In praise of the powder-blue tuxedo

The nervous smiles and taffeta gowns in Prom Night: The Best Night of Your Life are guaranteed to evoke memories

Anthony Oliviera, Mikyla Bruder, Jonelle Chase and Matt Walbeck pose nervously before Sacramento High School’s 1985 homecoming dance.

Anthony Oliviera, Mikyla Bruder, Jonelle Chase and Matt Walbeck pose nervously before Sacramento High School’s 1985 homecoming dance.

When Jonelle Chase received the telephone message that a newspaper writer wanted to ask her about her photo in Prom Night: The Best Night of Your Life—the one in which she’s grinning in 1985 Kodak quality, all pink poofy sleeves, braces, bangs and corsage, a high-school junior on her way to a big dance—she was momentarily flooded with two-decades-old teenage anxieties.

“My stomach started doing turns,” she said.

The former Sacramento High School student currently is far removed from this snapshot. She’s married, living south of San Francisco, and she has a 2-year-old child and a career as an occupational therapist.

But still, her memories are vivid. Without seeing the photograph, she can describe exactly what her date, Matt Walbeck, was wearing. “I mean, he was my first kiss and my first boyfriend,” Chase said. So, she answered questions awkwardly.

That emotional reaction to high school’s social crescendo is exactly what Elissa Stein sought to capture in her new book, Prom Night: The Best Night of Your Life, published by San Francisco-based Chronicle Books. The 95-page hardcover coffee-table book offers both snapshots and professional portraits of prom-goers throughout the decades—from the 1940s through the mid-1980s. Flip from the 1946 black-and-white photo of a Passaic, N.J., couple looking up and out of the frame to the painfully 1987 portrait from Redmond, Wash., of a girl in an electric-blue gown and a guy in a spiked flattop hairdo(n’t) standing yacht-side. Then turn to the 1956 group shot of black students at a segregated dance in Steelton, Penn. Or look at the awkward way Larry Chiorgno puts his arm around his date in the front-of-the-fireplace shot in 1974 suburban Massachusetts.

Then there’s the gang from Sacramento High School.

On pages 64 and 65, Chase is standing with Walbeck, and with her friend Mikyla Bruder and Bruder’s date, Anthony Oliviera. They were in the living room of Bruder’s home, ready to head out the door for dinner in Old Sacramento and then on to the dance.

“I remember being completely backward and afraid of boys,” said Bruder, reached at Chronicle Books, where she is executive editor. “I remember us all being kind of nervous.”

Walbeck, a 1987 grad of Sac High who went on to a professional baseball career that included more than nine years in the big leagues, said just hearing about the picture brought back memories. (He didn’t know he appeared in the book until receiving a phone call from this writer last week.)

“I remember being worried about my hair,” said Walbeck, who lives in Fair Oaks but was reached in Comstock Park, Mich., where he coaches the West Michigan Whitecaps minor-league team. “I was worried about looking good—having all the right moves.”

That tension is what Stein likes about the photos. “Whether you had a good prom or a horrible one, there was such a sense of excitement about going,” she said, adding that that excitement is apparent in the pictures.

She also likes that the book shows prom fashions through the decades—from the simple tuxedos and ball gowns to top hats, taffeta and 47 shades of powder blue.

But, like a breakout of acne, a run in a nylon stocking or a dancing disaster on the night of the dance, Prom Night the book has its flaws. It lacks cohesion. Probably because of the way the photographs were chosen (Stein asked her friends and family and then performed Internet Google searches and posted solicitations online), the book fails to tell a focused story. We get, instead, what feels like a random assortment of eras and geography that includes a Canadian photo, one from England and several that don’t appear to have been taken on prom night at all.

Even the picture of Chase, Bruder, Walbeck and Oliviera is flawed. It was taken before a homecoming dance nearly two full years before those four would attend their senior prom and graduate. The youths are dressed more casually—Walbeck in slacks and a sweater vest, for example—than they would be for a prom.

