The Middle East was under siege, the Vice President of the United States had resigned, the final game of the World Series was under way and I was in a pair of red hot pants standing next to a water buffalo in Candlestick Park.
It was my final and grandest performance as a San Francisco 49er Nugget. From San Jose to the Top of the Mark, I wore the red uniform, cowboy hat and white vinyl boots that symbolize perhaps the most sophisticated and certainly the most successful promotional group in pro football. They had agreed that I could be with them for a week.
There are lavish bands like the Baltimore Colts', pompon girls like the Cincinnati Ben-Gals or the Buffalo Jills and cheerleaders like the Dallas Cowboys' long-legged knockouts. The Cowboy cheerleaders were once described as "disgraceful" by the male sponsor of another NFL pep group. "Those girls hang out all over the place," he said. To which Dallas sponsor Dee Brock responded, "If there's anything hanging out that isn't adorable, show me."
But in all the NFL, only San Francisco has the Nuggets. A Niner Nugget is not a cheerleader, and all 20 of them wince at the slightest hint that they are. They don't shake pompons or scream through megaphones. Unlike promotional groups with other teams (21 of the 26 NFL clubs had them in 1973) where the girls usually range in age from 16 to 21, the average Nugget is 27 and is closer to a gridiron version of a Dean Martin Golddigger. They sing, they dance, they sell the San Francisco 49ers. On this particular Sunday I was one of them, shuffling around on the AstroTurf, nervously awaiting the cue to sing You're a Grand Old Flag before the kickoff of a game between the 49ers and the New Orleans Saints. As a woman of questionable character said in a William Powell movie, I had "come a long way and left a wide path" since donning my white boots a week before.
About those boots, and the entire costume for that matter, my first reaction when Assistant Promotions Director Robin Mitchell handed me the ensemble was "Tacky, tacky, tacky." Polyester knit hotpants (I never wore hot pants when they were in), white felt cowboy hat (too big) and, worst of all, white vinyl, knee-high boots. I have spent half my life making fun of white vinyl boots. They are for car hops, hookers and ladies in Terre Haute, Ind.
Nonetheless, I would sooner have been clad in a Ronald McDonald suit as I crossed the elegant lobby of the St. Francis Hotel to meet Dick Berg, who was then promotions director and boy wonder of the 49ers, and is now the general manager of pro soccer's San Jose Earthquakes. Berg was taking me to my first Nugget function in a suburban department store an hour's ride from the city. A former Stanford quarterback, onetime assistant general manager of the Seattle SuperSonics and general manager of the Continental Football League's Seattle Rangers, Berg was 30, ambitious and had the kind of good looks San Francisco PR woman Suzy Strauss described as "that little boy face that says, 'Be my friend,' and the next thing you know, you'd do anything for him." In 1969, 49er President Lou Spadia met Berg and was so impressed with his work for the Rangers that he persuaded him to come to San Francisco to help romance a city that had been less than enthusiastic about its pro football team. In his four years with the 49ers, Berg and his promotion schemes were emphatically successful.
"A few years ago the people in this city were uninterested in the 49ers," said Wide Receiver Gene Washington. "If we were winning, that was O.K., but if we lost, forget it. It's not like that now."
"I don't know if community acceptance came because of a winning football team," said Spadia, "but the 49ers are now a definite part of the community. We have gotten involved in the area and the area has responded."
As for Berg's own part in all this, he says, becomingly, "Aw, I can't take much credit. I steal most of my ideas."
One idea he did not pilfer was the Nuggets. When he proposed using girls to promote the team, no one but Spadia thought it made any sense. That was four years ago. Today the Nuggets are firmly entrenched in the Bay Area consciousness. They have recorded an album with Reserve Quarterback Joe Reed, gone on a promotional cruise to Acapulco and are as well known as some of the players.
The first crop of Nuggets neither sang nor danced. Their primary duty was to look sexy, and at that they were a complete success. So much so that Spadia began to receive protesting phone calls and visits from players' irate wives. One vented her resentment by pouring a drink over the head of a Nugget who was chatting with her husband at a cocktail party. In time, songs and dances and promotional chatter took over.
For my first appearance with the Nuggets, at a Liberty House department store, the setup was familiar: a couple of players (each of whom gets $200) and two or three Nuggets (each of whom gets $20, if she is lucky) sign autographs and pass out 49er decals, bumper stickers and books of recipes contributed by players' wives. The cookbooks were a Berg brainstorm and include everything from Sue Brodie's stuffed grape leaves to Debbie Sniadecki's instructions on how to prepare a package of frozen lasagna.
