PORTLAND, ORE. — I was going to write about high school proms two years ago, but it's good that I waited because the subject has become much more entertaining.
A recent story in USA Today revealed that Hollywood themes are now getting rave reviews from prom planners around the country. All that's required to turn a dance party into a mock celebrity première is a red carpet, velvet ropes, one or two spotlights, and, for those willing to spare no expense for maximum Tinseltown ambience, some bleachers to hold an applauding audience and fake paparazzi snapping photos as the guests emerge from their rented limousines.
The price tag for such productions can also be Hollywood-like. In fact, it was the economic angle of prom night that caught my attention back in 2003. According to research by Condé Nast, almost 20 million students attended proms that year, and the average 17-year-old was spending $638 on clothes, cosmetics, limo service and other items. That's more than $1,200 per couple, and I assume it's the same or higher now.
I'm sure some parents will read this and say, "Where has this guy been for the past decade? Sleeping under a tree beside Rip Van Winkle?"
The sad truth is that I've never been very interested in the party scene. My legs become unhappy if I attempt dancing. When I played high school football, pregame jumping jacks were the only rhythmic movements I ever felt comfortable performing in public.
So I didn't go to any proms, much to the disappointment of my mom, who always had a full dance card at parties she attended during her years at the Marlborough School for Girls in Los Angeles. Those gatherings were, however, governed by the strict beliefs of principal Ada S. Blake. Anyone who thinks parents these days are seriously overindulging the whims of their children will be interested to know that trends which have led to our current situation were already causing concern for Principal Blake more than 80 years ago.
Here is one of the school rules from the 1925-26 Marlborough catalog: "To prevent the easy habits of extravagance and irresponsibility, the growing faults of the day, girls will not be allowed to borrow money from the office...." Even sterner was this warning about the girls' off-campus life: "Mothers are urged ... not to allow them to go unattended to matinées, to restaurants, or to railway stations, or to drive about conspicuously in automobiles."
Nostradamus couldn't have predicted it better. Ada would surely be appalled by modern prom nights that celebrate extravagance and driving about conspicuously in stretch limos. But with so much money churning through this bandwagon, it's not going to change direction anytime soon. The next logical step is for some outfit like the WB network to jump onboard. How hard could it be to hook up the hottest prom parties to a live nationwide telecast with Joan and Melissa Rivers as cohosts?
Hey, this is not sour grapes from a wallflower. I wish every prom participant the best. Be careful you don't trip over any velvet ropes. And for heaven's sake, don't get into a rumble with the fake paparazzi.
• Jeffrey Shaffer is an author and essayist who writes about media, American culture, and personal history.