
He invited the Grambling band to join them, and that helped when it came time to form a map of America that stretched from end zone to end zone. A local high school band joined in. Lee also found a few other volunteers.
“He used everybody in our family,” recalled his son, John, a future drum major in the Arizona band. “My brother, my sister and my mom. I was 8 then. I got to lead the procession to form the crack in the Liberty Bell.”
All over the field, there were acts. Two astronauts wearing jet packs shot out of a giant football. Al Hirt blew his trumpet. Cowboys restaged the gunfight at the OK Corral, albeit with a little hitch.
“The gunfighters were pretending to shoot band members, rather than each other. So they were bringing out stretchers and carrying off the band members with their instruments,” Lee said.
Bertolini took part in several skits. She twirled, and was part of a four-person team inside a big donkey outfit.
“Whatever Jack needed, we did,” she said.
College bands were a major part of the Super Bowl production during the next two decades, with marchers from Michigan, Florida A&M, Texas and Southern among those taking part. Broadway veteran Carol Channing became the first performer to headline, in 1970, at New Orleans, in a tribute to Mardi Gras.