Michael Jackson's Moonwalk Turns 35

“What the hell was that?” For a moment, members of the production staff monitoring the stage at California's Pasadena Civic Auditorium forgot about the control panels in front of them and exchanged puzzled looks with one another. As the team charged with overseeing the ABC special Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever, a celebration of the famed record label’s silver anniversary, they were typically too focused on their jobs to become starstruck. But what they were witnessing was something else entirely.

Onetime Jackson 5 bandmate Michael Jackson had taken the stage solo to perform “Billie Jean,” which was already the number one song on the Billboard Top 100 chart. In between all the twisting, contorting, and spinning, Jackson took a fleeting moment to glide backwards on his feet. It had the smooth kinetic energy of someone skating on ice. It lasted barely a second. The crowd erupted.

Jackson had not used the dance move in rehearsals for the show. It was a surprise to everyone, including the live audience and the 33.9 million people who would watch the tape-delayed event on television on May 16, 1983. Jackson was already a superstar, but his moonwalk would take him to another stratosphere of fame. And although many assumed Jackson invented the gliding step himself, he was simply following in the footsteps of dance giants from the past.

Usually referred to as the back slide or the back float, the seemingly weightless backward slide had touched down across a number of decades and performers before Jackson's interpretation debuted on March 25, 1983. Famed French mime Marcel Marceau performed an act he titled “Walking in the Wind,” in which he seemed to be bracing against imaginary gale forces, his feet trying to find purchase on the ground. Jazz singer Cab Calloway pulled it off in performances; so did tap dancer Bill Bailey (as seen above) in the 1950s. James Brown incorporated the move into his stage shows, as did Bill “Mr. Bojangles” Robinson. David Bowie performed a more economical version of it during the 1973 tour for his Aladdin Sane album.

While Jackson credited Brown and Marcel as being particular influences on his performance style, he first learned of what he came to call the "moonwalk" after seeing two break-dancers appear on a 1979 episode of Soul Train. During the show, Geron "Caszper" Canidate and Cooley Jaxson performed a routine set to Jackson’s “Workin’ Day and Night.” The singer remembered the performance and asked his staff to arrange a meeting between him and both men in Los Angeles while he was preparing for the Motown special in early 1983. Jackson asked them to teach him the back slide, which he practiced until he was satisfied he had it down. (Cooley would later express disappointment that Jackson never credited the duo directly. The singer wrote in his autobiography, Moonwalker, that the move was a “break-dance” step created on street corners. While that could be true, it was Cooley and Jaxson who gave Jackson a tutorial.)

Although it may look like an optical illusion, the step is the result of weight-shifting. Dancers begin on their right foot, heel raised, and weight bearing on the right. As they lower the right heel, the left foot moves backward until the toes are aligned with the heel of the right. The left heel is then raised, weight is shifted to the left, and the process repeats itself. For those who are not particularly agile, it can look clumsy. For Jackson, who had been dancing practically his entire life, it was seamless.

For the Motown special, Jackson reportedly agreed to appear with his brothers, the Jackson 5, only if Motown owner and show producer Berry Gordy allowed him a solo performance. Jackson’s Thriller album had been released in November 1982 and was on its way to becoming one of the most successful releases of all time. It’s likely Jackson didn’t feel like he needed the appearance, and some accounts relate that Jackson was initially reluctant to do it because he feared being overexposed. Gordy’s producer, Suzanne de Passe, convinced him the show wouldn’t be the same without the Jackson 5.

Whatever got Jackson on stage that evening, he was clearly prepared for the moment. Short pants and white socks drew attention to his feet; he insisted a stage manager rehearse the placement of his hat following the Jackson 5 performance so that it would be within reach when he segued into his solo performance.

“I have to say, those were the good old days,” Jackson told the crowd after finishing with his brothers. “Those were good songs. I like those songs a lot … but, especially, I like the new songs.” It may have sounded off the cuff, but Jackson’s mid-performance speech was actually written by Motown 25 scriptwriter Buz Kohan.

With that, Jackson got down to business. “Billie Jean” was the only non-Motown song performed during the special, and it felt like a jolt of energy in a sea of nostalgia. Jackson, who was 24 years old at the time, moved effortlessly. Tossing his hat to the side and mouthing lyrics into the microphone, the contrast between Jackson in the middle of a medley with his brothers and then alone on stage was striking. Though he was two solo albums deep by this point, the performance helped cement that he was out on his own.

