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Sunday, February 2, 2020

Disney’s History with the Super Bowl Halftime Show

by Chris Lucas
Guest Column
February 2, 2020

In the first nine years of the Super Bowl's existence - before it became a national holiday and media extravaganza - the halftime show wasn’t a cheesy spectacle with odd musical and dance numbers, or even acts made up of famous rock & pop musicians. It was simply local college and high school marching bands performing, as per football tradition.

Super Bowl X broke with that by hiring the squeaky clean musical youth group Up With People to perform. They were well received, but the NFL wanted more spectacle.

If you're going to hire a company for big entertainment on a national stage, you can't go wrong with Disney. 

At Super Bowl XI in 1977, as the Minnesota Vikings and Oakland Raiders headed to their Rose Bowl locker rooms at the half, Disney characters took the field to perform a tribute to "It's A Small World." (Basically a big commercial for their famous theme park in Anaheim, just a few miles down the road.) 

This was also the first time that the Super Bowl stadium crowd was asked to be part of the spectacle. Disney distributed the now commonplace placards to be waved and held up at certain points of the performance.

Disney returned to the Super Bowl seven years later in Tampa - again right in the Mouse's backyard - when the Redskins played the Raiders. Disney produced a "salute to the silver screen." In addition to Disney characters, they utilized the marching bands of not one, but two local teams, Florida State and the University of Florida. 

It was a big Busby-Berkeley-type spectacular that set the tone for halftime shows to follow.

Super Bowl XXI in 1987 returned to the Rose Bowl and featured the Giants vs. the Broncos (it was the very same Super Bowl where Disney began its "I’m going to Disney World!” commercials.) This was the 100th anniversary of movie making, so Disney was hired to do a "salute to Hollywood."

Being so close to LA, you'd expect a load of Hollywood stars to show up, right? Nope, just George Burns and Mickey Rooney (The Disney gang showed up too, but we’re talking about live-action stars.) 

The Grambling University marching band performed, and there was a pre-taped medley of Hollywood songs, from Flashdance and Footloose to "When You Wish Upon A Star" (of course.)

Definitely a spectacle designed for casual viewers, and not meant for hardcore football fans, the halftime show of SB XXI started to drag the previously nondescript fifteen minute filler between halves into the territory of more of a Broadway or theme park style show.

Tampa was the setting for Super Bowl XXV in 1991, and it was no ordinary event. First, it was the 25th Super Bowl, so that added to the pageantry. More important though, the game between the Giants and Bills was played in a tense national atmosphere.

Just a few weeks before the game, US forces had begun the assault on Iraq in the first Gulf War. Almost everyone at the Super Bowl was wearing red, white and blue. American flags were seen all over the stadium. Security was tight, and Whitney Houston's rendition of the National Anthem brought many to tears.

Unfortunately for Disney, their half time show was planned well in advance of the war and didn't feature overtly patriotic themes. Instead, it was a simple tribute to the legacy of It's A Small World. New Kids On The Block, the hot band of the moment, came out to sing their hit single "Step By Step."

Too bad almost nobody saw it. Unlike all the other Super Bowl half time shows, which cost a fortune and are designed to be seen by millions, this program was not carried live by the network, ABC. 

Only the people in the stadium saw the show. At home, viewers instead saw a special ABC News half time report on the Gulf War. This was just as well, as most minds were on that topic anyway and the game was just a brief break from the 24-hour news coverage. 

To be fair, ABC did tape the half time spectacular, intending to air it after the game, but most affiliates cut away from that too. It later re-aired on the Disney Channel.

Though hardly anyone remembers the Disney show, few can forget the game, which turned out to be one of the most exciting ever. The New York Giants won 20-19 in a last minute squeaker when the Buffalo Bills kicker missed an easy game-winning field goal. 

1995 saw possibly the weirdest halftime show ever, courtesy of Disney. 
Super Bowl XXIX was played in Miami between the Chargers and 49'ers. Steve Young threw for six touchdowns on the way to a 49-26 blowout victory.

The Disney halftime show’s theme was "Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Forbidden Eye,” a promotion for the ride that had just debuted at Disneyland. Actors playing Indy and Marian (definitely NOT Harrison Ford or Karen Allen) grabbed the Vince Lombardi Trophy - the shiny silver Tiffany-made award given to the Super Bowl winner - to save it from bad guys who wanted to steal it, all while musicians such as Tony Bennett, Teddy Pendergrass, Gloria Estefan and Patti Labelle sang in the background.

The climax of this dizzying mass of pop culture confusion was the whole group coming together at the 50 yard line to sing "Can You Feel The Love Tonight" from the previous year's movie hit "The Lion King."

Super Bowl XXXIV in 2000 would be (to date) the last time Disney was involved in producing a half time show.

For the match up in Atlanta between the Rams and Titans (which the Rams won 23-16 on an exciting last second tackle at the goal line), Disney prepared an inspiring halftime show about the hopes for the new Millennium called "Tapestry of Nations." 

"Tapestry" was also making its debut as the focus of Epcot's Millennium celebration.

This halftime show was by far Disney's most ambitious, featuring breathtaking costumes, pageantry, a full orchestra, cast of hundreds and a chorus of 80 people. Noted actor Edward James Olmos was the narrator, and performers such as Phil Collins, Christina Aguilera (who both were later named Disney Legends) and Enrique Iglesias took the field to sing "Celebrate the Future, Hand In Hand."

Many thought the show was moving and impressive, but critics were not so nice. The consensus seemed to be that Super Bowl halftime shows were getting out of hand.

While the criticism was not aimed at Disney directly (Radio City Productions had also done large halftime shows), the NFL decided to move in another direction, with less spectacle. 

MTV and concert promoters were asked to bring in big name rock, rap and pop stars to perform. In recent years, it's been pared down even more to just one or two featured performers or groups, often on a bare bones stage. 

The NFL may yet return to Disney (there was talk of using them for guaranteed family friendly shows after the Janet Jackson "wardrobe malfunction" fiasco in 2004, but nothing came of that.) For now, Mickey and friends are on the sidelines but in the minds of millions of fans, they will always be associated in one way or another with halftime.

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