This being the prom and ball season for Utica area high schools, I thought it might be fun to recall how we used to do it back in the 1950s.
There’s an old story that used to circulate around Proctor High each spring as junior prom and senior ball season approached. It went something like this:
A young kid not known for being a ladies’ man asked a friend where he and his date were going after the prom.
“Up to The Eagle,” the friend replied.
“The Eagle?” asked the puzzled babe-in-the-woods. “What band is playing there?”
Every time the story was told the room would rumble with roars of laughter. Each year the tale would remain the same. Only the name of the rube would change.
But there are some things about going to the prom or ball that never changed: Parking up at The Eagle, renting a tuxedo, waxing your father’s car – twice, decorating the gym, buying a wrist corsage, struggling with suspenders, using about two cans of deodorant, meeting the girl’s parents, staying at the big dance for 15 minutes, driving at night with a junior license and going to Syracuse for early-morning coffee with the boys.
And from what I hear, things aren’t much different today. Oh, they don’t hold the dance in the gyms anymore. Fancy hotel ballrooms are more the vogue. But some truths remain.
The other day I saw a young couple, the boy in a white dinner jacket and looking uncomfortable, the girl wearing a long green gown and clutching a small hand bouquet of white roses, standing stiffly in a front yard while a proud father clicked away on his Kodak Instamatic.
When the shooting session was over, and mother was kissed, the couple walked over to the shiny car at the curb, the girl walking unsteadily across the lawn in her high heels. The boy held the door open for the girl. Mother and Dad waved wistfully as the car drove off.
The junior prom and senior ball were the high points of the school social season. But like Christmas, they were a long time coming, over in a flash, and often a disappointment after the big build-up they received.
If a girl was not asked to the dance, she was expected to change schools or something. And if a boy failed to ask a girl to go, he ran the risk of being jeered by his pals for being less than virile.
The hardest part of the ritual for a guy was getting up the guts to pop the question to the girl he wanted to take. Rather than face her, he would choose to use the phone. That way, she couldn’t see his hands shaking and hear his heart thumbing.
A date and time for the big call would be set. But when that time came, he would find an excuse not to go through with it. The next day he would try again. Hands trembling and heart thumping he would dial six of the seven digits – pause – prepare to dial the final number and get “cold finger.”
The next morning his friends would pounce on him. “Did you call her?” they asked.
“Yeah,” he would reply, “but her phone was busy all night. I tried for two hours. My finger was sore from dialing.”
The following night he finally completed the call and reached her. My call went something like this:
“Hello?” said the girl of my dreams.
It was her! My heart was blasting. My mind began spinning. She’s probably going to say no. Maybe someone else asked her. Her father won’t let her go. She hates me. I think I’ll hang up.
“Hello?” she repeated to the silence.
“T-t-t-this is Richard,” I said with a cracked croak.
“Who?” she asked?
“I’m in your Latin class.”
“Oh, hi,” she said.
“Hi. Would you like to go to the prom with me?” I didn’t beat around the bush.
OK,” she said.
“You will?” I asked in disbelief. “That’s great…. Bye.”
That was it. The next morning at school my buddies asked how I made out and crowded around for details.
“She said ‘yes.’ She was thrilled that I called. We talked for about an hour,” I boasted with a casual wave of my hand.
Just then, my date came walking down the corridor with her friends. We pretended not to see each other.
Between that time and the big dance, we talked on maybe two more occasions: When I asked her the color of her gown, so I could choose coordinating flowers, and when I told her what time I would pick her up.
When the big day arrived, I worked several hours in Proctor Park waxing the family car. She, like most girls going to the dance, probably spent the day in a robe, her hair in curlers, talking on the phone and taking three baths.
We arrived at the prom at 10 p.m. - after several rounds of parent-meeting and picture-taking. A revolving crystal ball created spinning colored dots on the gymnasium walls and floor. We danced twice, spent a lot of time signing programs – the boys’ tuxedoed backs serving as desks while the girls wrote such things as “You make a cute couple” and “Your gown is gorgeous” – and sipped punch from fancy bowls flanked by teachers who smiled a lot.
Then, it was out to dinner at a fancy restaurant. However, we were seated in a small crowded room with other prom-goers, well hidden from the restaurant’s regular clientele. After dinner, we went straight home. My date had to be in by 1 a.m.
And I never did get to find out what band was playing at The Eagle.
A version of this column first appeared in the O-D on June 5, 1975 – nearly 43 years ago. A book of Richard Benedetto’s “Around and About” columns from the mid-1970s is planned for publication in the fall.