Homemade Philly-area prom

May 21, 2009 5:39:35 AM PDT
They arrived on pirate ships, on a sled pulled by polar bears and in the shadow of a giant peach, debarking on the red carpet in tuxedos and sequined dresses as the crowd clapped and cheered. At the Pennsbury High School prom, getting there is half the fun. The other half begins once students enter a school elaborately transformed by dozens of handmade murals and movie-like props.

The recession has led some districts to downscale their formal dinner-dances from fancy ballrooms to school gyms.

But not Pennsbury. For years, including at last Saturday's prom, the school has proudly held its homemade prom on campus instead of at a cookie-cutter catering hall. Students also build their own floats for a pre-prom parade that attracts more than a thousand spectators.

"Everyone wants to go to Pennsbury's prom," said senior Alaina Pollock. "It's an amazing experience because the students make it."

The prom received a lot of attention five years ago after students successfully lobbied Grammy-winning musician John Mayer to play for them. His hit song "Wonderland" then became the title for a book about a year in the life of Pennsbury, and Reader's Digest named it the Best Prom in America.

But those at the suburban Philadelphia school say the highest praise that can be lavished on the event is two words: community tradition.

Students, parents and teachers spend all year planning designs, creating scenery and painting murals. They use nearly 26,000 square feet of paper - enough to cover more than half a football field - and about 500 rolls of masking tape.

Volunteers build elaborate sets in the school's lobby. The 2009 prom, "A Novel Night," featured a two-story Hogwarts castle from the Harry Potter books, plus a magic wand shop and other props.

Locker-lined hallways were camouflaged with murals of book covers familiar to any teen: "Twilight," "The Sneetches," "Lord of the Flies," "A Separate Peace;" even the bathrooms were themed: "Captain Underpants" for the boys, "Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants" for the girls.

The cafeteria became a fine dining room out of "Narnia," with parents serving a catered meal on plates with tablecloths and silverware. Students also were treated to a hypnotist in the auditorium, a DJ in the gym and surprise musical guest Ryan Cabrera.

"My prom was in a high school, but we didn't do anything like this," said parent volunteer Robin Shearn of Levittown. "This is amazing."

Teens arrived on the red carpet after an hours-long pageant of several hundred vehicles, each vying to be the most original. Sure, there were some limos, but such standard fare is considered boring by crowds used to being wowed by homemade floats, the Wienermobile, golf carts, trolleys, FedEx vans, fire trucks and even a helicopter - at least until officials banned aerial entrances. (Hot-air balloon requests have been denied.)

The floats reflected the prom's book theme, including "Peter Pan," "Treasure Island," "The Polar Express" and "James and the Giant Peach."

Pollock, 18, rode in wearing a red beaded gown on a "Where's Waldo?" float. She was thrilled with how everything turned out, especially the candles "floating" in the archway of Hogwarts.

"I was so proud," Pollock said the day after prom. "You can't even tell this is where you go to class."

The event costs about $100,000 to put on, all of which comes from ticket sales ($75 per student) and fundraisers. Community members come by the hundreds to gawk at the painstakingly decorated school during the annual pre-prom walk-through, held a few hours before the 1,200 students arrive.

Art teacher Blair Greiner, a prom faculty supervisor for the past four years, said she and her colleagues are surprised each year by the finished product.

"We know every tiny little detail, and we have no idea what it's going to look like," Greiner said.

The magic lasts about 24 hours before the school returns to normal.

"On Monday morning," Greiner said, "you will have no idea this ever happened."

In about a week, the school will vote on next year's prom theme.

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