Tuesday, October 02, 2007
By Chuck Find
Online home of the Steelerettes here.
Pyramid power once reigned for these former cheerleaders, but that was four decades ago.
So when this group of fifty- and sixty-somethings decided to give it a shot last month during a reunion at Gateway High School, let's just say the thrills that normally would come from doing such a potentially dangerous maneuver were, well, multiplied by the years.
But after a little back-and-forth over who would go on top and who would suffer on the bottom, it was the 1960s again. A dozen of the former Steelerettes ascended into a Sunday afternoon blue sky once more, just like they did from 1961-70, when they roamed the sidelines and performed on the fields of Forbes Field and Pitt Stadium during Pittsburgh Steelers games.
Yes, Virginia, the Steelers once had cheerleaders. In fact, they were the first, along with Cleveland, to unveil a full-time cheerleading squad in the National Football League.
"The fans did not know what to make of us," recalled Dolly Merante Kroen, part of that precedent-setting 1961 squad. "No one knew how to react. They mostly ignored us. We did perform a couple of halftime shows, and they seemed to like that."
Cheesecake and the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders they weren't. In other words, compared with their scantily dressed counterparts nearly a half century later, "We had clothes," observed Dianne Feazell Rossini.
The Steelerettes trace their humble beginnings to an idea Bill Day had 46 years ago.
A vice president at Robert Morris Junior College, then a Downtown two-year school before it grew into the suburban university of today, Mr. Day also was a bit of an entertainment coordinator for the Steelers.
He said he thought, "Here we are, an institution without a football team, and here's an institution without cheerleaders. So why not? It was a way, we thought, to sell some tickets, because in those days the Steelers had a hard time selling tickets."
Still, cheerleaders? For a team with 28 prior seasons of mostly futility, with more seasons totaling two victories or fewer (seven) than winning seasons (five)? For a team with an overall record of 121-188-13, three different cities (combining with Chicago and Philadelphia during World War II) and nary a playoff game?
"That was us jumping into the 20th century," said Art Rooney Jr., who worked the scouting side while brother Dan worked the business side for "The Chief" -- their father, Art Sr.
Jumping up and down. Performing Rockettes-like leg kicks in syncopation. Doing halftime dance routines.
It was stuff wholly unfamiliar to Mr. Day, Mr. Rooney and the gang. So they tapped a Robert Morris stenography teacher, Garnet Glover, who had been a Penn State cheerleader. And they enlisted the services of the most famous cheerleader in Downtown, Duquesne University's own Mossie Murphy.
Some of the members of the Steelerettes assembled in formation at last month's reunion. From left, front row: Denise Hughes, Dianne Rossini and Diane Zinkham; second row: Pat Simon, Lynn Moran, Jeanne Rattigan and Norreen Modery; third row: Lani Fritz, Barbara Kruze, Donna Yoko, Bonnie Galla and Loretta Candelore. On top is Mary Ann Barrington.
"He brought some insanity to this effort," Mr. Day said of the late Mr. Murphy.
They hung leaflets around the Downtown campus building, spread the word about this new female venture, prepared to enter an unknown zone. Hundreds showed at the first tryout.
These tryouts lasted five days a week for two weeks. "Many tubes of Bengay were used to ease the sore muscles as we were pushed to the limit of flexibility," said Gloria Sapovchak Molenaur.
Ms. Kroen, who originally went to tryouts as moral support for a friend who didn't make it, remembered Dan Rooney attending the last few tryout days.
The inaugural Steelerettes practiced outside their Shadyside dorm, in the school cafeteria, in Schenley Park, anywhere. Practices lasted two to three hours Mondays through Thursdays and all day Saturday.
They were required to have short hair, at least 2.0 grade-point averages and sparkling images. They wore hard hats and suspendered gold jumpers whose skirts revealed just a few inches of thigh, above the white socks. They almost wore out their welcome before they even got started.
"We did not take a football test until after the first home game against Detroit," Ms. Kroen recalled. "As Detroit was going down the field, we were screaming, 'Go, Steelers, go.' The sports writers crucified us in the paper the next day. After that, Mr. Day made us study the game and gave us tests. Questions like, 'What is the difference between offense and defense,' 'What is a field goal,' or 'How many downs are there?' "
"I remember learning about 'encroachment' and other terms that I had never heard before," Jean Craig Garrett said, recalling Mr. Day's quizzes from the second season, 1962. "Pass the test, or don't cheer."
Funny, but the Steelers reached their first playoff game in their checkered history in the second year of the cheerleaders' existence. The girls wanted to go to that playoff in Miami, too.
"We thought automatically they would take us. Unh-unh. No," recalled Linda Walters Bloomberg. "We all were upset because Dan Rooney would not take the cheerleaders -- only if you paid your own way. We said, 'Forget it.' "
It would be another nine seasons before another Steelers playoff game -- about the same time that their reign came to an end as the high school Cowboy Belles and male Beauxs gave way to professional cheeseca ... er, cheerleaders, when sideline ingenuity gave way to ingenues.
Bonnie Roush Caples, for one, remembered "being slightly jealous of the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders, because they got to wear white boots and skimpy uniforms. We were still wearing wool plaid skirts and sneakers or saddle shoes."
Therein, that societal transformation, that apex of the peace/love/war/bra-burning generation, not to mention the Steelers' move into Three Rivers Stadium, marked the end of their era.
Recalls Art Rooney Jr.: "After one of the seasons, the captain of the cheerleaders came in and saw my dad. It was like one of those old Betty Grable movies, and she said, 'Mr. Rooney ... the skirts out on the street are shorter than the ones we wear. We really think it would help if we wore shorter skirts.'
"My dad never did like that stuff. He dismissed her; she went back to class. He called out, 'Fogarty,' and Fran [the business manager] came in the room.
" 'That girl?'
" 'The cheerleader?'
" 'Nice girl. Pretty kid. Fire the cheerleaders.'
" 'Fire the cheerleaders?'
"And Fogarty said, 'That's Dan and Murphy's deal.'
" 'Fire Murphy, too.' "
Gerela's Gorillas, Franco's Italian Army, Lambert's Lunatics, Frenchy's Foreign Legion ... ultimately, the fans became the cheerleaders. It became a matter of Pittsburgh pride that Steelers fans, home or road, need no sideline performers to enliven them.
Fade to black.
Online home of the Steelerettes here.