Interview with the Legendary Diane Shelton
Interview: Diane Shelton, Twirler Who Performed in Vietnam, 1966
Where have all the soldiers gone, long time passing?
Where have all the soldiers gone, long time ago?
Where have all the soldiers gone?
Gone to graveyards, everyone
Oh, when will they ever learn?
Oh, when will they ever learn?
Dr. Diane Shelton grew up in California in the late 1940s and 1950s, and began twirling at age four. She won her first national championship at age 12 and by age 15 was head twirler for the Oakland Raiders. She was the professional football team’s original pirate girl. Eventually, she named head batonist for the San Francisco 49ers.
During her baton twirling career, she performed across the United States and appeared on numerous television shows including the Ed Sullivan Show, Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, the Mike Douglas Show and Hippodrome. In 1966, Shelton traveled to Vietnam with Bob Hope’s USO Show. She performed for troops on Christmas Day, an experience that as a baton twirler she said she knew she would never be able to top. Here is our interview with Dr. Shelton, D.V.M, PhD, DACVIM, and Director of Comparative Neuromuscular Laboratory, University of California, San Diego.
Scroll down to see clippings from Dr. Shelton’s personal scrabook pages.
Question & Answer with Diane Shelton
We read that you saw your first baton twirler in a parade in San Francisco? Can you tell me what you remember about the parade or the twirler?
This is so long ago that I honestly don’t remember what it was that attracted me to twirling. I was only 4 years old when I saw the St. Patrick’s Day parade in San Francisco. All I remember was that I wanted a baton.
Who was most influential in your twirling career?
Definitely my mother. She always wanted to be in show business but when she was growing up her parents didn’t have the money to give her dancing lessons. She wanted to give me everything she couldn’t have. She would pick me up after school and take me to dancing or twirling lessons. This was every day. My father would come home from work and then after he had dinner he would take me to the gymnasium at the Alameda Naval Air station to practice for 1-2 hours. This was everyday including weekends. I didn’t have much time for school studies but luckily I had a good memory and listened in my classes.
Did you twirl in high school or college?
When I was in high school I twirled for the Oakland Raiders football team. Now they are the Las Vegas Raiders. I was the original Pirate Girl and trained the Oakland Raiderettes.
Did you have a favorite twirling costume? What did it look like?
Not that I remember. The important thing was that fabric was not in the way to interfere with my neck rolls. I liked simple but my mother liked the sequins and beads… so sequence and beads it was.
We have never seen anyone do the number of fire baton mouth rolls you preformed on Hippodrome. How many hours a week did you practice baton to achieve the expertise/advanced skills you achieved.
Between the dancing lessions, acrobatics, and baton twirling the practice or lessons was all day everyday. From the time school was out until around 11 pm at night. I wanted to be the best I could be so I didn’t mind it. I also remember I had a lot of energy and could go on for hours.
What was your proudest moment or most treasured memory as a twirler?
I think it was performing in Vietnam for the troops. I was proud that my baton twirling and dancing skills could be shown in front of our soldiers and a world wide audience. A couple of my high school classmates were killed in Vietnam so this meant a lot to me. It was right after I returned from Vietnam that I knew I needed to plan for a different future. I couldn’t top this.
Were there any other iconic / historic moments you’d like to share about your twirling career?
I also worked with Liza Minelli in a show called Young America at the Olympia Music Hall in Paris, France and with other entertainers like Red Skeleton, Perry Como, the Carpenters, Jimmy Dean and others. I wasn’t a star but could hold my own.
It’s 2023 and baton twirling is still not an Olympic sport unlike break dancing, cheerleading, baseball, croquet, pistol dueling and more. If you could speak directly to the International Olympic Committee on behalf of twirling, what would you say? What do you want them to know about the sport and art of baton twirling?
During the time I was in twirling competitions there was talk of making twirling an Olympic sport. Amazing that after 50 years things have not moved forward. In my estimation twirling should be at the same level as gymnastics or figure skating given the skill, practice and artistic ability it takes to be a champion. I wouldn’t even put break dancing, cheerleading or pistol dueling in the same category.
You went on to have an impressive career in acacemic/veterinary medicine. What advice would you give someone approaching retirement from the sport?
I can only give you my perspective on this and others may look at this differently. I realized at a fairly young age that there was no future in show business for an aging baton twirler. I had a wonderful career until the age of 21 but knew there was an unofficial shelf-life. I weighed my options and other things that interested me. I really enjoyed science and loved animals so put those things together and decided to go to college and pursue a career in veterinary medicine. I worked by way through my undergraduate studies by performing with “Bertha” and “Tina” the elephants in the Circus Room at the Nugget in Sparks Nevada while going to school during the day at the University of Nevada. After I graduated I was accepted to Veterinary School at the University of California, Davis. I planned for my life after baton twirling, juggling and dancing and worked to make this a reality. My advise, enjoy the time twirling when you are young but plan for the long-term.