“They’re all sort of prom-night types of things,” Bruder said of the book’s photos, but that’s not quite true.

A dance is a dance. Take it or leave it. Go or don’t go. But there is something uniquely definitive about the American high-school prom. It is a climax of the high-school experience, a last hurrah. Youths plan for it months, sometimes years, in advance. There is the asking, then the dress shopping and, finally, the dress-up-and-play-adult aspect of the night. Even when a student does not attend his or her prom—whether by opting not to or by more dramatic circumstances—the night becomes indicative of the student’s character.

Also, many of the pictures are low-quality—grainy or out of focus. Stein said she tried to contact professional photographers who may have taken prom photos over the decades but found that most of them destroy their negatives after less than a year. So, the book relied on the prom-goers themselves to hand in their own photos, and many of them are snapshots rather than professional prints. But Prom Night’s worst dance move is that it contains almost no text. Each picture is accompanied only by the prom-goers’ names, the high school’s and city’s names, and the year.

<i>Prom Night</i> author Elissa Stein and her date, Rich Schneider, moments before the car crash that kicked off their prom experience.

This was a conscious decision, said both Bruder and Stein. “We felt like we wanted people to spin the photos themselves,” Bruder said. “In some sense, the mystery of it … tells a story in itself.” In fact, the book’s initial concept—born over drinks and a friend’s story about being jilted by his prom date, Bruder said—included pairing prom photos with the horrendous stories behind them. Prom Nightmare was the working title.

When the mood of the photos that were gathered turned out to be much sweeter, the stories behind them were edited out. Nonetheless, the book would have benefited from the narratives. Just listen to the stories Stein rattles off while flipping through its pages.

Joanna Kerns, in the tangerine gown on page 12, hopes the book will help her to find her prom date, Daniel Rush. Losing contact with him was the biggest mistake of her life, she said.

Karol Kane, pictured at her 1967 prom on page 27, thinks the dreamy, football-playing Ron Nelson asked her to the dance only because his mother made him. She said she didn’t care, and she still calls it “the best night of her life,” Stein said.

The goofy-looking John Bianchi on page 43, at his 1980 prom in Greenwich, Conn., split his tuxedo pants open during the dance and spent the entire night with his hands in his pockets, trying to hold them together.

\There’s the girl who burned her “big hair” to the inside of a salon dryer right before the dance, and the guy who doesn’t remember much about his big night except being alone at a White Castle fast-food joint at 3 a.m.

Then there’s Stein, whose spectacular prom story is only alluded to in the back-cover author blurb. She went to her 1980 prom, for New York’s Massapequa High School in Long Island, with Rich Schneider, a “really cool guy” who played in a band that performed covers of the Who. While driving from her house to his (the trip from one parental photo shoot to another) the couple was in an accident that totaled Schneider’s car.

They hopped into another couple’s limo and went to the prom anyway, becoming the night’s minor celebrities as word got out about what had happened to them and as her black eye grew bigger and darker. They followed the prom with a boat ride out into the Long Island Sound and woke up the next morning in a vicious storm. They required the assistance of the U.S. Coast Guard to get back to shore.

For all its faults, Prom Night is an incredible story-sparking tool—a conversation starter. Break it out at any gathering, and attendees are sure to share their prom-night stories. Its beauty is not that it tells a comprehensive story, but that it elicits memories of yours.

May is the month when many high-school seniors attend their own proms. And perhaps perusing this book before hopping in the limo would cause a few prom-goers to reflect upon their own night. Maybe it would convince them to take back the salmon-colored tux and instead rent a traditional black one.

Chase remembers her picture fondly, despite all of the awkward and anxious energy captured in its frame. She had hoped to have her braces off by that night, but she didn’t. And she was wearing a dress her mother had made—a dress she’d previously worn to a wedding. Plus, she was going to the dance with Walbeck, with whom she’d broken up months prior.

“The picture’s really funny,” she said. “It’s just a sign of the times.”