The Most Bizarre Super Bowl Halftime Show In NFL History
By Thomas Willoughby
The Super Bowl is one of the key dates in the global sporting calendar. Like the Champions League final, Wimbledon, and World Stone Skimming Championships, the Super Bowl is an event that sports fans the world over tune in for. And why not? It’s great. The game itself is, often, a cagey affair. But everything else? Pure gold.
You get a massive name singing America the Beautiful, another massive name singing the national anthem, and a fireworks show that is single-handedly keeping the industry alive. It makes the FA Cup final look like Sunday league by comparison.
The biggest draw, for those who aren’t well versed in the sport, is the halftime show. One of music’s superstars gets 15ish minutes to put on the greatest show they can, to the planet’s undivided attention. Sometimes it works (Shakira and Jennifer Lopez last season was genuinely excellent), sometimes it doesn’t (remember The Black Eyed Peas?). This season, The Weeknd will hope his brand of R&B will captivate audiences to a level Maroon 5 could only dream.
It wasn’t always this way. I want to take you back to a halftime show of yore. It was a themed celebration. It included the clumsiest of tributes to America’s armed forces, the biggest boy band on the planet, and a haunting rendition of the creepiest song in theme parks had to offer. All in the same host city as Super Bowl LV. This is the most bizarre Super Bowl halftime show in NFL history.
"Peace Through Understanding"
Our story begins, as all great stories do, in 1964. The Cleveland Browns toppled to the Baltimore Colts 27-0 to be named the National Football League champions. Ron Greenwood’s West Ham United overcame Preston North End to win the FA Cup in a 3-2 thriller. And The Beatles were on top of the world, having released their third album “A Hard Day’s Night”. It truly was the year that was.
As the sixties were getting into full swing, a man we’ve previously met was at the absolute height of his powers. Walt Disney was the undisputed king of entertainment, sat on a global empire. Arguably his greatest achievement, Disneyland, was coming up to a decade in operation, and plans for a second, more ambitious theme park, to be constructed in Orlando, Florida, were well underway.
Disney was keen to further his legacy outside. Robert Moses, President of the 1964 New York World’s Fair committee, contacted Disney, asking if he would be interested in contributing to the event. Naturally, Walt jumped at the chance. Disney had a history with the World’s Fair, having contributed a Mickey Mouse short to 1939 iteration. For 1964, Disney would offer far more than short films.
Disney turned to the in-house talents of WED Enterprises, named “Walt Disney Imagineering” nowadays. He planned an exhibit that would indicate how much further technologies can progress, for the advancement of society. With the backing of some big companies, the technological geniuses got to work on their shows, to be housed in the fair.
Three of Disney’s four contributions were grounded. A history of electricity in the home, a car ride through time, and a lifelike animatronic of President Abraham Lincoln delivering his own speeches. The fourth was one of innocent optimism. Sponsored by Pepsi Cola, a boat ride titled “It’s a Small Word – A Tribute to UNICEF and the World’s Children”. Animated dolls danced around landmarks across the globe, singing a song of peace.
It’s a Small World was a hit. Over 10 million adults and children alike enjoyed the leisurely trip through a peaceful depiction of Earth. The best part? All of the proceeds from the ride were diverted to UNICEF, directly helping the neediest children across the globe.
The fair wound down, and those attractions needed to be repurposed. Discussions of keeping the exhibits on site, as part of a new park in the same location, were short lived. Instead, all four shows were moved to Disneyland. To this day, It’s a Small World is a staple of Disney Parks across the globe.
The NFL: 1990 Edition
The playoffs for the 1990 NFL season felt inevitable. With 1989 AFC Champions, the Denver Broncos, suffering the heaviest of Super Bowl hangovers, there was a clear run for the Buffalo Bills to go in as the AFC’s number one seed. Over in the NFC, the back-to-back Super Bowl champions 49ers continued their reign of terror. A 14-2 record nabbed them the NFC’s top billing.
The respective championship games were almost inevitable. The Los Angeles Raiders, number 2 in the AFC, handily dispatched the Cincinnati Bengals in the Divisional round, as did the Bills to AFC East rivals, the Miami Dolphins. The pair would play out a replay of their week four clash. Much like that day in October, Buffalo’s terrifying offense would prove too much for Los Angeles, taking the conference title in a 51-3 victory.
The NFC championship game was also played out between the 1 and 2 seed, albeit under different circumstances. The New York Giants, unlike the other 3 sides making up championship Sunday, were built around their defense. That defense, coordinated by relative unknown Bill Belichick, had given up more than 21 points in just one game all season. They headed to Candlestick Park hoping to slow down Joe Montana’s 49ers. They succeeded, winning the duel 15-13.
Super Bowl XXV was set. Bills vs Giants. Let’s go.
"The Big Game" in "The Big Guava"
The big game was to be played a week later. Tampa, hosting the big game for the second time, knew that they needed to go big. We’re now in early 1991, and the US was embroiled in the Gulf War. America needed to lift spirits 5 months into the short-lived conflict. The Super Bowl, and the half time show, in particular, was the ideal backdrop.
Super Bowl XXV was also the 25th anniversary of the Super Bowl. A double-dip celebration of patriotism and history was on the cards, for the right producer. With the game being broadcast on ABC, a broadcaster with close ties to some of the biggest names in entertainment, the scope was there, if they could secure the right partner. Just under 2 hours away, they had just that.