Jackson spent nearly three and a half minutes singing before debuting the moonwalk. It lasted barely a second but seemed to send the crowd into a mania. With 20 seconds to go, he took another few brief steps backward. After the song played out, Jackson received a standing ovation.

When the performance aired several weeks later on ABC, Motown 25 was a ratings hit. Jackson’s reputation as a live entertainer benefited from a broadcast network audience, and the moonwalk became linked to his routine. Fred Astaire called to congratulate him, a gesture that Jackson—a huge Astaire fan—could never quite believe.

Jackson’s fame led to an untold number of people trying to perfect the moonwalk, with varying degrees of success. Anyone who thought it included some camera or visual trickery may have been dismayed to find it simply required some lower-limb dexterity. Those who got the hang of it were able to impress friends. Those who didn't probably felt a little disappointed at their lack of coordination, especially when they heard that Jackson’s pet chimpanzee, Bubbles, learned to do a variation of it.

Traumatic Episodes: A History of the ABC Afterschool Special

BCI / Sunset Home Visual Entertainment via Amazon
BCI / Sunset Home Visual Entertainment via Amazon

My Dad Lives in a Downtown Hotel. The Toothpaste Millionaire. Me and Dad’s New Wife. She Drinks a Little. Please Don’t Hit Me, Mom. High School Narc. Don’t Touch. From 1972 to 1996, no topic was too taboo for the ABC Afterschool Special, an anthology series that aired every other Wednesday at 4 p.m. Each of the standalone, hour-long installments highlighted issues facing teens and young adults, from underage drinking to the stress of living in a foster home. For the millions of viewers tuning in, it might have been their first exposure to a difficult topic—or the first indication that they weren’t alone in their struggle.

The Afterschool Special originated in the early 1970s, when programming executives at ABC had an epiphany: While there was a lot of content for families and adults during primetime, soap operas for adults in the daytime, and cartoons for children on Saturday mornings, there was relatively little content directed specifically at teenagers and pre-teens. The network saw an opportunity to fill that gap by airing topical specials midweek, when parents watching General Hospital might leave the television on and stick around to watch some TV with their adolescent children.

Initially, the network solicited a mix of fanciful stories and serious, issue-based melodramas. In the animated Incredible, Indelible, Magical Physical Mystery Trip, two kids were shrunk down to the size of a cell to travel through their uncle’s body. In Follow the Northern Star, a boy ushers a friend through the Underground Railroad to escape slavery.

 

Not long after the series debuted in the fall of 1972, ABC executives—including Brandon Stoddard, who was initially in charge of the show and was later responsible for getting the landmark 1977 miniseries Roots and David Lynch's quirky Twin Peaks onto the air—realized that the more puerile stories may have been working against them.

According to Martin Tahse, a producer on dozens of these specials, it was rare for older teens to watch programming intended for younger children. Pre-teens, on the other hand, would watch content meant for an older audience. By season three, the specials were largely made up of topical content. In The Skating Rink, a teen skater overcomes shyness borne out of stuttering. In The Bridge of Adam Rush, a teen copes with a cross-country move after his mother remarries.

The ABC Afterschool Special was an immediate hit, drawing an average of 9.4 million viewers between 1972 and 1974. Many episodes were based on young adult novels, like Rookie of the Year, which stars Jodie Foster as a girl struggling to find acceptance on a boys’ Little League team, or Sara’s Summer of the Swans, about a young woman searching for her missing, mentally challenged brother.

The series also sourced material from magazine articles, short stories, and other venues. For 1983’s The Wave, which originally aired on ABC in primetime in 1981, the story of a high school teacher who describes fascism and Hitler’s rise to power by successfully convincing his students to subscribe to a dictatorial rule, was based on the real experiences of Palo Alto teacher Ron Jones.

The effect of the topical episodes could be potent. For a 1985 special titled One Too Many, which starred Val Kilmer as an underage drinker and Michelle Pfeiffer as his girlfriend, one viewer wrote in to the Los Angeles Times to explain how the show had impacted her:

After watching the ABC Afterschool Special titled One Too Many, a story of drinking and driving, I realized I have taken too many chances with my life. I always think I can handle myself and my car after I’ve had something to drink. Nothing has happened to me … yet. I’d like to thank ABC for showing a program that could possibly save the lives of my friends and me. I’ve realized that drinking and driving is not worth the price of life.

