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On April 2, roughly three dozen singers, musicians, dancers and technicians gathered at the Mansion Del Rio Hotel in San Antonio. The airmen — members of Tops in Blue, the Air Force's six-decade-old traveling musical performance troupe — thought they were there for a standard meeting to prepare them for their 2014 tour.
Instead, the comedian Sinbad — Tops in Blue's most famous alum — walked through the door. Over the next hour, Sinbad delivered an impromptu routine that left the airmen doubled over with laughter, and offered them encouragement and advice for their upcoming tour.
"He was hilarious," Tops in Blue member Staff Sgt. Marc Hightower said in an April 9 release. "I enjoyed learning about his history, where he came from and the avenues he took to be successful."
But many airmen aren't laughing.
A debate appears to be brewing over the appropriateness of spending $1.4 million a year on a spangle-outfitted, Vegas-style show band, with critics saying the money would be better spent on libraries, hobby shops and other base amenities that have fallen victim to budget cuts.
"The truth is, it hurts morale," said Capt. Gavin Light, who was a technician and piano player on Tops in Blue's 2011 tour, and filed an inspector general complaint last year alleging waste in the program. "We are cutting programs that airmen actually utilize — bowling alleys, auto hobby shops, other activities on base — and yet we're continuing to make bases spend money on hosting Tops in Blue. There's not a company in the private sector that would be under such dire financial straits, and cutting thousands of personnel, yet keep a traveling show band on the payroll. It's maddening to a lot of people."
But advocates say the band does a lot more for the Air Force than most airmen realize.
"Not only do they perform onstage, they go to hospitals and retirement homes to sing and entertain," Joanell Jacques, who was on the 2012 Tops in Blue tour, wrote on AirForceTimes.com. "They literally work 24 hours a day."
Three former Tops in Blue members who spoke to Air Force Times, including Light, say the program is out of date, scorned and ridiculed by the rank-and-file, and often the audiences are filled by airmen who have been ordered to attend. They say the time has come to end the show.
An April 18 Air Force Times story on Sinbad's visit drew comments online from dozens of airmen, most of whom said it is wasteful.
"Tops in Blue is a complete waste and not even really something people are interested in seeing anymore," airman Ben Chapman wrote on Air Force Times' website. "I've been to their show, commands had to make them mandatory because they'd be pathetically empty if people had a choice. Bringing Disney on Ice would be a better use of resources."
Air Force defends program
The Air Force disagrees.
Tops in Blue "provides entertainment for a diverse mix of current and former airmen, and Air Force families of all ages," the Air Force said in written responses to Air Force Times questions on the program. "The reaction Tops in Blue gets from airmen who attend the shows has always been enthusiastic, and we continue to receive accolades from both airmen and their commanders. Tops in Blue represents an outstanding value to the Air Force."
Air Force Times made multiple requests to interview Tops in Blue officials and members who support the program. Those requests were denied.
Current and former members of Tops in Blue also popped up online to voice their support for the program, and stressed how hard members work to entertain airmen and their families.
"The people who make up the Tops in Blue team give up a year of their life to entertain soldiers and their families," Jacques said.
Jacques said she doesn't like it "when people are forced to come, because that defeats the point of us entertaining. But most of our audiences have been for people who genuinely come because they want to. I have seen people wait in lines for hours just to see a show. I know without a doubt that Tops in Blue means a lot to many people."
Tops in Blue draws its members from the ranks of the Air Force, who audition for a chance to spend a year touring the world entertaining troops and their families. The set list for shows varies from classic rhythm and blues such as Aretha Franklin's "Respect" to rock songs such as the Eagles' "Hotel California" to modern country songs like Shane McAnally's "I Remember You" to pop hits such as Adele's "Rolling in the Deep." Shows traditionally end with Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the USA."
The Air Force scaled back Tops in Blue as sequestration took its bite. The planned 60th anniversary 2013 tour was canceled, though Tops in Blue returned for a short 10-show, 10-location holiday tour to entertain deployed troops at the end of the year. The 2014 tour will offer 85 shows at 76 locations over seven months, as opposed to 2012's 125-show, 112-location, 10-month tour.
The budget has been reduced along with the program's scope. The Air Force has budgeted about $1.4 million for Tops in Blue this year — $319,000 in appropriated taxpayer dollars, $909,000 in non-appropriated funds from the Air Force's morale, welfare and recreation fund, and $170,000 in corporate sponsorships from Dell and Coca-Cola. That is about $321,000 less than the $1.7 million spent in 2012. That year, the Air Force spent $222,000 in appropriated funds, more than $1.4 million in nonappropriated funds, and $50,000 from Coca-Cola.
But that doesn't factor in the salaries of the airmen who serve in Tops in Blue. The Air Force was unable to say exactly how much the 39 members of Tops in Blue make, but according to their ranks, their salaries cost taxpayers at least another $1.2 million a year.
