How an Elvis Impersonator Helped Change Super Bowl History

FootballOnce upon a time, not so long ago, Super Bowl halftime shows were kind of an afterthought. For years, decades even, school marching bands and Disney-themed floats took to the field.

One notable early exception came in 1972, when Ella Fitzgerald performed “Mack the Knife” with trumpeter Al Hirt. Sure, there were others on occasion, but the choices continued to be stuck in World War II-generation entertainers — all the way into the 1980s — with the likes of George Burns, Mickey Rooney, and 40s big band singer, Helen O’Connell.

Nothing against that era of entertainment, but it wasn’t targeting the majority of much younger viewers. Besides missing the mark on demographics, doesn’t the oft-highest viewed program of the year deserve something a little more spectacular? In fact, it’s such a big event, many people watching aren’t even hardcore sports fans.

Things changed in 1989 when producer Dan Witkowski created a show that included 2,000 dancers from the South Florida area. Better yet, it was first broadcasted 3-D television event.

While the theme could still be accused of having an off-the-Vegas-strip style, with a 50s-themed performance that included Elvis impersonator Elvis Presto, the ambition of it all upped the ante for halftime shows.

“All of the baby boomers were trying to cling on to the past and so it just all kind of clicked from that standpoint,” said Witkowski, explaining the theme of his show. He also explained:

“The [NFL] commissioner [Pete Rozelle] had not been in favor of using celebrity types for the halftime show… It was generally marching bands or Disney doing something with parade floats and so we thought, ‘Oh let’s have a little fun with this and do something silly.’”

That he did. Oh, we forgot to mention that Witkowski got to ride in the Weinermobile: “You haven’t lived until you’ve ridden shotgun in the Oscar Meyer Weinermobile.”

The next year, the NFL reverted to its old ways with a salute to the host city of New Orleans that included clarinetist Pete Fountain and Louisiana fiddle player, Doug Kershaw. But in 1991 the halftime show included New Kids On The Block. While the boy band didn’t carry much heft, it did mark a first, in that it was an entertainment act that appealed to the youth of the day… even if they had to wait until it was broadcasted after the game, due to the network’s coverage of Operation Desert Storm.

The real breakthrough came when Michael Jackson performed at Super Bowl XXVII in 1993, which helped bring a record-breaking television audience of 133.4 million viewers.

This could be considered the “wake-up call” moment for the NFL, leading to every subsequent halftime production deliberately targeting high profile pop, rock, country and R&B acts.

While the King of Pop may have created the breakthrough moment, it could be said that an ambitious, albeit hokey, production of an Elvis impersonator singing and performing magic tricks in 3D was where it really began.

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