Suzanne Mitchell, who led Cowboys Cheerleaders to global popularity, dies at 73

Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders 2008

Suzanne Mitchell, who as director of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders in the 1970s and ’80s helped popularize a style of seductive, hip-shaking entertainment that for many fans has come to rival the performance of the athletes on the field, died Sept. 27 at her home in Fredericksburg. She was 73.

The cause was complications from pancreatic cancer, her brother and sole immediate survivor, W.W. Mitchell, said.

Mitchell had no cheerleading experience herself, her brother said. Yet from 1976 to 1989, she presided over what the New York Times once called “perhaps the most exclusive sorority in the world”: a group of more than 30 women who were spotlighted in TV specials, ferried around the world for goodwill events at U.S. military bases, and lionized as sex symbols on the covers of Esquire and Playboy magazines.

Originally formed in 1972, the Cowboys Cheerleaders “set a standard to be imitated by nearly every NFL team,” the historian Mary Ellen Hanson wrote in “Go! Fight! Win!,” a 1995 study of cheerleading’s place in American culture.

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Previously, the Cowboys – like most teams of that era – employed a cheerleading squad that featured male and female high school students who led the crowd in collegiate-style chants. Lackluster attendance and the construction of a new stadium led general manager and team president Tex Schramm to try something different.

His vision of making the Cowboys’ cheerleaders into “more or less atmosphere producers,” as he put it in an interview with Playboy, was carried out first by cheerleading director Dee Brock, who helped design the squad’s uniform of tall go-go boots, high-cut shorts, fringed jackets and midriff-exposing blouses.

But it was Ms. Mitchell, a former public-relations director working as Schramm’s assistant, who pushed the squad to new heights and refined its jazz-dance style.

The directing job was added to her portfolio after Super Bowl X, in 1976, when a Cowboys cheerleader was seen playfully winking at a TV camera. Brock had recently left the organization, and talent agencies and film producers swarmed Schramm’s office with inquiries about using the team’s cheerleaders in movies and advertisements.

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In a 2015 interview with Texas Monthly, Mitchell recalled Schramm telling her, “Someone needs to take care of this, why don’t you do this in your spare time?”

With former Broadway choreographer Texie Waterman, she quickly set about doubling the group’s size to 32. The squad held open auditions for the first time, requiring prospective Cowboys Cheerleaders to be at least 18 and either a student, wife, mother or a full-time employee at another organization.

Character was as important as physical appearance, Mitchell told Texas Monthly. “Obviously they’d have to look good in a uniform – you didn’t want a girl with a huge stomach hanging over the belt,” she said.

About 1,800 women – and a few men – applied to the squad during each year of Mitchell’s tenure, she said. Those who were accepted were sent to Dale Carnegie courses on self-improvement and instructed on how to deal with the news media. Cheerleaders were forbidden from smoking, chewing gum or holding alcoholic drinks while in uniform. Dating or fraternizing with the players was out of the question.

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Before games, the squad locked pinkies and said the Lord’s Prayer while Mitchell paced the dressing room and sprayed a dash of Hope – her favored perfume – on their throats.

The cheerleaders were paid only an honorific sum of $15 per game but profited from promotional work on film and TV, including several made-for-TV movies and a commercial for the jewelry firm Fabergé.

The appearances drew increasing attention to the Cowboys, whose popularity earned them the moniker “America’s team” in the late ’70s, but the squad’s newfound celebrity sometimes caused it trouble. In 1977, several former cheerleaders appeared shirtless in a Playboy centerfold, much to the team’s dismay, and in 1978, the actress Bambi Woods portrayed an aspiring “Texas Cowgirl” – a loosely fictionalized version of the Cowboys Cheerleaders – in the pornographic film “Debbie Does Dallas.” The cheerleaders successfully sued the filmmakers for trademark infringement.

Suzanne Mitchell was born in Fort Worth, on July 7, 1943. Her father was a pilot for American Airlines; her mother was a nurse.

She earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Oklahoma in 1966. About that time, she married and then moved to New York with her husband, whom she divorced after about four years, her brother said.

She worked for the magazine publisher Ziff Davis and then as director of public relations for the U.S. Ski Team before landing an interview with Schramm through an employment agency.

Mitchell, a New York Jets fan, had no idea who he was, but she impressed the executive by force of personality. “He asked me what I wanted to be in five years,” she told Texas Monthly. “I said, ‘Well, your chair looks pretty comfortable.’ He slammed his fist on the desk and said, ‘You are hired.’ “

Mitchell left the Cowboys in 1989, joining Schramm at the now-defunct World League of American Football after a shake-up by new Cowboys owner Jerry Jones.

Reflecting on her legacy, she noted in a 1999 interview with Newsweek that the Cowboys Cheerleaders did more than perform at football games or promotional events. The organization says it has made more international tours with the United Service Organizations than any other entertainment group.

“The Bible Belters used to write me all the time saying that I was a purveyor of women, that I was misusing the youth,” she told Newsweek. “And I would usually write them back, and say, OK, what were you doing last Christmas Eve? My girls were sitting, at midnight, in a flight shack on the DMZ in Korea after having entertained more than 5,000 troops, done four shows, visited eight bases. They were asleep at midnight in minus 20 degrees.”

“They would write back,” she added, “and say, ‘I’m sorry. I didn’t know.’ “