November 21, 2004
Taylor Olson was ready: Black-tie tux, check. Pink rose corsage for date, check. Lincoln Town Car rented for special evening — whoops! The car was less than immaculate, necessitating a quick stop at the carwash.
There, Olson’s monkey suit elicited comment. "The people said, ‘Oh, are you going to a wedding?’ And I said, ‘No, the prom.’ And they busted out laughing."
Olson, 53, a registered nurse in Scottsdale, may not have been your average prom attendee. But neither was his date, 80-year-old Rose Rooney of Mesa.
Then again, they fit right in last week in the Mesa High School gym, where the predominant hair color was silver gray, Glenn Miller tunes played and an occasional cane rested near tables.
Put on by Mesa city employees, augmented by commercial sponsors and decorated, as well as attended, by Mesa High School students, the Wish Upon a Star senior prom was, more than anything else, meant to be a senior moment.
The evening of generational fusion started when employees of the Mesa Gas Division wanted a way to thank some of their longest-running customers, director Gerald Paulus said. A staff fund-raiser netted $1,500. Next, the high school jumped on the scheme. And on the morning of Nov. 13, about 20 Student Council members clad in jeans and sweats transformed a basketball court into a romantic setting for a starry-night rendezvous.
"They have been jamming," dance coordinator Jennifer Codd said about the teenagers with hammers and duct tape, fixing stars onto "skies" and making design decisions while perched on folding ladders.
Soon, navy blue backdrops hid gym walls. Twinkle lights shimmered on star clusters the size of Ford Escorts. White linen-draped tables with fanciful blue and silver centerpieces formed a half-moon around the dance floor.
"It’s really nice," said Margaret Mueller of Mesa, one of about 80 seniors who attended the prom — her first, she said. "We went to a small parochial school," she explained. But Mueller came, appropriately enough, with her high school sweetheart, Emil — also her husband of more than five decades.
Did he ask her properly?
"Yes, I did," he said. "And she gave me a look."
Holding the rose bouquet and scepter bestowed upon her only moments earlier, a wide-eyed Rita Bird rolled her wheelchair back to her table, where she kept touching the sparkly tiara on her head. "I can’t believe it," said the newly ascended prom queen. "I’m in a daze."
Bird was awarded the title after Codd read off the number on her ticket, one of many handed out at the gym’s entrance — red ones for the girls and gray ones for the boys. Darrell McCall had the lucky prom king number. Other lucky ticket holders took away prizes such as dinner certificates, but only after going under a bridge formed by the upraised arms of spiffed-up teenagers, a cheering impromptu pep squad for the winners.
Though no longer able to dance the jitterbug she once excelled at, Bird wanted to come to the prom. She brought a carefully rolled black-and-white photograph of her husband, a handsome man shown hosting a radio show circa 1960. "We had a good life," she said as couples behind her danced to "In the Mood."
Some 50 years ago, when she went to her high school prom in Johnston, Pa., Bird wore a green tulle dress with flounce after flounce after flounce. The boy she can’t recall, but "it was the most beautiful dress in the world," she said. "It was three shades of green."
Four or five tables over, Doris Seward sat momentarily alone while others hit the dance floor. "I use a walker and I don’t know how to dance with a walker," the former university professor from California said in a faint voice that could barely be heard over a rendition of "Stardust."
The last prom she attended was during the Great Depression. She remembered both her dress — "It was pale blue, and I was tall and skinny . . . That dress just hit me at all the wrong places" — as well as her date — "Stewart Wenoldorph. He was a pretty good dancer. He gave me a corsage to put on that awful blue dress."
Later, she did make it onto the dance floor, sans walker, with assistance from Paulus.
Meanwhile, Olson and Rooney shared a table with their dates (Rose Rooney and Phyllis Effhauser, respectively), and the complicated connections between the four generated more than one joking reference to their potential as Jerry Springer guests. Olson is best friends with Rooney’s son, John, 48, a Scottsdale family practitioner. John Rooney’s date is not only a longtime friend of Rose, but also the mother of one of his former classmates.
"I took her daughter to the prom," John Rooney said. "My first."
About an hour into the dance, Meagan Barnard, who at 17 was a different kind of senior, admitted to having a good time at the dance. "I’m learning how to waltz," she said, fresh off the dance floor.
On the other side of the gym, Fran and Eddie Reece took a rare break from the dance floor to sip refreshments. The Mesa couple have been stepping to the music since meeting back before Elvis Presley even thought about gyrating. Fox trot, waltz, polka, jitterbug: They do them all. Nor do they sit down for disco or rock.
"We got steps for that, too," said Eddie Reece. Rap, he confided, is the only musical genre that stills their feet.
When January rolls around, they’ll celebrate a 50th wedding anniversary, a real "shebang," said Fran Reece. Dance shoes mandatory.
It’s been more than 50 years since both attended the prom near Sacramento, Calif. — just not at the same high schools. They grew up in nearby towns. "We think we may have gone to some of the same dances," said Fran Reece.
The highlight of this prom, the Reeces said, was the chance to dance with the students who worked so long to turn the night into a special event for their senior guests and who, when the overhead lights went back on at the end of it, would be the ones to take down those same decorations.
"We love to see the younger people interested and learning how to dance the way we have always danced," Fran Reece said.
The tables and floor slowly emptied until only a handful of couples remained at 9 p.m., the intended Cinderella Hour. Even then, the disc jockey kept the big-band sounds spinning while three dancing couples — including those separated by some six decades — took a turn back in time.