The golden era of the 1970s produced treasure troves of keepsakes for young and not so young. Maybe you or your cool uncle collected Wacky Packs, the trading cards and stickers made by The Topps Company. Mid-70s, they were all the rage, parodying consumer products like Alpo (Alpoo Leftover Dinner for Dumb Dogs) and Bon Ami (Bone Ami Bone Polishing Cleanser), created by legendary comic and cartoon artists.
As a precursor to the merchandising prowess of George Lucas, another collectibles manufacturer, Donruss (also a candy and bubble gum producer), began making entertainment-themed trading cards as far back as the late 1960s to accompany TV shows such as The Addams Family and The Monkees. General Mills acquired Donruss in the 1970s, and the company continued to make cards celebrating television, movies and rock stars.
At the end of the glittery decade, 1979 to be exact, just when the frenzy of disco was approaching the edge of a cliff about to plunge to its first death, a movie was released: Can’t Stop the Music, a conglomerate brain aneurysm of Allan Carr and disco producers Jacques Morali and Henri Belolo. The film was directed by actress Nancy Walker of Rhoda fame. Can’t Stop the Music had been intended to serve as an ersatz biography for the disco group Village People, a creation of Jacques Morali.
Which brings us back to Donruss. The company had made cards in tribute to the successful 1977 disco-focused Saturday Night Live. No doubt in anticipation of another hit, the outfit manufactured Can’t Stop the Music trading cards, specifically highlighting Village People members.
There is a bittersweet irony of how one failure can leave gems in its wake. Can’t Stop the Music, produced with a budget of $20 million, earned $2 million at the box office. And although it has a Rotten Tomatoes score of 8%, the picture has a cult appeal (the cast includes Olympic Gold Medalist Bruce Jenner, pre-Kris, pre-Caitlyn, as well as Sammy Davis Jr.’s wife Altovise!), listed in John Wilson’s book The Official Razzie Movie Guide as one of “The 100 Most Enjoyably Bad Movies Ever Made.”
It is heartwarming to see plenty of Village People cards coveted and for sale on lucrative memorabilia sites along with other Donruss cards dedicated to rock stars (KISS and Queen). Some are still unopened inside the original Wax Packs gum wrapper, but that’s not fun if you can’t enjoy seeing the chiseled jawline of handsome Randy, the cowboy of the bunch. Biographical details on each card take the cake out in the rain. The card for Felipe Rose, probably the most recognizable member in a game of Picture Pursuit or a Rorschach test, does not explain why he presents in Native American dress. At the time the cards were printed he was 24 and had attended business school. Eventually he started dance classes, and the dots began to connect to the Village People. Leather daddy Glenn Hughes had no professional performing experience before becoming a member of the iconic group, but he saw the audition advertisement wanting “very good looking males, singer-dancer with mustaches, Village types.” Glenn showed up and got the job! Construction worker David Hodo was “turned onto Mexican food, people with sad eyes and interesting faces, film actress/comedienne Lily Tomlin [!] and pop performers Linda Ronstadt, Dolly Parton, Elvis Presley and Tina Turner, Bette Midler.”
Lest you think that the group was a mere product of star-maker managers a la Simon Cowell, Victor Willis (the lead vocalist who often inhabited the cop stereotype) penned lyrics for “Macho Man,” “Y.M.C.A.” and “In the Navy,” HUGE hits that today are still euphoric anthems in popular as well as LGBT culture. And although the other members were quickly assembled in Greenwich Village as backup performers to Willis, the act struck a chord with the public and went on to have enormous, chart-topping success and visibility. As an entity, the surviving members continue to perform at packed arenas, on TV and in movies, and in 2008 received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
So what of the Village People trading cards? They serve as artifacts, testifying that a campy niche act performing songs with gay underpinnings can become a blockbuster pop group and make a stronger, more interesting weave of our culture’s fabric.