I'm supposed to meet my guide underneath Pennsbury High School's "Noodle" at five o'clock. I don't know where that is, though, or what that even means. I'm not a student or faculty member, and I'm completely unfamiliar with the school's landmarks and slang. Now l'm lost, driving around an expansive parking lot, up and down a long access road that connects the west and east sides of this gigantic campus, searching for architecture that vaguely resembles macaroni. Less than 24 hours after my visit, a bunch of handcrafted floats will parade down this road, and future spectators have already claimed their real estate with laminated signs bearing their last names. They've brought tents and tarps, too, as the forecast calls for heavy rain. It looks like a shanty town in The Grapes of Wrath.
This is Fairless Hills, Pennsylvania, a place, with a population around 8,500, best described in proximity to other places—20 minutes from Trenton, 40 minutes from Philadelphia, and 90 minutes from New York City. The average household income is about $60,000, and it's a prototype of suburbia. There are Chick-fil-As, modest two-story homes, too many highways. When I ask for a dinner recommendation, one of the first options suggested is the Red Robin by the mall. (Later, when I decide to get a table for one, it's so crowded that I can't find a spot in the parking lot.)
Tickets to the Pennsbury prom cost $115 each, and the budget to throw it reportedly runs in the six figures. There are approximately 3,100 people who attend Pennsbury High, and though most who buy tickets to the prom are seniors, the 1,000 or so who go also include some juniors, as well as a handful of boys and girls from neighboring schools. Like every prom set piece in American teen movies, the dance has a theme, too—in the past, they’ve ranged from “Yo, Philly” (everything Philadelphia) to “Novel Night” (everything books)—and this year, it’s “Destination Prom” (a play on “destination weddings”). The press release (yes, the press release) promises “exotic world locations and modes of transportation”—among them, a “12-foot water feature”; “a life-sized rendition of the famous Stonehenge rock formation”; “floor-to-ceiling decorations”; a gigantic, buttercream cake from a local bakery; a cafeteria transformed “into a retro travel agency”; corridors that “simulate an airport”; and a gym that features “a vintage steampunk Airship (complete with two video screens) streaming live video hanging from the ceiling,” constructed with plywood, styrofoam, and piping. There are three separate dinner seatings to accommodate attendees. There’s a hypnotist scheduled to hang out in the auditorium, and, along with the faculty band, DJ Pauly D and Drake Bell, star of the old Nickelodeon show Drake and Josh, each have sets. “You have to see it to believe it” is something I hear over and over again.
“We used approximately 300 gallons of Tempera paint and 90 rolls of flame retardant paper to piece together over 50 murals,” Tony Napoli, an art teacher and prom adviser who has been involved with the event for more than 20 years, and whose face has been formed into the model piloting the steampunk airship, tells me.
It's certainly impressive—but how in the hell did this even come to be?
“The first prom that was done in this building was in 1971,” Napoli says over the phone, a few days before the event. In order to keep the students around “all night,” he continues, they realized they’d “have to do something special,” and since then, it’s only grown. He goes on to explain the extravaganza's evolution as something that spiraled out of control, that just "basically happened." "Year after year," he says, "[there were] more outrageous arrivals, more creative decorations, more famous entertainment." Especially since the early 2000s, when Sports Illustrated writer Michael Bamberger shadowed students, faculty, and community members throughout the year, and produced a full-length book on the process, called Wonderland. One of his subjects was Bob Costa, who is now a journalist for the Washington Post, but, as a junior, tried to get John Mayer to come for the senior class to "do them a solid." (He performed for free the following year.)
I ask Costa how the event has kept the interest of the media for so long.
“The spectacle is interesting because it’s not a corporate spectacle—it’s very homemade,” he tells me. “If it was a huge corporate-event type thing, I think a lot of people would cringe, but what makes the Pennsbury prom great is that it’s moms and dads and students putting it all together.”
Now I’m minutes away from being introduced, charmingly, to an onslaught of them. I eventually track down the Noodle, where Ann Langtry, the coordinator of communication for Pennsbury, is patiently waiting for me. Reggie Meadows, who’s been the co-principal for past two years, is standing there, too.
“I’ll walk in there tomorrow,” he says, reminding me he’ll be in a tuxedo, “and, sometimes, I won’t know where I am.”
This is the evening before the prom, and Ann has offered to take me around the east campus, the location of the looming dance, where the “moms and dads and students” Costa referred to will likely be working until midnight getting everything ready. After all, there’s a busy schedule the next day: In addition to the party, the public is invited to view the displays from 12 PM to 3 PM, and later that afternoon, underneath the cover of their tents, watch the students parade on floats—which, of course, are also built with the "Destination Wedding" theme in mind. From there, the kids will march through the front doors—for photos, dinner, dance, the whole drill—via a red carpet.
After leaving the Noodle, we walk into the foyer, which has been fashioned to look like Hawaii. Having grown up in a New Jersey suburb with a large public high school, the inside is immediately familiar to me, even as papier-mâché palm trees are being moved around. Ann leads me next to the cafeteria. Its walls are coated in murals of tourist destinations—Havana and Florence and Wildwood, New Jersey. Across the hall, on the opposite side, is the Southwest, better known to students year-round as the women’s bathroom. In the men’s bathroom next door, a.k.a. Africa, there are zebras painted above a row of urinals. Down a nearby hallway is a trippy, disorienting “blacklight” section that leads to the gymnasium; down another are “passports,” 8 ½-by-11 pieces of computer paper, that the public can jot down notes on for the soon-to-be graduates during the walk-through before the prom. (If we had done this at my high school, I suspect a group of us would have gotten together the night before, like we were planning an Ocean’s 11–style heist, and discussed the best way to draw dicks all over them. I don't admit this to Ann, but she nonetheless assures me there will only be loving, encouraging messages.)
It's hard not to believe her. The cynicism and jadedness that powered me as a teenager are replaced, here, with sincerity and generosity. Everybody I encounter is like a character in a Tom Perrotta novel, if they were on their best behavior. There’s Curtis, the 3D art teacher who's responsible for the Stonehenge replica. ("Down to the wear marks on the rocks,” a man named Terry says). There’s Annette, a head PTO mom who will be manning the coat check, along with the dozens of junior volunteers who are proving themselves worthy enough to be on their own prom committee. And then there’s Camille, a bus driver in the district and a self-described “Fairless Hills girl” who moonlights as an oil painter.
“Every year, I pick something more and more challenging," she says. This time, she’s chosen to work with acrylic paint—her subjects are Barcelona and the Butchart Gardens on Canada’s Vancouver Island.
As I take in all the work the students and volunteers have done, my skepticism begins to wane. A large part of me is actually envious—these men and women all come together, over the course of many months, to produce a singular night for teens that really does seem like something special. To the misanthropes among us (myself included), it sounds cheesy, but on a planet dead set on getting shittier and shittier, what more could somebody ask for? I can't attend the actual prom—I'm almost 28 and am increasingly obligated to attend friends' weddings—but Eva, my photographer, doesn't know anybody getting married this night. She agrees to stay and capture what I want to tell these kids is a fitting end to adolescence: that they'll be somewhere they once recognized as it is magically—and perhaps frighteningly—transformed into the entire world.
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Scroll down for a photo gallery from the Pennsbury prom.