WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Apple’s new commercials for the iPhone 5 and its nifty fitness applications would appear to be targeted at already-trim 20- and 30-somethings, but there is another demographic for whom the commercial’s catchy tune — “Go, You Chicken Fat, Go” — inspires memories of an entirely different kind.
Memories of uncomfortable gym uniforms, forced toe-touches and militaristic PE teachers.
Today’s generation might hear a rousing, old-time Cold War exercise ditty. But for those who grew up in the ’60s and ’70s, the song is a fat-shaming childhood nightmare.
“Green, ugly gym suit, Robert Preston and exercise that never did get rid of the chicken fat!” says Shelly Levine, of West Palm Beach, Fla., who, like a lot of her contemporaries, remembers hearing that song each and every morning as part of a national school exercise movement, sort of a proto-“Let’s Move” instituted by dashing President-elect Kennedy.
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It originated with a Sports Illustrated essay he wrote called “The Soft American,” in which Kennedy bemoaned that a lack of “physical vigor” could put our nation at risk for wartime losses, certain ruin and dastardly fatness.
The result — officially known as “The Youth Fitness Song,” written by “Music Man” composer Meredith Willson and sung enthusiastically by that show’s star, Robert Preston — led kids through push-ups and toe touches and encouraged them to “give that chicken fat back to the chicken” and say “nuts to the flabby guys.”
(It also made the hare the victor in the “Tortoise and The Hare” fable in an upbeat bit of revisionism. But that’s besides the point.)
It was played in U.S. public schools to encourage youngsters to be fit and motivated enough to save the Republic if called, or at least be able to walk to all their classes without stopping for water.
Noble intentions? Sure. But the result was, in some cases, less triumphant than traumatizing.
“I can’t remember what I had for lunch, but I remember ‘Go You Chicken Fat, Go,’” says Carol Schmid, 56. She was introduced to “Chicken Fat” as an elementary-school kid in St. Albans, W.V., in a gym that doubled as the cafeteria.
Not only did “we have PE with a lot of bad food smells, but we also had a teacher who weighed about 400 pounds,” she says. “She would sit on her chair with a yardstick at the ready in case some of us didn’t keep up with (the record). Thankfully, we had a boy in our class who would get a queasy tummy when we had PE after lunch so on many occasions he lost his lunch, which of course set off a chain reaction to the rest of us. That poor custodian must have hated my class … as soon as he saw us coming in he would go get his mop and bucket.”
That queasy feeling extended to a local movie theater when “a group of us went to see ‘The Music Man.’ As soon as we heard Robert Preston’s voice we thought for sure he would make Opie do exercises to ‘Go You Chicken Fat Go,’” Schmidt continues, referring to ‘Music Man’ co-star Ron Howard.
“Then my family moved to Florida, and of course (the song) was also used here. Wonder if that’s why I hate to exercise.”
Denise Mariani, 53, of Jupiter, Fla., thinks she heard the song as a kid in Western Pennsylvania on either “Captain Kangaroo” or “Romper Room,” or maybe even a local kid’s show called “Luci’s Toy Shop” out of Ohio. She remembers “doing the exercises for 30 seconds every single time that song came on. I can barely stay in my chair when the new Apple ad comes on TV. (It) really brings me back.”
For radio host and Boynton Beach, Fla., resident Caroline Breder-Watts, also 53, “Go You Chicken Fat, Go” brings “tears to my eyes because it makes me think of my father.
“We had the 45 (rpm single), and he and I used to march around the living room in New Jersey to this song. However, the version in the commercial is not Robert Preston — Apple couldn’t get the rights to that (why not, I’ll never know), so the ad version is sung by someone else. It’s a shame, because Robert Preston was the best!”