Pac-Man, Princess Diana, MTV – the 1980s were all about shaping a new world for young people, and while culture change was rampant worldwide, a new force was making its mark on Sing Song at ACU: the Class of 1986.
They lit up the Sing Song stage like never before as freshmen in 1983. That also was the first year Jeff Nelson (’79) served as director of Sing Song.
Director Les Hunter (’86) and his class devised a Pac-Man video game theme, and on stage they used clear battery-powered Christmas lights in tubes to create elements reminiscent of the game screen. It was the first time a group incorporated on-stage lighting as a prop element. They also created flip-panel costumes so they could move boards up and down, contagion-style, and simulate video game movement.
Hunter’s behind-the-scenes assistant, Dodd Roberts (’86) said, “Pac-Man was so unique – it was way outside the box for what a Sing Song act had done up until that point.”
As a winning act, Pac Man set the stage for the class to repeat that win their sophomore, junior and senior years, with no ties. In the Sing Song mixed-voices competition, that’s called a clean sweep, and it was the first time in Sing Song history for a class to achieve it.
Along with Pac-Man, themes for the class of 1986 included Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head (and their kids, the tater tots,) Lucy and Ricky Ricardo, and Adam and Eve.
Roberts said, “We joked that someone always got married in our shows – even Pac-Man had Ms. Pac-Man.”
Along with the jokes, Roberts said, competitors started to develop characters and storylines with their acts. At that time, clubs and classes didn’t change costumes on stage, but they started switching and adding elements to enhance the stories, such as eyes and noses on potatoes and a large bandage on Adam’s side where a rib went missing. “The ’80s were all about costumes and songs,” he said.
That held true with other groups, too. Notorious for not taking the concept of rehearsing too seriously, the men of Sub T-16 won the men’s division as Cabbage Patch dolls in 1984, complete with crepe paper wigs on their heads that, strangely enough, made them look a lot like the iconic toys.
Then in 1987, the sophomore class pushed costuming to another level of creativity – integrating electric Christmas lights into their costumes as Broadway Bumblebees. Each costume contained a strand of string-along lights. Bumblebee Amy (Talbot ’89) McAlister explained that each participant plugged a strand of lights into the strand on the adjacent person; then extension cords ran from the stage down the stairs to an electrical outlet in the concourse. Another student connected and unplugged the cord to make the lights go on and off at the appropriate times. “Those were fun times,” McAlister said.
Roberts said fun was the priority for the Class of 1986. “Les never talked about winning,” Roberts recalled. “It was always about having fun. And we never really thought about the competition until dress rehearsal.”
One dress rehearsal in particular proved to be an outstanding memory for the Class of 1986: their sophomore year as Lucy and Ricky Ricardo. Lucille Ball made the Lucy character iconic on the popular “I Love Lucy” TV show, and the class invited the actress to attend Sing Song. Her agent declined the invitation, but the week of the show, Hunter received a telegram from Beverly Hills, Calif., in which Ball wished them well in their performances. He read the telegram to the class prior to going on stage for the Saturday night finale:
I love the sophomore class at Abilene Christian University. A little birdie told me that you have produced a “We Love Lucy” entry for the ACU annual Sing Song benefit show, and I want you to know this redhead is rootin’ for you to wow the audience and take home the trophy.
Nothing makes me happier than to know that Lucy and Ricky live on in the hearts of great kids like you.
I wish I could be there to personally cheer you on. But I know that you will do your very best and make everyone proud. You can do it.
With love, Lucille Ball
Roberts said his classmates’ reaction was over the top. So was their performance. “It was truly magical,” he said.
Hunter, Roberts and the Class of 1986 set new standards for Sing Song groups for years to come. Little did they know their creativity would become a gold standard in the production. The greatest thing, though, was how their efforts strengthened the bonds among their classmates.
“Even though our class was 800 to 900 people, and we just had 100 on stage, there was some level of pride among everybody,” Roberts said. “It was definitely a unifying factor. We had a ton of fun, and we all still talk about it today.”
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