There isn’t a company better suited to play up the pomp and audacity of the Super Bowl than the Walt Disney Company. From their theme parks, to their cinematic output, Disney, by its very nature, is bombastic and loud and everything America loves. The comfort that Disney brings to so many, tied with the biggest game in the American sporting calendar, was a match made in heaven.
30 years ago today...— NFL UK (@NFLUK) January 27, 2021
Whitney Houston's spine-tingling National Anthem at Super Bowl XXV. pic.twitter.com/TKSSrDaDD6
Sunday 27th January 1991. Super Bowl Sunday. 73813 avid football fans packed into Tampa Stadium. An unforgettable rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner from Whitney Houston, and the scene was set. Would the explosive Bills offense win the day? Or was it time for defense to bring the Giants a championship? Giants kicker Matt Bahr kicked to Don Smith, and we were underway.
Over two quarters, it was difficult to separate the pair. With the score at 12-10 in Buffalo’s favour at the half, the two sides went into the locker room for an extended break, ready to enjoy the night’s headline attraction. The Walt Disney Company presents “It’s a Small World tribute to 25 years of the Super Bowl”.
“Ladies and gentlemen, boy do we have a show for you. And it’s an all kid’s cast! On behalf of the 2000 children performing tonight, we’d like to dedicate this half time show to all the servicemen and women who are protecting us in the Persian gulf. And now, live from Tampa Stadium! It’s the first ever all-kids Super Bowl halftime show!” – a child dressed like an ABC news anchor.
A graphic confirming that what we are about to see is, indeed, a product of Walt Disney World, and we’re away. Legions of children chanting “T-A-C, K-L-E, TACKLE TACKLE WHOOPSIE”, and another cartwheeling towards the stage, before the voices come together to sing the classic American Football anthem “You’ve Gotta Be a Football Hero”. We’re just getting started.
Not strange enough? Halfway through the rendition, Houston Oilers superstar, Warren Moon, accompanies a smitten Minnie Mouse onto the stage. Why is Warren Moon present? He isn’t a kid! Moon is mobbed by the kids, and Minnie sings the final verses. We’re just over 2 minutes in.
Following a fitness class led by Goofy and Roger Rabbit, Chip and Dale treat us to a football team-based parody of “U Can’t Touch This”. But liquid patriotism? Fret not! Up steps a young boy, donning a super bowl cut to serenade us with Bette Midler’s “Wind Beneath My Wings”, over the top of the images of active armed service people. 7 minutes in, and it’s time for an address from the President of the United States, George H.W. Bush, and the First Lady, Barbara Bush. “God bless America, and God bless freedom loving people around the world”. Oh, the crowd is hyped now.
Never forget the time this legendary bowl cut put on a clinic in respecting the troops at the Super Bowl halftime show pic.twitter.com/Kdb73DcoYL— Pete Blackburn (@PeteBlackburn) January 29, 2019
“And now, our grand finale”. With just over five minutes of run time left, it’s time to bring out the big guns. And there’s no gun bigger than Mickey Mouse dressed in a stars and stripes suit leading the children into a medley of It’s a Small World/We Are The World/I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing. But wait? What’s this? The opening bars to 1990’s international pop hit “Step by Step”? It is! To play us out, it’s the ultimate kids! New Kids On The Block!
NKOTB are here to “honour our armed forces’ children”. Step by Step, and This One’s For The Children, and the night is just about done. Our camera team takes one last opportunity to zoom in on the faces of children who are absolutely dreading school tomorrow, before a reprise of it’s a small world sends us home. Good night, everybody!
Fans inside the stadium attempted to rationalise what they’d just seen. At home, fans were left to wonder what could have been. You see, ABC opted not to broadcast the halftime show. Instead, it was replaced by an ABC News update regarding “Operation Desert Storm”. They would have to wait until after the game to witness those events unfold, and even then there was no guarantee of that. A few territories were treated to the craziness as-live. Most saw the pilot episode of Davis Rules.
The game’s conclusion lives in infamy. Down 20-19, Buffalo marched down the field. With 8 seconds on the clock, Scott Norwood stepped up to try a 47-yard field goal, his longest ever on-grass attempt. It sailed wide right. Giants run down the final seconds of the clock, and become Super Bowl champions for the second time.
New Kids on The Block went on to achieve continued success. They may have split in 1994, but reunited in 2008 following much speculation, and exist in some form to this day.
“It’s a Small World” would receive 2 further iterations following its Super Bowl appearance: Paris in 1992, and Hong Kong in 2008. A film based on the ride was also announced in 2015, though no further information has been released.
The 1991 Super Bowl halftime show may not have spelled the end of the “themed” performance, but it certainly helped bring it to a close. From 1993 onward, contemporary names headlined the event, save for two occasions. Disney would oversee proceedings in 1995 and 2000, but would not be called upon from that point forward. Trust in the House of Mouse had clearly taken a hit.
The Super Bowl halftime show has seen some wacky moments over the years. You wouldn’t bet against The Weekend serving up a meme-able moment or two of his own this Sunday. No matter how weird it gets, remember: it’s nothing compared to 1991.
Featured Image Credit: Annette Lein – GRN