Today's Kids, Looking Dated and Spending Money the Old-Fashioned Way, Put New Life in the Old Prom

updated 06/10/1985 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/10/1985 AT 01:00 AM EDT

You've seen them in every family photo album: a gawky young man in a stiff tuxedo with a blushing young woman in too many ruffles. For decades teenage couples have struck that pose as part of a classic American rite of passage: the prom. Once again this spring, in villages and sprawling cities, millions of teens are undergoing the ritual romance, panic, thrills and letdowns of that one special night. The boys plead with florists for corsages they forgot to order in advance; the girls lose sleep wondering what kind of wrap to wear over a gown that cost too much, and they all spend hours before mirrors primping for that oh-so-slow dance to Endless Love.

Though late-'60s kids dubbed the prom uncool and fit only for drips in ruffled shirts and pastel dresses, the '80s generation has revived the grand old party. Decked out like teenage Ron and Nancy Reagans, high school kids no longer shun the trappings of wealth. Young men proudly strut with canes and top hats, sporting plain black tuxes modeled after the ones oil barons wear on Dynasty. Their dates, refulgent in rhinestones and lace, display the kind of ultrafeminine creations their mothers threw out ages ago: hooped Scarlett O'Hara dresses and '50s-style strapless and tea-length gowns. "The last time I saw such a conservative look was when the bottom dropped out of the stock market," says Gary LeBeau, owner of a Mr. Tux store in Albuquerque, N.Mex. One L.A. chauffeur marvels, "I think there were more limos at the Calabasas High School prom than there were at the Academy Awards." The lucky kids squeeze as much as $1,000 out of Mommy and Daddy for dresses ($30 to $500), tuxes ($20 to $95 rental), limos ($100 to $460 a night) and flowers ($5 and up), to say nothing of haircuts, professional makeup jobs, after-prom parties and photos. Less wealthy high schoolers put in a year behind the counter at Burger King to pay their bills.

To see how kids are surviving this year's prom-time traumas, PEOPLE went to three very different parties and arrived at one broad conclusion: The thrill of dressing like adults, sipping champagne in public and making out till dawn still leaves most kids thinking of their prom as—at the very least—a night to remember.

Mainstream Missouri

It had to be the greatest prom in the history of the universe. Or at least that's what just about everyone at Missouri's Poplar Bluff High School thought when they got a look at their decorated gym on May 18. "I've seen proms in the movies, but they're sort of rinky-dink compared to this," said Damon Cox, 17. Damon was biased. He and about 80 other juniors had taken a week off from school to make the place live up to the "Almost Paradise" prom theme. Using profits from a magazine subscription drive, they erected island huts and painted huge tropical murals on walls that they had built to hide the bleachers. Damon put up so many streamers that he got blisters.

"In the whole of high school, this is what you look forward to," said junior Sheryl Roberts. "I mean, this is just the week. I mean, forever." Martin Garrett knew it was special too: He scrubbed his Ford pickup so that his date, Kim Crabtree, wouldn't get her hoop gown dirty. Robbie Myers, who runs the student council and the Teenage Republicans club, went even further. Though most of his friends spent about $150 for the night, Robbie dished out $1,200 he had earned as an office clerk at the grocery store. He picked up Carrie Carda in a limo and booked two separate hotel rooms in St. Louis for later that night. Carrie wore this four-hoop white chiffon gown that her mom made and she just had the best time. "We went by where I work at the Mansion Mall Cinema," she said, wide-eyed, "and everybody stopped and looked."

The Grand March outside the gym at 10:30 p.m. was even crazier. About 1,500 people came to gawk at the fancy outfits. One girl said she had her picture taken 85 times! But enough was enough. In the gym, where the band was cranking out wild Prince and Van Halen tunes, the guys took off their jackets, and the girls moved their garters (with 1985 pendants) from their thighs to their dates' sleeves. You know, with all that candlelight, it really was kind of romantic. Carrie Carda and Robbie Myers were just friends the day before. But when someone asked Carrie what she thought of Robbie that night, she laughed and said, "There are possibilities."

California class

Going to a prom can be a real hassle, especially if you attend University High in L.A. Nicole Bershon will vouch for that. "I tried on five million dresses," said Nicole, "nine major department stores in one day." When she finally found something passable—a 1940s black beaded number—it cost $325. But she had to have it. It wasn't any easier for David Middler. He studied a photo of David Bowie for hours so he could copy the look, then shopped for a full day to get just the right white tails, vest, bow tie and pleated black pants. Though David spent about $100 to look unique, he kept his cool when another guy showed up in the same outfit. "He killed it wearing conventional shiny tux shoes!" scoffed David. "I had the correct shoes—black Calvin Klein wing tips."

Don't think it was easy to get a limo, either, with 800 kids all wanting to ride to the Ambassador Hotel's Cocoanut Grove in style. One couple paid $70 in advance and the car never appeared. It wasn't much fun when they had to hire a plain black car at the last minute—no TV, no bar, no moon roof like the other kids had. Another girl sharing a ride complained, "The driver was awful. He was so strict. We had to bribe him to even let us drink champagne."

"There is one thing you learn about proms," said Jay Manning as he sat down for the dinner that cost $65 a couple. "Never eat the salad. It is like rubber." Once that was finished, most couples waited almost two hours to have their picture taken by a pro ($20 to $56). What a bore. Luckily some kids had hotel rooms ($105) upstairs where friends could stop by to watch Miami Vice.

Almost everybody said the best part of prom night came before and after the dance. Jon Osher (also known as Mr. Party) held a pre-prom cocktail hour for a select group at his parents' Bel Air mansion, and some returned there after the prom to drink beer and play pool. They rejoined the masses around 3 a.m., after changing into hipper outfits for the party at the Palace nightclub in Hollywood. (It was only $55 more per couple. Why not?) Then Osher gave a third bash—for breakfast. Was it worth all that effort? Said Dan Zaharoni: "The only interesting thing was who went with whom and who was wearing what." But for some, like David Middler, that was enough. "I've almost passed out 12 times tonight seeing the way some of my friends look," he said. "It almost makes 12 years of school worth it."

South Carolina country

At the McCrorey-Liston High School in Blair, S.C., they had to get 12 people to sign up before they could afford to rent the Presidential Ballroom at a Holiday Inn in Columbia, 30 miles away. At first only 14 kids wanted to spend the $50 per person; then more and more of the school's 104 juniors and seniors joined them. Even then, however, most wanted to go without a date. "You have more freedom that way," declared Bartholomew Green. "You mess with every girl you want to mess with." Of course, not everybody felt that way, but even a good-looking guy like Sylvester Free couldn't get a date until Beverly Davis called for a ride a few hours before the prom. Then Sylvester's mom made a big deal out of it. She said she'd stay up till 1:30 a.m. waiting for him. "Drive carefully and no alcohol," she warned with one last glance at her youngest child's new $69 suit. "Get the young lady back home on time and no rough stuff!"

"We don't get to be around places like this the way city kids do," said Willie Turner after feasting on the Holiday Inn's chicken drumettes, cocktail sausages and fruit punch. Though many felt too dressed up to dance at first, they didn't mind just watching the action—you could stare at that funky red suit Tracy Woodard had on or gawk at female teachers in party gowns. Lisa Oatman, who wanted to go see the movie Rappin' afterward, made sure no one left the prom without hearing about the $200 limo her date, John Moss, hired to transport her. Concluded Lisa happily: "It's going to be the talk of the school come Monday!"

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