The department store gave us dinner in the Eucalyptus Room of its San Jose branch. Reed's wife Stephanie was along to shop and keep her singing husband company. Berg brought along some Joe Reed & the Niner Nuggets albums to sell.
After my cheeseburger and glass of California chablis ("For you girls, anything," one of the Liberty House people said when I asked for some wine) I stationed myself near the women's nightgowns and housecoats so I could smile at everyone coming off the escalator.
"Gene Washington and Joe Reed of the 49ers," I smiled.
"Who's Joe Reed?"
"Uh, he's a quarterback and that's him singing on the record you hear."
"Oh, yeah? Far out. Can I have a bumper sticker?"
Two hours and several hundred bumper stickers later (they read I'M A 49ER FAITHFUL) the store began to close.' This was a quiet one," Marian Stephenson said as we untied our cowboy hats. Marian, 30, was working toward her master's degree in biology at San Francisco State and was a first-year Nugget. She had been a science writer for Health, Education and Welfare before deciding to go back to school for her master's. "At one of the other store functions a few weeks ago we served 1,000 Cokes to kids in an hour and 15 minutes, kept them in line to ride in the helmet cart and provided the players with extra pictures," she said." There was a clown there who didn't know much about blowing up balloons, so we had to help him too."
The oldest of the group, Marian had never before been "un-shy enough" to attempt to be anything like a Nugget. "It really is the wildest thing I've ever done," she says. "I left the HEW job the day before my 30th birthday. It was all very symbolic, you know."
"Hey, I saw you on TV," a little boy said to Marian.
"You did? When?"
"Last Sunday when they showed what you do."
"What did they show?"
"That you sing at the games. Can I have a bumper sticker?"
Night II was a promotional party to introduce the record album to the press and others. Peter Marino Jr., who helped produce the record, was the host, and his lavishly decorated house was open for inspection. A Dorian Gray-like portrait of Marino hung in the foyer, and at one point in the evening a guest was advised to "lie down on the fur bedspread upstairs and pretend you're a baby llama."
More than a dozen Nuggets were there (in uniform, of course). Joe Reed & the Niner Nuggets played softly over the stereo system. Marino had on red pants and a red 49er shirt. ("The straightest thing I've worn in months," he confided.) Joe Reed and his wife chatted with the guests; the Nuggets stood around the sumptuously loaded dining-room table, talking to one another and putting the food away. Somebody took pictures of Reed and the Nuggets. Berg invited a few of the girls to singer Lou Rawls' opening at the Fairmont Hotel. Everybody left.
Rawls is considered a good-luck charm for teams in the Bay Area, particularly the 49ers. Seven of the eight times he has sung the national anthem before a 49er game, San Francisco has won. Berg wanted him to sing before the New Orleans game and Rawls wanted to comply but there was a problem. He was scheduled to sing before the final game of the World Series in Oakland, 25 minutes after the 49ers' kickoff. Berg assured him they would work it out.
The next evening six of us went through the maternity ward of St. Mary's Hospital with T shirts reading I'M A 49ER BABY. There were 10 new mothers and one woman still in labor (we left hers on the nightstand). The nurses ooohed as we stepped off the elevator and passed an ancient nun, who eyed the boots and hot pants as if she too wished they were Ronald McDonald suits. Our Player-of-the-Night, Running Back Doug Cunningham, was late.
After the visit to the hospital, we rushed across town for a rehearsal. Before home games, the Nuggets practice two nights a week, once in the city and the other night at a motel in San Mateo. For many of the girls it means 60 or 70 miles of driving a night. Berg used to have a rule that girls who missed rehearsals would not receive their three free tickets for Sunday's game. Last year he dropped the rule.
"We don't do it anymore because we really haven't had to," he said. "Besides, I hate to do anything like that because Nuggets don't get salaries." Work without pay is the rule, not the exception, with NFL pep groups.
In addition to a run-through of our two songs for halftime, the rehearsal included a simulated tryout for me. News of the regular tryouts, normally held in April, was spread by word of mouth and by any friend of the 49ers who happened to see a pretty girl who might be able to sing. Judges included reporters, former Nuggets and friends of Dick Berg.
For my midseason tryout. Berg had assembled Glenn Thomas, the executive director of the San Francisco March of Dimes; Bill Lynch, a Coca-Cola executive; and Mike Olmstead, a pompon-routine teacher and sometime composer.
Prospective Nuggets, who must be at least 21, fill out an application that includes "Describe yourself in three words," and "What kind of animal best describes your personality?" I conveniently managed to lose my application between the hospital and rehearsal. Applicants are allowed a cocktail or two while they are being interviewed. The drinks supposedly put them in the right frame of mind for the remaining two-thirds of the tryout: singing two solos and doing a simple dance routine.
