Starting midway in its first season, every week the program showcased a couple from the Soul Train Dancers to unscramble a group of letters on a display board, to form the name of a well-known African American figure. In the early days of the show, the unscrambled name was that of a recording artist or group who had either appeared on the show recently or was going to appear soon. In the later years, the solution on the Scramble Board was a popular and relevant African American figure in entertainment, sports, movies, television or politics. Oprah Winfrey, Thurgood Marshall, Martin Luther King, Michael Jackson, Muhummad Ali, Jesse Jackson and Hank Aaron were some of the many names unscrambled.
Don Cornelius used the Scramble Board to help keep the names of African American icons fresh in the minds of its viewers in an educational yet fun way.
There was no set time as to when the Scramble Board segment would be taped. At any given time, the floor director would boom out, “Scramble Board!” Next, two stagehands would bring the Scramble Board onto the floor with the name of the person already on the Scramble Board. The dance coordinator would randomly pick a couple and bring them up to the Scramble Board to see the name, and then the letters would be scrambled and lights, camera, action! The couple would have to act like they did not know what the solution was and take some time to unscramble it. If the couple was able to unscramble the letters in 60 seconds, they would win a prize.
In Soul Train’s early days, the prize was a gift pack of Johnson Products that included Ultra Sheen and Afro Sheen hair products. The female contestant would win Ultra Sheen facial cosmetics and a year’s subscription to Essence magazine. Later on in the seventies, prizes included a portable 8-track player and a Panasonic radio.
Going into the eighties, prizes included a gift pack of Tender Treatment and Classy Curl hair care products and a one year subscription to Ebony and Jet magazines.
In the latter part of the eighties unto the program’s final years, prizes included a supply of Coca-Cola products including Sprite and Coca-Cola.
I was always curious when the prizes would be presented to the couple. So the first time I went on the show, the couple that did the Scramble Board took their time to solve it (already seeing the solution before the segment was taped). They and everyone danced to the song being played, and when the music faded the stagehands took away the Scramble Board and the couple and everyone else either sat down in the audience or around the stage area. I went up to the couple and asked when they were going to get their prizes. I was expecting someone to come out to give the couple a case of Sprite and Coca- Cola. The male contestant, who had been a dancer on the show for about five years, told me that the dancers didn’t actually win any Coca-Cola products or anything for doing the Scramble Board. I was shocked. I wondered aloud if they were even going to get some Coca-Cola and Sprite coupons mailed to them and he told me no. So I realized by this time in the late nineties, what was being told to viewers at home about couples winning prizes for doing the Scramble Board was actually false advertisement in a sense.
The dancers from the early days of the show up until the late eighties told me that they actually did receive their prizes. I’m not sure why the dancers didn’t get their prizes in the later years. When I danced on the show I remember one guy who, after doing the Scramble Board, rewarded himself by gulping down three cans of Coca-Cola from the large container of sodas for the dancers outside on the studio lot!
In the early days of the show, newer dancers who were chosen to do the Scramble Board were not told the solution and they had to fend for themselves to figure out what the solution was. There were several times couples went over the sixty second time limit without solving the Scramble Board. In fact, the couple in the clip on this page took the whole segment to solve the Scramble Board. Even before the couple began to work on the Scramble Board, Don Cornelius and the other dancers were giggling at the couple. That clueless, misguided couple was obviously not told the solution beforehand.
Nevertheless, the Scramble Board was a cherished tradition and staple of Soul Train and always will be.
Can you unscramble this in sixty seconds? VLEO CAPEE LSUO. Couldn’t solve it? No hair care products for you!
Stephen McMillian is a journalist, writer, actor, filmmaker, former Soul Train dancer, Soul Train historian and soul music and movie historian.