And when Tops in Blue comes to town, hosting bases are on the hook for additional costs. Tops in Blue usually plays on base, but when it doesn't, the local base covers any off-base venue charges and lodging for members on the night of their performance, the Air Force said.
In the April 9 release on Sinbad's visit, the Air Force said "Tops in Blue is primarily funded through nonappropriated funds generated from morale, welfare and recreation [MWR] activities."
But critics of Tops in Blue say that doesn't make it OK. While taxpayers largely aren't on the hook, they say, MWR funds going to Tops in Blue could otherwise help fund on-base amenities such as movie theaters and swimming pools that are more widely used by airmen and their families — and which are being squeezed by sequestration's budget cuts.
"There are almost limitless ways those [nonappropriated fund] dollars could be spent better," Chapman said in an AirForceTimes.com comment. "Better facilities, better eating options, etc. Things that have a lasting and more permanent presence or effect. ... I personally would LOVE to see the results of a survey on 'should we keep tops in blue around' gathered from military members themselves. I have a pretty good hunch what that would look like."
Extravagant spending cited
Three former Tops in Blue members told Air Force Times that the group spends extravagantly on costumes and instruments.
"You go into the production room, they've got a million dollars of equipment that sits on the shelf and is not used," said Staff Sgt. Brittney Perry, who was a trumpet player in Tops in Blue in 2011. "Mics, speakers, instruments — they can set up several professional studios [with it]. Top-of-the-line stuff. It never gets played. I said, why don't we sell it? Nobody knows the answer to that. They just buy more [stuff]."
The former members said the lights, trusses and other equipment are also top-of-the-line.
"I remember one time, one of the leaders was comparing our equipment to Beyonce's equipment — the same [lights and trusses] that Beyonce was using in her stage show," said Perry, who went on terminal leave April 21 and is leaving the Air Force as of June 2. "They have everything."
The Air Force said Tops in Blue spends less than $50,000 on instruments and equipment each year.
Tops in Blue " is both an audio and visual experience that requires concert style lighting and staging to be effective," the Air Force said. "TIB uses professional-quality equipment in order to present a professional-quality show. The quality of equipment purchased must be capable of standing up to the rigors of a [70-plus] performance schedule in just seven months being constantly unloaded, set up, torn down and reloaded. We work diligently to extend the life-expectancy of our equipment, much of which is seven to 10 years old."
A senior airman who was a truck driver for Tops in Blue one year, who asked that his name not be printed, said the group has thousands of dollars of instruments and equipment sitting in storage — unplayed, unused and deteriorating.
"There are instruments and equipment that haven't been touched in years," he said. "A lot of brass instruments — trumpets, trombones. Some guitars that are worn down, lots of scratches, not properly taken care of."
But instead of fixing up the old instruments, he said, "They just buy new ones."
Light said the group provided members about 10 different outfits, including tailored tuxedos and dresses, as well as mess dress uniforms and airman battle uniforms. He said when he joined, he already had a mess dress and told Tops in Blue he didn't need another one. But Tops in Blue insisted on providing him a fresh mess dress "so they all look brand new."
"Everything's custom," Light said. "It's not one-size-fits-all, that's for sure. Regulations say airmen can't be given uniforms, because they're given a stipend. Yet with Tops in Blue, they rationalize it as, it's a costume instead of a uniform."
The Air Force said the 18 to 20 vocalists in Tops in Blue are provided no more than six costume changes, including their military uniforms, at a cost of between $1,500 and $1,800 per person. The group's 10 or 11 instrumentalists have at most three wardrobe changes, including their military uniforms, at a cost of $800 to $1,000 per person. The wardrobe costs — between $35,000 and $47,000 annually, by the Air Force's count — are paid for through nonappropriated funds, the Air Force said.
"A TIB show includes multiple styles of music and themes throughout the performance," the Air Force said. "The wardrobe is designed to visually enhance these variations and the entertainment experience for the audience."
The former truck driver for Tops in Blue said he thinks the group spends much more on wardrobe.
"That is totally lowball," he said. The truck driver counted at least 13 different outfits he was issued free of charge, including two ABUs, mess dress, two jumpsuits with jump boots, four sets of work uniforms, a red polo and white slacks for post-show dinners, physical training gear, and a jogging suit, and another work outfit — not to mention a roll suitcase, duffel bag and computer bag.
The Air Force said Tops in Blue shows are planned and scheduled primarily to entertain airmen and their families.
"First priority for performances is on-base in theaters and hangars," the Air Force said. "We see a larger civilian audience when installation leadership elects to host the show at an off-base venue. These off-base performances do help installation commanders with community relations efforts."
But it appears many airmen don't see those benefits.
"What joy does it bring to any of our troops?" Perry said. "They'd rather see Beyonce, Jay-Z, hell, they'd rather see a comedian than Tops in Blue. Toby Keith loves performing for the troops. Kid Rock loves performing for the troops. Why not have professional people who love performing for the troops than some raggedy Air Force entertainment show?"