WEB EXCLUSIVE! The Steelerettes have a website dedicated to their history! Check them out at steelerettes.com
BY BONNIE PFISTER
It’s hard to fathom now, but in 1961, few Pittsburghers were very excited about Steelers football. The team had ended the previous season near the bottom of the NFL Eastern Conference standings, and games at Forbes Field in Oakland could be desultory affairs.
Team entertainment coordinator William V. Day thought it might help to have cheerleaders ginning up crowd enthusiasm from the sidelines. Day was also public relations director at what was then the Robert Morris School in downtown Pittsburgh, so he organized tryouts among the secretarial students.
The Steelerettes commemorate the 50th anniversary of their founding this year. They will gather during Homecoming festivities on Saturday, Oct. 8.
While the squad disbanded in 1970, the bonds among the former cheerleaders remain strong. “It’s a small sorority,” says Valerie Mafrice Miller ‘65. “It’s a one-time snapshot in history.”
The brief run of the Pittsburgh Steelerettes began a decade before the Dallas Cowboys would introduce the concept of cheerleader as a hair-whipping dancer wearing as little clothing as possible. Being a Steelerette meant megaphones, woolen turtleneck leotards, and sneakers. “The original uniforms involved hard hats and bib-overall jumpers with skirts down to our knees,” says Norreen Mercer Modery ‘65, one of Miller’s fellow squadmates.
That changed briefly in 1964, when a choreographer from the Clairton High School Honeybears was hired. “She was ahead of her time, really,” Modery says. “Back then cheering was about building pyramids and tumbling. She taught us some nice routines, and high kicks. But she wanted us to wear a leotard without a skirt, and go-go boots. We balked… She left after a couple of games.”
Barbara Pawlesh Kruze ‘65 was a head cheerleader about to graduate from McKees Rocks High School when she learned about the Steelerettes. She scrambled to register for Robert Morris classes earlier than she’d planned in order to try out for the team. “I was able to do the acrobatics: cartwheels, backflips. We became more of a dance team, but I truly enjoyed it all,” she says.
Accompanied on the field by musicians led by popular jazz band trumpeter Benny Benack, the troupe performed dance routines to “Hello, Dolly!” and even “The Stripper,” the trombone-driven instrumental tune that had topped Billboard charts a few years earlier. The squad appeared on local TV programs and passed out tiger tails at gas stations for Exxon’s “Put a Tiger in Your Tank” campaign. They performed during halftime at Robert Morris basketball games and danced the Charleston for the charitable Dapper Dan Club’s events. When Andy Williams performed at the Civic Arena, a few select Steelerettes who were shorter than the 5’6” crooner were tapped to shimmy behind him during his big “Music To Watch Girls By” number. “They gave us costumes to wear,” recalls Kruze. “It was a thrill.”
The unease of the Steelers owning Rooney family with the whole cheerleading concept spelled an end to the Steelerettes when the team moved to Three Rivers Stadium in 1970. The women lost touch until a decade ago, when local TV reporter Sally Wiggin gathered them together for a segment filed on Sept. 7, 2001. The story’s airing – and the NFL season – was delayed after the terrorist attacks four days later, and what should have been a celebratory time was awash in sorrow.
But the dozen or so women still living in the region have stayed in touch. “We all just started talking as if those 40 years had never passed,” Kruze says. Organized by former cheerleader and squad coach Diane Battiste Zinkham ‘65, they began getting together several times a year for lunch, and making annual weekend trips to Deep Creek, Md., or Roanoke, Va.
They also visit nursing homes to brighten the spirits of residents with Steelers trivia quizzes and cheers. Their pleated skirts and leotards have been replaced with jeans and black-andgold sweatshirts, but the Steelerettes still shake a mean pom-pom. As recently as 2007, Zinkham was still dropping splits for photographers. She died of cancer three years ago, at the age of 62. The Steelerettes placed a plaque in Zinkham’s honor at the Sen. John Heinz History Center in the Strip District.
A commemorative bench at Joe Walton Stadium salutes the Steelerettes, and four of them – Miller, Modery, Kruze, and Lynn Gran Moran ‘67 – are active in RMU’s alumni association council. “The Steelers kind of forgot about us, but Robert Morris has always been so welcoming,” Kruze says. “We’re trying to give back to them.”
They call themselves the Rah-Rah Sisterhood, riffing on the title of a novel and film about the friendships of childhood companions over time. “We had a good time,” Kruze says. “And we’re still having a good time.”