Did baton twirling teach you in life lessons that you still carry with you today?
The hard work and dedication it took to perfecting my twirling, juggling and dancing skills are still with me today. It takes focus, dedication and hard work to be a success with anything.
Do you ever pick up your baton and twirl?
Not anymore. I still have my batons and Indian clubs though.
Do you follow twirling today and if so, how has it changed?
Every so often I look up competitions and twirlers on the internet. It seems that the skill level is higher than it was when I was in competition and acrobatics are relatively common. Before I retired from twirling, I was juggling 4 batons… I think this is relatively common now…
Who were your coaches? Do you have any stories or memories about them that you’d like to share?
We didn’t call them coaches back then. They were our teachers. My main teacher was Robert Olmstead in Palo Alto, CA. My last teacher was Pat Mauldin in Sunnyvale, CA. I remember a baton twirling camp in the Santa Cruz mountains in the summer. Lasted for a week and was fun. Across the street from the campgrounds was a riding stable. When the classes and practice were finished during the day I would go across the street and ride a horse. Then on Friday night we would go as a group to the Santa Cruz boardwalk. They had a great roller coaster. Robert Olmstead was the director of the 49ers majorettes.
Did you attend baton twirling competitions growing up? If so, what titles did you win?
Yes, I did compete in a few competitions. I won first at the Chicagoland Music Festival competition in my division and there were a few other competitions around Illinois and Wisconsin that I competed in and won. I won the NBTA State Competition for California and the AAU National Championship that was held in Los Angeles. That was when there was talk of baton twirling as an Olympic sport. I would have gone to the Olympics that year if it happened. But it didn’t. I won 4 gold medals… 1 and 2 baton, hoop baton and strut. Somewhere I still have those 4 gold medals. I also competed in St. Paul Winter Carnival (NBTA Nationals, in the Jr. division but….. dropped the baton 3 times so was a fizzle there. I remember the winner that year was Judy Delp from Pennsylvania. How can I remember this? USTA hadn’t started up yet… maybe a couple of years later.
What do you like to do in your free time? What has been the highlight of your career in academia/veterinary science.
Love to travel… right now my husband and I am on our way to Gambia and Senegal. We were both in the same class in veterinary school. We love to see the animals all over the world. Highlights in academia are my investigations into spontaneously occurring neuromuscular diseases in dogs and cats. The diseases are genetically and clinically similar to those in humans. Such a thrill when a new one if found and can be eliminated through genetic testing and breeding.
Pictures of Diane in Vietnam, 1966
Diane Shelton toured Vietnam with Bob Hope’s USO shows in 1966. William Harrell was stationed in Vietnam and serving in the 7th Surgical Hospital (MA) at Cu Chi, Vietnam in 1966, when he photographed Shelton twirling for US Troops. It was Christmas Day. Harrell took many pictures while in Vietnam, which he has generously shared on Flickr. Diane is picture above second from the left in the black dress. Her sign reads, “Join the Doll Rebellion.”
These photos of Diane were taken by Louis Galanos who served in Vietnam. They are posted here for educational purposes. Click here to view his account on Flickr.
According to the U.S. Library of Congress, Bob Hope’s USO shows, which toured for more than 50 years, were “prompted by patriotism, and perhaps vaudevillian wanderlust.” The variety shows for troops included comedy monologs; specialty acts, like Shelton’s baton twirling; celebrity appearances; dancers; singers, and skits. Hope’s mildly irreverent humor, coupled with his variety troupe’s “beautiful women”, provided a respite for the U.S. forces. Hope wanted to remind them “of what they were fighting for” and an “essence of American life and values.”
Pictures and Clippings from Diane’s Scrapbook
Diane Shelton with keys to the City of San Francisco. Shelton was identified by local media as the “head batonist” for the San Francisco 49ers.
The team at the Vintage Baton Twirler expresses sincere gratitude to Dr. Shelton for her willingness to be interviewed. It means a great deal to all twirlers, near and far, especially those currently training in a difficult sport that is still struggling to be respected and seen by some.
We first wrote about Diane in April 2023. You can check it out that post, which features two videos of her twirling, here.
More than 58,000 U.S. soldiers military personnel died in the Vietnam War. More than 2,600 Americans are still unaccounted for.
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