Tops In Blue
|Tops in Blue|
|Origin||United States Air Force|
|Years active||1953 – 2016|
|Associated acts||The United States Air Force Band, The Airmen of Note|
|Past members||Jerry Van Dyke
Lane McCray
Tops in Blue was a touring performance ensemble made up of active duty members of the United States Air Force formed in 1953. For 63 years, Tops in Blue traveled to more than 20 countries to perform more than 120 times each year for airmen and families around the world. They perform in front of more than 250,000 military personnel and their families, presenting an average of 120 performances at 100 locations worldwide throughout the United States, Canada, Europe, Central America, and the Pacific. It was announced 21 Dec 2015 that the 2016 touring season had been cancelled "...as we seek to meet our core mission requirements in a time of constrained resources."
The ensemble is composed of 35 vocalists, dancers, musicians and technicians and is considered the Air Force's expeditionary entertainment unit. Performers are expected to be in top physical condition because they are their own roadies. Performers unload 60,000 pounds (27,000 kg) of equipment which uses a stage and truss which are built to fit on 13 pallets or two truck trailers. They spend four to eight hours setting up the stage prior to a show and are responsible for tearing everything down immediately afterwards. Due to the grueling tour schedule, the team works an average of 18–20 hours a day with 1–2 days off per month. Their primary purpose is to perform for military personnel and their families throughout the world. They have appeared on national television with Ed Sullivan, Bob Hope, Alabama, Barbara Mandrell, Boyz II Men, Lee Greenwood, and Lea Michele.
Tops in Blue is produced by the Entertainment Branch of the Programs Directorate, Headquarters Air Force Services Agency. The program is funded by appropriated and nonappropriated funds that are generated by Air Force people and was sponsored by Coca-Cola. They have produced five movies and two albums.
The unit is self-contained with its members consisting of four flights: personnel, logistics, operations, and technical.
Candidates for Tops in Blue submit a video performance to Headquarters Air Force Services Agency. If selected for audition, they are flown from all over the world to Lackland AFB for a ten-day talent show and multilevel competition judged by former Tops in Blue members. The performers are picked in six categories: male vocalist, female vocalist, instrumentalist, musical variety, dance, and non-musical variety including comedians, magicians, and dramatists. Each year is a new group and past members are not guaranteed to return. Those selected attend a 45-day training period at Lackland AFB.
Air Force Major Al Reilly created the Air Force Worldwide Talent Contest in 1953, and Tops in Blue began as a tour showcasing the best members of the contest performing at 230 locations in 235 days. Initially, the contest was judged in 14 categories ranging from comedy, drama, pop, jazz, hillbilly, vocal and instrumental. It was judged by celebrities like Barry White, Les Brown, Richard Roundtree, and Esther Williams. In 1954, Ed Sullivan invited Tops in Blue to perform at Mitchel Air Field, NY on his show "Toast of the Town" where Airman Second Class Jerry Van Dyke led the show as Master of Ceremonies. In 1964, the Tops in Blue left the stage to record in a movie studio to produce films and records for distribution throughout the Air Force. However, in 1971 Tops in Blue gained Air Force support to return to the stage on their return to live tours in 1972. In December 2015 the Secretary of the Air Force announced the cancellation of the 2016 season to allow an extended review of the program. The decision was made to pause the program reassess its mission, venue, themes and cost.
In 1981 they performed the halftime show at the Garden State Bowl. In 1985, an expanded production of Tops in Blue performed with help from over 1,400 volunteers from Mather AFB at the halftime show of Super Bowl XIX. In 2002, they performed at the Daytona 500. They performed The Star-Spangled Banner in 2005 for Game 6 of the NBA Finals and in 2009 at the Coca-Cola 600. At the pregame show preceding Super Bowl XLV Tops in Blue performed "America the Beautiful" alongside actress Lea Michele.
Tops in Blue has come under scrutiny due to decreasing military budgets and a perception that the show was not supported by the younger enlisted force, who when provided a Air Force questionnaire, viewed it as a "waste of time and money". The reported costs of the program are relatively low, but the unreported costs for salaries, injuries, overseas flights, lodging, etc. is estimated to be much higher. In addition to the monetary issues, the program has had reported fraternization, dangerous work practices, mistreatment, and sexual harassment. In an October 2015 Air Force-wide survey, results from 4,700 responses showed that Airmen between 25 and 34 generally had poor opinions of Tops in Blues and, despite widespread awareness of the program, only about 25% of respondants have attended an event. The survey revealed only 19% of the force was supportive of the program. The results of this survey triggered a review of the program and a suspension of the 2016 tour. The Air Force cited lukewarm interest and fiscal constraints as the primary reason for canceling.
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