 

As Tahse explained to interviewer Kier-La Janisse, the specials resonated with kids because they rarely indulged in what could be considered a fairy tale ending. “It had to be real,” he said. “If kids watched any of my three specials dealing with alcoholic parents, they were never given a fairy tale ending. I saw to that, because I came from an alcoholic father and knew all the tricks and I wanted the kids who watched—many dealing with the same problem or having friends who had alcoholic parents—to know how it really is.”

The shows also picked up their share of awards. One installment, the self-explanatory Andrea’s Story: A Hitchhiking Tragedy, won five Daytime Emmys in 1984, a third of all the Daytime Emmys ABC won that year. A Special Gift, a 1979 show about a basketball player who takes up ballet, won a Peabody Award.

By the mid-1980s, the specials attempted to strike more of a balance between morality plays and lighthearted fare. The 1984-1985 season consisted of seven episodes, including three comedies and one musical. In The Almost Royal Family, Sarah Jessica Parker stars as a teen whose family buys a home outside the jurisdiction of Canada and the U.S. In Mom’s on Strike, an overworked mother decides to suspend her duties until her family can appreciate her contributions.

Gradually, the specials began leaning back toward hot-button topics. Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Productions took over producing the series in 1991. That season, Winfrey introduced the episodes, including two panel discussions about relationships and race relations. Though the series did revert back to fictional narratives, it gradually lost its footing in the wake of shows that had a more adolescent bent. A “Very Special Episode” of Beverly Hills, 90210 or Family Matters was essentially a stealth afterschool special. The series was canceled in 1996.

That the show endured for nearly a quarter of a century is a testament to the craftsmanship of producers like Tahse and the support of ABC, who rarely shied away from difficult topics. Still, Tahse—who died in 2014—believed that the series' broad appeal went beyond that.

“The only rule of storytelling that ABC required we follow was … the kid always had to figure out what to do and do it,” he said. “No finger-waving by parents, no lectures by parents. It was a kid who was in a situation and found, through his or her own efforts, a solution.”

Batmania: When Batman Ruled the Summer of 1989

JD Hancock, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
JD Hancock, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

“Flop” is how marketing research group Marketing Evaluation Inc. assessed the box office potential of the 1989 Warner Bros. film Batman. The big-budget production, directed by Tim Burton and co-starring Michael Keaton as Batman and Jack Nicholson as the Joker, was expected to be one of the rare times a major Hollywood studio took a comic book adaptation seriously. But according to the marketing data, the character of Batman was not as popular as the Incredible Hulk, who was then appearing in a slate of made-for-television movies. And he was only a quarter as appealing as the California Raisins, the claymation stars of advertising.

That prediction was made in 1988. The film was released on June 23, 1989, and went on to gross $253.4 million, making it the fifth most successful motion picture up to that point.

While Marketing Evaluation may have miscalculated the movie’s potential, they did hedge their bet. By the time profits from the movie’s merchandising—hats, shirts, posters, toys, bed sheets, etc.—were tallied, the company said, Warner Bros. could be looking at a sizable haul.

When the cash registers stopped ringing, the studio had sold $500 million in tie-in products, which was double the gross of the film itself.

In 1989, people didn’t merely want to see Batman—they wanted to wear the shirts, eat the cereal, and contemplate, if only for a moment, putting down $499.95 for a black denim jacket studded with rhinestones.

Batmania was in full swing. Which made it even more unusual when the studio later claimed the film had failed to turn a profit.

 

The merchandising blitz of Star Wars in 1977 gave studios hope that ambitious science-fiction and adventure movies would forever be intertwined with elaborate licensing strategies. George Lucas's space opera had driven audiences into a frenzy, leading retailers to stock up on everything from R2-D2 coffee mugs to plastic lightsabers. It was expected that other “toyetic” properties would follow suit.

They didn’t. Aside from 1982’s E.T., there was no direct correlation between a film’s success and demand for ancillary product. In 1984 alone, Gremlins, Ghostbusters, and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom were smash hits. None of them motivated people to flock to stores and buy Gizmo plush animals or toy proton packs. (Ghostbusters toys eventually caught on, but only after an animated series helped nudge kids in their direction.)

