Metro-East News

Tops In Blue will play its last show Jan. 15 at Scott Air Force Base

For nearly six decades, Tops In Blue has been the entertainment face of the U.S. Air Force, but now the program’s days appear to be numbered.

Tops in Blue — the Air Force’s version of a traveling variety show — will play its last show Jan. 15 at Scott Air Force Base.

The Air Force announced the cancellation of its 2016 season after an extensive review of the program, airmen surveys and years of criticism that it is an expensive waste of resources, is no longer relevant to today’s active duty personnel, and is very labor-intensive.

Featuring a troupe of 35 active-duty airmen who sing, dance, tell jokes, play music and serve as their own roadies, the variety-style stage show barnstorms the globe, putting on shows for military personnel and guests. Troupe members regularly work 20-hour days and endure grueling road schedules that allow only a few days off per month.

“The decision to pause and reassess the 2016 Tops in Blue season was a tough one,” said Lt. Gen. Gina Grosso, the director of manpower, personnel and services. “While airmen’s feedback was extremely important, it was just one of many factors considered as we seek to meet our core mission requirements in a time of constrained resources.”

Tops In Blue began in 1958 as the offshoot of an Air Force-wide talent contest. Tops In Blue has performed at a wide range of high-profile events, including the Super Bowl, the NBA Finals and the Major League Baseball All-Star game.

Members of the troupe are recruited from the ranks of active-duty airmen through auditions held at bases around the country. Those chosen for the program serve in it at least a year.

Over the last year, responses to surveys circulated by the Air Force’s Airmen Powered by Innovation program reflected recommendations to cancel Tops in Blue because of the required manpower and associated cost. The annual budget for the program is about $3 million a year, including about $1 million for the salaries of airmen who perform in the unit.

Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James noted the topic often has been a topic of discussion during her tenure.

The Air Force used two methods to gather feedback from airmen about the program’s value and popularity.

The first method was to attach Tops in Blue questions to an internal survey sent to 4,674 airmen. The second was an email sent from the deputy chief of staff for manpower, personnel and services to the major commands asking them for airmen feedback by means of the wing commanders and command chiefs.

The first survey, an internal communications assessment group, indicated a wide awareness of Tops in Blue among airmen. About half of all airmen surveyed agreed they would attend a future Tops in Blue event.

But only about 25 percent of all airmen have seen a performance within the past five years. And of all the age groups, and representing a third of the overall Airman population, the 25- to 34-year-old age group was the least likely to have a positive opinion of Tops in Blue.

In addition to the official survey, feedback solicited from the major commands and bases showed 41 percent recommended divesting, while 19 percent of the members polled were in favor of keeping Tops in Blue. About 17 percent suggested a modified program, and 6 percent had “other” opinions, according to an Air Force statement.

Mike Fitzgerald: 618-239-2533, @MikeFitz3000