Duke Fields was only 19 in 1967 when he played in the halftime show at Super Bowl I between the Kansas City Chiefs and Green Bay Packers. A veteran of big shows with Grambling State University's renowned marching band, he remembers looking into the stands at Los Angeles Coliseum and wondering how this gig would compare.
“Then I saw the rocket men,” Fields recalls of the halftime show. “Two guys with jetpacks—and my God, those things were loud!”
Fields had no idea then, but he was etching his name onto a list of halftime performers that one day would include music legends as well as dubious acts such as "Elvis Presto" and the infamous "Left Shark."
By the late 20th century, the halftime show had morphed into a multi-million-dollar carnival of music, pageantry and big-name entertainers. But no matter who performed, the show could turn weird.
Super Bowl IV Halftime Features 'Battle' Fiasco
An hour before Super Bowl IV in 1970 between Kansas City and Minnesota in New Orleans, the weather bureau issued a tornado warning. Then a hot air balloon carrying a Vikings mascot crashed into the stands, causing a near-panic but no injuries.
Even the pre-game national anthem was a flop. Veteran actor Pat O'Brien's mic cut off as he was reading the words to the accompaniment of trumpet player Doc Severinsen and a marching band.
Then, after two quarters dominated by Kansas City, came a halftime show a sportswriter likened to a "Roman circus."
The Chiefs' hot-air balloon, expected to race the Vikings' balloon at halftime, never got airborne. Producers aimed to dazzle with a massive model of a Mississippi River steamboat laden with women in hoop skirts. But that ship didn't sail. The field was too wet from a pre-game downpour.
A Battle of New Orleans reenactment with hundreds of participants was a flop, too. The white stallion of Andrew Jackson—the hero of the War of 1812 fight—bolted when exploding cannons created a deafening roar.
"Maybe that's the reason the scene ended with an unhistorical twist, with the Yanks and Jean Lafitte's Frenchmen all sprawled on the ground in death and the red-coated British still firing away spiritedly," the Associated Press wrote.
Fittingly, as an opera singer belted out Basin Street Blues during the halftime "circus" in the Sugar Bowl, Al Hirt's blaring trumpet drowned her out.
"Fortunately," a newspaper columnist wrote, "they sneaked a football game in between all that jazz."
Fans Watch Super Bowl XXIII Halftime With 3-D Glasses
By the 1980s, the Super Bowl was must-see TV, but the halftime show was becoming a punchline. Not even the second jetpack appearance, at Super Bowl XIX in 1985, could shake the malaise.
Recognizing the need to change the narrative, producers of the Super Bowl XXIII halftime show in 1989 created one of the oddest experiences in television history. Coca-Cola was sole sponsor for a show incorporating 3-D technology called Nuoptix.
For TV viewers to fully appreciate the whiz-bang performance, the soft drink company distributed 26 million pairs of 3-D glasses with its product—newspapers even ran graphics for how to use them. To ensure he had enough 3-D glasses for customers, a bar owner in San Francisco bought $100 worth of Coke.
"This is the single proudest moment of my life," Bob Costas of NBC Sports said, tongue in cheek, as he introduced the 3-D show.
“Bebop Bamboozled" featured “Elvis Presto,” who performed magic tricks as 3-D graphics flashed behind him and dancers performed to 1950s music amid computer-generated revolving cars and spinning planets. At least one bar patron appreciated the show: "It's good because it's keeping people glued to the TV instead of getting up to get a beer and going to the bathroom."
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But like a Coke left out too long, the 3-D viewing largely fizzled with the public. A reviewer wrote it was like “watching a football halftime show in the distorted reflection of an old mirror.”
Michael Jackson, the 'King of Pop,' Plays Super Bowl XXVII Halftime
At Super Bowl XXVII at the Rose Bowl in 1993, Michael Jackson performed solo—the start of a flurry of top-name acts booked by the NFL. Before the King of Pop's performance, fans rushed onto the field. Then Jackson stood in silence for almost two minutes as anticipation grew.
When he finally moved and performed, Jackson electrified, setting an example for a new generation of halftime-show performers. But not everyone was pleased. Jackson's crotch-grabbing performance angered some.
"To the uneducated observer, it would indeed seem to be merely a vulgar display of self-indulgence," wrote a newspaper reader.
Jetpacks fell by the wayside, but airborne stunts did not.
As Diana Ross finished her set at Super Bowl XXX in 1996, she cried, “There’s my ride!” Then a helicopter descended toward the field. Ross finished the last song—appropriately, “Take Me Higher”—and waved goodbye as the copter's whirring blades blew the singer's hair into her face.
Janet Jackson's 'Wardrobe Malfunction' at Super Bowl XXXVIII
If the King of Pop's performance was one of the greatest in Super Bowl history, his sister Janet Jackson's showing at Super Bowl XXXVIII in 2004 was the most controversial. MTV produced the star-studded show, infamous for Justin Timberlake tearing off part of Jackson's top and exposing her breast for a split-second as she sang “Rock Your Body.”
An angry reader of a Pennsylvania newspaper suggested the Federal Communications Commission fine Jackson and Timberlake $1 million each for the "wardrobe malfunction." The FCC fined CBS, the Super Bowl broadcaster, and Jackson was blacklisted by TV and radio stations. But Timberlake, who remained fully clothed during his performance, suffered no penalty.
Eager to play it safe after the Jackson fiasco, the NFL booked Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones, Prince, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band and The Who for the next five Super Bowl halftime shows.
At Super Bowl XLIII in 2009, though, Springsteen’s show featured a perilous moment, as he knee-slid crotch-first into a TV camera. His wardrobe, however, remained intact.
'Left Shark' Steals Show at Super Bowl XLIX
At Super Bowl XLIX in 2015, a shark became a sensation during Katy Perry's performance of "Teenage Dream" and "California Girls." While the dancing "Right Shark" performed capably, the "Left Shark" danced comically out of synch.
The Internet mocked Left Shark, but Perry's choreographer threw cold water on the hot topic.
"The sharks were given two main objectives,” RJ Durell told The Hollywood Reporter. “One, perform Katy’s trademark moves to the Teenage Dream chorus, which they both did perfectly; and two, to have loads of fun, and bring to life these characters in a cartoon manner, giving them a Tweedledee/Tweedledum-type persona.”
No matter how elaborate (or weird) the halftime show gets, Fields and his former Grambling bandmates take special pride in their role in the uniquely American spectacle.
“When you think about it, we did it before Michael Jackson did it, before his sister, before Prince,” Fields says. “As long as I’m alive, I’ll always be grateful that I made history.”