Warner Bros. saw Batman differently. When the script was being developed, producers Jon Peters and Peter Guber were urging writers to make sure scenes were aligned with planned merchandising. They scribbled notes insisting that no onscreen harm come to the Batmobile: It should remain pristine so that kids would want to grab the toy version. As Batman, millionaire Bruce Wayne had a collection of vehicles and gadgets at his disposal—all props that could be replicated in plastic. Batman's comic book origins gave him a unique iconography that lent itself to flashy graphic apparel.

In March 1989, just three months before the film's release, Warner Bros. announced that it was merging with Time Inc. to create the mega-conglomerate Time-Warner, which would allow the film studio to capitalize on a deep bench of talent to help drive the “event” feel of the film.

Prince was signed to Warner's record label and agreed to compose an album of concept music that was tied to the characters; “Batdance" was among the songs and became a #1 hit. Their licensing arm, Licensing Corporation of America, contracted with 300 licensees to create more than 100 products, some of which were featured in an expansive brochure that resembled a bat-eared Neiman Marcus catalog. The sheer glut of product became a story, as evidenced by this Entertainment Tonight segment on the film's licensing push:

In addition to the rhinestone jacket, fans could opt for the Batman watch ($34.95), a baseball cap ($7.95), bicycle shorts ($26.95), a matching top ($24.95), a model Batwing ($29.95), action figures ($5.95), and a satin jacket modeled by Batman co-creator Bob Kane ($49.95).

The Batman logo became a way of communicating anticipation for the film. The virtually textless teaser poster, which had only the June 23 opening date printed on it, was snapped up and taped to walls. (Roughly 1200 of the posters sized for bus stops and subways were stolen, a crude but effective form of market research.) In barber shops, people began asking to have the logo sheared into the sides of their heads. The Batman symbol was omnipresent. If you had forgotten about the movie for even five minutes, someone would eventually walk by sporting a pair of Batman earrings to remind you.

At Golden Apple Comics in Los Angeles, 7000 packs of Batman trading cards flew out the door. Management hired additional staff and a security guard to handle the crowds. The store carried 36 different kinds of Batman T-shirts. Observers compared the hysteria to the hula hoop craze of the 1950s.

One retailer made a more contemporary comparison. “There’s no question Batman is the hottest thing this year,” Marie Strong, manager of It’s a Small World at a mall in La Crosse, Wisconsin, told the La Crosse Tribune. “[It’s] the hottest [thing] since Spuds McKenzie toward the end of last year.”

 

By the time Batman was in theaters and breaking records—it became the first film to make $100 million in just 10 days, alerting studios to the idea of short-term profits—the merchandising had become an avalanche. Stores that didn’t normally carry licensed goods, like Macy’s, set up displays.

Not everyone opted for officially-licensed apparel: U.S. marshals conducted raids across the country, seizing more than 40,000 counterfeit Batman shirts and other bogus items.

Collectively, Warner raked in $500 million from legitimate products. In 1991, the Los Angeles Times reported that the studio claimed only $2.9 million in profit had been realized from merchandising and that the movie itself was in a $35.8 million financial hole owing to excessive promotional and production costs. It was a tale typical of creative studio accounting, long a method for avoiding payouts to net profit participants. (Nicholson, whose contract stipulated a cut of all profits, earned $50 million.)

Whatever financial sleight-of-hand was implemented, Warner clearly counted on Batman to be a money-printing operation. Merchandising plans for the sequel, 1992’s Batman Returns, were even more strategic, including a tie-in agreement with McDonald’s for Happy Meals. In a meta moment, one deleted script passage even had Batman’s enemies attacking a toy store in Gotham full of Batman merchandise. The set was built but the scene never made it onscreen.

The studio was willing to give Burton more control over the film, which was decidedly darker and more sexualized than the original. Batman Returns was hardly a failure, but merchandising was no longer as hot as it was in the summer of 1989. Instead of selling out of shirts, stores ended up marking down excess inventory. McDonald’s, unhappy with the content of the film, enacted a policy of screening movies they planned to partner with before making any agreements. By the time Warner released 1995’s Batman Forever, the franchise was essentially a feature-length toy commercial.

It paid off. Licensing for the film topped $1 billion. Today, given the choice between a film with Oscar-level prestige or one with the potential to have its logo emblazoned on a rhinestone jacket that people would actually want to buy, studios would probably choose the latter. In that sense, the Batmania of 1989 endures.

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