All I got was more California chablis as my judges asked, "What would you do if a married player asked you to dance at a team party and his wife was there?"
"Smile and say 'No thanks.' "
"What if a single player asked to take you home?"
"I'd let him."
"Do you realize that if there were any conflict between you and a player's wife, the organization would automatically side with the wife?"
"At the expense of truth?"
Then it was time to perform.
Nugget choreographer Marcia Harp, who studied dance in New York, was a stewardess for Pan American, is married to a soccer coach and has her master's in theater from San Francisco State, devised a simple routine. Reaching for optimum accuracy, Berg told three real Nuggets to pretend to try out with me.
Marcia showed us the steps, then stood back to watch. Jo McManus went first and did fine. She was followed by Paulette Rice, a soul sister who reminded us, "I've got natural rhythm, baby." She definitely had something I did not. Diane Tucker, a former music teacher and model who was once Miss Indiana State University, took her turn, and then I was on.
So much for the wine. I faked it, finishing with some truncated steps I dredged up from a junior high tap dance routine. They all applauded anyway.
The worst was last. I had been singing to myself all day as I walked the streets of San Francisco, trying to relax—even though they couldn't really reject me. The accompanist, Phil Reeder, said, "O.K., sing America the Beautiful. You do know the words, don't you?"
I made the usual jokes that nervous people who would rather die than humiliate themselves always do. Phil said, "Sing."
It was pathetic. I even felt sorry for me. It is simply impossible to produce pear-shaped tones when your stomach and heart are crowding each other for stage center in your esophagus. I hit a couple of good notes, which caused some heads to nod approvingly, but for the most part it was Mrs. Miller.
The best review came from Glenn Thomas, the March of Dimes man, who charitably remarked, "That took a lot of guts."
"I'm not a bad singer at all when I'm alone or singing in the group," Jo McManus said, "but when I tried out I sounded terrible."
"Tryouts!" Marian Stephenson grimaced. "I had to come back three times before I was selected. They made me sing Nothing Could Be Finer Than to Be a 49er God Bless America and America the Beautiful. And having to dance in front of all those men!"
"I don't know how I had the nerve to go through with it," Diane Tucker said.
Thursday night rehearsals were tense as Marcia taught us the dance steps we would do to one of our songs. She ran us through the routine 10 times, struggling to retain her composure in the face of a group of people who were in a silly, irresponsible mood.
Berg explained what halftime would be about (he was still negotiating with Oakland for Rawls) and mentioned that there were a lot of absentees and maybe they would have to think about taking away some tickets. We finished with a song called 49er Power ("From the kickoff to the gun. you'll have a lot of fun; and you'll flip 'cause we're hip").
The next morning four of us beat the sun in rising. Destination: the Round Hill Golf and Country Club, 40 miles away, for a golf tournament. Unlike the off-season tournaments, no 49er player would be participating in this one. The Nuggets' appearance at Round Hill was just goodwill for the team and good exposure for ourselves and the 49er helmet cart. Throughout the year, a Nugget might attend 12 to 20 tournaments.
Today all we had to do was smile and wish everyone good luck and pass out beer from the helmet cart as golfers got thirsty. For an hour the four of us—Diane Tucker; Pat Dennis, who has been almost everything from a model to a blackjack dealer at Lake Tahoe; and Barbara Perzigian, at 21 the youngest Nugget, who wants to be a sportscaster—sat in the sun and talked. The morning dew had not yet dried on the greens when the first tab tops were pulled.
"What's this?" an alpaca-attired entrant said, eyeing us. "Looks like an Alameda Rodeo." We all laughed politely.
"Yecch! Who are you? What is this?" A golfer with his railroad hat turned around backward and a can of beer in hand assaulted us. "Yecch! Forty-niners. Yecch! I'm from L.A. Go, Rams." To dispel any doubts we might have as to where his pigskin priorities lay, he began making very authentic gagging sounds, choking out "49ers" in between. It was 9:45 a.m.
"If you keep making those noises," I said, "I am going to throw up on your nice white shoes."
Fortunately, his partners called him and he moved off, gagging as he went.
A guy in brown asked Pat to pose with him before he began his round. Pat is 5'10½" tall and often the target of unabashed affection. "Pat, I love you!" the guy in brown hollered as he teed off. "Patricia! Hey, Patricia, I love you!" We would see more of the man in brown and the Ram fan as we drove around the course and the beer flowed.
Once in a while some of the men got a kick out of blocking our helmet cart with their golf carts in order to talk to us.
"How you gals doing?" one asked.
"Just fine," we all said.
"Yes," he said, looking us over. "I can see that."
