At the Boathouse on the Bay restaurant in Long Beach, just three miles south of where the Los Angeles Rams once held practice, more than 50 of the team’s former cheerleaders gathered last Sunday to celebrate the 1978 squad—Los Angeles’ first professional cheerleaders. One of them, Janet Cournoyer, had lent her daughter Janelle Liebl, 25, her old outfit for the occasion. “She’s the exact age I was when I wore it, and it fits perfectly,” she beamed.
“Everything is coming full circle with all this talk about the Rams coming back,” said David Mirisch, the man behind the gathering and the establishment of the group of cheerleaders he named the Embraceable Ewes. “It was a good time for a reunion.”
The Ewes were the Laker Girls before there were Laker Girls, but the restaurant’s Sunday afternoon regulars went back and forth between NFL games being televised behind the bar—less interested in NFL past than present. They neither recognized the women hugging each other like long lost relatives nor the impact those women collectively had upon the city of Los Angeles, the sports world, and American popular culture.
“Some of us actually cheered for the Lakers,” said Kristi Wheeler, a member of the original ’78 squad. “The Lakers didn’t have cheerleaders yet, so some of us went over there and cheered in the gold and the blue. I think the Lakers wanted to test it out.” Jerry Buss green-lit the formation of the Laker Girls months later.
David Mirisch finagled a meeting with cantankerous Rams owner Carroll Rosenbloom in March 1978. A PR man whose family owned the Mirisch Film Company, which produced such classics as Fiddler on the Roof, The Apartment, and In the Heat of the Night, Mirisch had the glamor of Tinseltown in his blood. Early in his career, he developed an uncanny ability to divine that ineffable star quality known as “It.” His most notable divination was Farrah Fawcett, who he discovered in 1968. The actress fired Mirisch before going on to star on Charlie’s Angels and becoming perhaps the world’s most important sex symbol since Elvis.
“I said, Mr. Rosenbloom, we have the most beautiful girls in the world here in Hollywood. There’s only one professional sports team in America that has professional cheerleaders, and that’s the Dallas Cowboys. Why don’t we have a team?”
Mirisch tells the story as if he’s talking about a grandchild.
“And he said, ‘David… go do it!’”
Mirisch had been to the Coliseum several times to watch the Rams in 1971, when he was doing PR for Deacon Jones’ soul music showcase at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub in the Ambassador Hotel. But even the sight of the Fearsome Foursome was not as awe-inspiring as the sight of the 805 women who showed up at the Coliseum on the foggy morning of April 22, 1978 to audition for the Rams cheer team—many in see-through blouses and hot pants or skimpy string bikinis.
“It was an amazing sight,” remembers Mirisch, “The first 50 rows of the Coliseum filled with these beautiful creatures.”
Over the course of a week, would-be Rams cheerleaders submitted questionnaires, completed interviews, showed off their dancing skills, and took 30 second turns walking down a catwalk before a panel of 25 judges that included Olympic track and field star Dwight Stones, Dodger wife Cyndy Garvey, and ex-Laker Wilt Chamberlain, who Mirisch remembers spending a great deal of energy gathering phone numbers.
“David was very clear about what he was looking for,” recalls Stones, who acted as Master of Ceremony at the squad’s recent reunion in Long Beach. “He didn’t want a bunch of Stepford-looking cheerleaders, which we kind of felt the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders were. They were all in a particular mold and a lot of them very much looked the same… a lot of blondes.”
Rams Owner Carroll Rosenbloom put it more gruffly at the time: “We don’t want them to all be hookers,” he told one newspaper.
Twenty-nine women made the team, and the squad was more ethnically diverse than the Cowboys cheerleaders. It included a more eclectic group of personalities, too: There was girl-next-door Jenilee Harrison; siren Patti Kotero (who, on the second page of her questionnaire typed “Was in 20 beauty pageants and won 18 of them”); cut-up Dee Kaye (who had just done a gig with Jerry Lewis in Vegas); princess Beverly Jeanne Grinis (who had been playing Snow White at Disneyland), leading lady Julie Jourdan (who had won a Tony for her performance in Man of La Mancha); and, classic Hollywood bombshells Irma Rahwyler and Lenni Wood. Fifty-eight-year old Phyllis Wagner, who auditioned in an “Every Inch a Woman” T-shirt, also made the team. She was known from that point forward as “Pom-Pom Mom.”
