For His Opening Act in L.A. the Pope Can Thank Kay Crawford, Mother of the Modern Drill Team

updated 09/21/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/21/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The question was: Would the Pope appreciate it? There they would be—287 pretty, short-skirted girls in a portal at Dodger Stadium in L.A., waiting to introduce the Mass. At the sound of the first note, in the words of their director, they were "to flow down the aisles like a sea of angels" to the tune of Oh Happy Day. For the next five minutes this teenage body-choir would march, dip, swirl, sway and smile in almost perfect unison. Then the crowd would cheer, a USC band would strike up a fanfare and Pope John Paul II, on his first visit to the City of Angels, would say Mass for some 60,000 Americans.

It is said that America's only original gifts to world culture are jazz and the Broadway musical, but to that list ought to be added the modern drill team, although it hasn't caught on in Rome or Poland yet. The nonmilitary drill team, with girls performing fancy, synchronized movements, was invented by Kay Crawford, and the papal extravaganza this Wednesday night will put the number of them she's directed at about 1,500. Her next one will be for January's Super Bowl. Crawford is a grandmother in her 70s—she won't give her age—who gave up her job teaching phys ed at Santa Monica College a few years ago, but you'd never guess she's retired. In 1984 she directed a 1,268-member team for the opening ceremonies at the L.A. Olympics. In 1986 she directed the team that helped salute the Statue of Liberty. Between such stuff, she tours the land, training, teaching. "I figured out one day that I've been around the world twice riding on a bus," she says.

Crawford thought up drill teams when she was in high school in Texas. She made the cheerleading squad but felt sorry for those who didn't. "I went to the prinicipal and said, 'I've got a great idea. Take all the kids who tried out for cheerleading and put them together on a pep squad.' " Presto, the modern drill team. Ever since, she has been perfecting the craft in high schools and colleges. "I taught history through drill teams," she says. "If we were doing a halftime show about the Civil War, I asked the girls to research the time period. If a girl was high on drill team, she wouldn't get high on drugs. A lot came from broken homes. Drill team gave them a family feeling. I was a kind of mother, somebody who reached out and loved them."

Crawford's gung ho attitude was exemplified at the '84 Olympics. Her charges waited to rehearse until 11 p.m. "By then they were punchy," says Kathy Sarkin, one of Kay's assistants, "but they moved out onto the field without a blink simply because she gave the command." Kay says that that bunch epitomizes the drill ideal. "Lots of people think girls on a drill team are extroverted dumbbells who want to exploit themselves," she says. "But these high school girls were pretty, shapely and intelligent."

Crawford's teams, whether high school or college, have had some snafus. She once directed a show at the Coliseum in which 80 girls were driven in on motorcycles. Then they left the field and helium-filled dolls were substituted for them. The dolls were supposed to rise only so far but someone forgot to attach their tethers. "They went clear out of the Coliseum," Crawford recalls. "They looked so real, it scared people to death. Some of the dolls landed on the freeway. Others landed face down in people's pools and looked like dead bodies. One fell on a man sleeping in his backyard."

Kay lives in Redondo Beach with her husband of 43 years, James, 64, an equipment company president. She edits Let's Cheer, a drill team magazine she founded, has produced how-to videos and is already working on the drill team for the 1989 Super Bowl. But her biggest achievement is in teaching. "I don't think she realizes how many thousands of lives she has touched," says Kathy Sarkin. "Kay has helped people develop themselves. She has developed girls into women." With that, no doubt, His Holiness would be pleased.

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