"Patricia! Give me a kiss for luck. Pat, don't leave, I love you."
"Oh, boy, look who's back. Forty-niners. Yecch! Go, Rams."
Pat offered two of her free tickets to a well-mannered golfer who said he had never seen a 49er game.
"I like to give them to people who really appreciate football and want to go," she explained.
Most of the Nuggets are interested in football and know something about the game. A few, like Kathy Kerr, a legal secretary and former actress, are rabid fans. Nearly all of them are Monday morning quarterbacks.
Then it was game day. Sunday. Ten a.m. I showed my Nugget parking pass to the stadium guard and was told I could park anywhere but where the helicopter was going to land. Dick Berg was not just whistling "Oh, say can you see" when he told Rawls they would work something cut. He had hired a helicopter, bargained with the A's and devised a James Bond plan that would have Rawls sing in Candlestick at 1 p.m., fly across the Bay to Oakland to open the World Series at 1:25 and then fly back in time to emcee the 49ers' halftime show.
To emphasize the circus theme of the show, animals had been borrowed from Marine World-Africa U.S.A., among them two llamas, a bear, an elephant, a chimp, the water buffalo and a tiger. We would be joined by 25 high school kids dressed in their school mascot outfits and 400 pompon girls from California and Nevada who would compete for trophies.
The animals arrived earlier than most of the Nuggets, and all 400 pompon girls were already going through the routines they had learned when their schools paid $62 for each of them to go to Mike and Bob Olmstead's pompon camps. As I rounded the corner of the end zone, I was bashed in the face with a plastic pompon by a bouncing song leader who never knew what hit me.
By noon the field was packed with bands, a team of national cheerleader instructors, clowns, baton twirlers, rodeo people, microphones and pompon girls. Phil, our accompanist, had yet to arrive, because he was in Oakland playing the organ for his church.
The Nuggets took pictures of each other and tried out the clowns' trick bikes. Dick Berg paced the field with a walkie-talkie in hand. Someone said the tiger was too nervous to be let out of his cage onto the field and might be a late scratch.
We rehearsed our songs into the microphones—among them Talk to the Animals—without the benefit of Phil's piano, and we sounded very bad.
"This always happens," one of the girls lamented. "Then when the real show goes on and we sing well, no one can hear us. They think we're a bunch of no-talents and it's so embarrassing."
Walking to the motorized cable car that the Nuggets use as a combination makeup room and lounge during the game, I found myself beaming at the crowd gathering in the stands. The University of the Pacific band was playing When You're Smiling, the sun had come out and for once my boots didn't hurt. "I'll be a cynic again tomorrow," I thought. "Right now I wish I could do some Rockette kicks."
Ten minutes before kickoff, we were combing our hair, re-applying makeup and inspecting runs in our panty hose. A woman in red from head to toe spied me in the rest room and said, "Boy, we better do it today, huh?" I agreed.
We lined up in front of the goalposts and sang You're a Grand Old Flag at least six times (two or three of them in synchronization) while rodeo riders carrying American flags thundered around the stadium. Lou Rawls sang The Star-Spangled Banner and disappeared.
Half of us climbed aboard an antique fire truck to watch the game. Shortly before the half ended, the 49ers scored and the other Nuggets came flying around the field on the cable car, waving and ringing bells. With a few minutes left on the clock we hustled to the sidelines and were lost in a sea of pompon girls. Someone came along and told us to precede the llamas onto the field.
"At least we don't have to follow them," said a Nugget. Raffles, the chimp, dressed in a 49ers uniform, was banging his helmet on the ground (someone suggested they substitute him for Quarterback Steve Spurrier) and the water buffalo appeared to be asleep.
The helmet cart crept through the crowd of waiting performers, carrying an injured Gene Washington. He smiled, shrugged at his own misfortune and was swallowed up in a blob of pompons.
The show went off perfectly. Lou Rawls came riding in on the elephant, much to the amazement of fans who had been listening to the Series on their radios, the pompon girls danced their hearts out and a 6-year-old twirler in cotton-candy pink dropped her baton only a couple of times.
The Niner Nuggets were introduced and we sang our two songs, smiling like Miss Americas. Perhaps I imagined it, but I swear I didn't hear a single pair of hands clapping when we finished.
It was all over. We had sung and danced in front of 52,881 people. Just another Sunday in the life of a Nugget.
All the hours on the freeway, the jerks on the golf course, the cleaning bills, the tryouts—all of it for a five-minute bit in Candlestick Park.
"Who knows why they do it?" Lou Spadia says. For some it is a springboard to modeling, acting or singing. For others, the chance to be somebody besides a secretary five days a week. For one, it had something to do with that band playing When You're Smiling.