Mirisch had created his own version of Charlie’s Angels.
“I wanted them to be a team but I also wanted them to stand up as individuals,” he says, “So that people could identify with Patti, or with Cis [Rundle, who was Cheryl Ladd’s stunt double on Charlie’s Angeles], or with Irma—so that everybody could have their own favorite. I took that from my PR days.” Mirisch rattles off his guiding philosophy as if standing at a university lectern: “Create popular personalities that the public could identify with… Make the team the sum of a group of distinct individuals.”
Not everyone found the Ewes so embraceable.
“Mirisch wants to out-sex the Cowboys,” wrote JET magazine that spring.
Gloria Allred, then of the National Organization for Women, had harsher words:
It sounds like the old call of the casting couch to me. If only you get into this at the beginning and accept almost no pay for this, perhaps one day it will lead to stardom and you will be discovered and you will become a great actress. There are many, many poor women in Hollywood today who fell for that many years ago who can attest to the fact that that almost never happens.
Allred was right about one thing: the pay. The Ewes rehearsed for two to four hours three to six times per week and were paid a mere $15 per game.
“People would say, ‘Aren’t they using you?’” remembers Harrison. “But we were using them, too.”
For much of 1978, the Los Angeles Rams cheerleaders became the hottest act in Tinseltown and insinuated themselves among the upper echelon of Hollywood who’s who: Edy Roberts dated Teddy Pendergrass, Marie Busby partied with Mick Jagger, and a bevy of Rams beauties frolicked in roller skates at the Playboy Mansion.
“We became celebrities overnight,” remembers Mayra Fornos-Buch (formerly Mayra Reyes). “We were picked up by limos. It was very glamorous… I was on Charlie’s Angeles, CHIPS, a Bob Hope special, Merv Griffin, Johnny Carson—and that was just during the first few months.”
“It was a steppingstone,” said Harrison as she surveyed the women in the restaurant. Many were seeing each other for the first time in more than 30 years. “Just look at these women and what they’ve become.”
So what did become of the 1978 Embraceable Ewes? Well, Dawn Gilliam became J.J. Abrams’s lead script supervisor. Kristi Wheeler became a pastor. Shauna Mayer became a financial development manager for the Salvation Army. Cindy Landis became a Grammy-winning songwriter. Dee Kaye went on to a successful comedy career. Mayra Reyes became a lawyer and founder of the Ralph’s Riders Foundation (the charity supports people with spinal chord injuries and was the beneficiary of the reunion). Patti Kotero became “Apollonia,” co-starring with Prince in Purple Rain. And of course, Harrison went on to replace Suzanne Sommers on Three’s Company and play JR Ewing’s niece on Dallas. But perhaps more important than the sum of their individual accomplishments, the Ewes presented a counter-narrative about what professional cheerleading might become. In an era in which the line between professional cheerleading and exotic dancing barely exists, it’s a marvel to look back at a squad more acclaimed for its personalities than its pirouettes.
With rumors of the Rams returning to Los Angeles as early as 2016 gaining more and more credibility, it’s understandable for Mirisch, now 80 years old and the Executive Director of Moorpark College Foundation, to be dreaming of an encore act. After all, if a new squad of cheerleaders is going to represent the city of Los Angeles on the Rams sidelines, who possibly could be more qualified than he to make it happen?
“I would be honored if Mr. K [St. Louis Rams owner Stan Kroenke] wanted to get me involved in putting a squad together,” he says with a twinkle in his eye. “I could probably get them some additional PR… and offer my 2 cents when it comes to judging the girls.”
Joshua Neuman is a Los Angeles-based writer and the author of the Los Angeles Rams Tumblr Greatest Show on Grass.