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THE BIG NIGHT : Triumphs, Disasters of Proms Long Past Are Still Fresh in Memory

May 18, 1987|LYNN SMITH | Times Staff Writer

Stop. Rewind to high school . . . to the senior prom. Play.

You are skateboarding suavely toward the most popular girl in school to ask her to the prom. Your palms are sweaty. You hit a rock. There you are, weeping hysterically in the bushes, with the girl of your dreams leaning over asking, "Are you OK?"

Or, see yourself alone, barricaded in your room, sobbing into your pillow. No one even asked you to the dance. You couldn't ask your cousin. And now everyone will know.

Few can forget the prom--that symbolic night of passage when whatever happens, or doesn't happen, is forever imprinted larger than life on those old mental tapes, when beaming parents send anxious adolescents, stuffed into tuxedoes or latex underwear, out into the world to try to act like adults.

Here, prominent Orange County residents recall their own prom nights when they were humiliated by waiters, scared by their own daring, or thrilled by freedom and the warm, starry night.

Dick Ware doesn't remember the songs, the flowers or the dancing at prom night. He just remembers Debbie. And Fate.

It was 1969, and the comedian was soon to become the first black to graduate from Thomas Jefferson High School in Denver, Colo. During the prom in a downtown hotel, there were "a lot of tears and regrets that people didn't get to know me better," said Ware, who now lives in Newport Beach.

But in retrospect, those memories fade in comparison to his date, a friend from childhood who had recently moved nearby. "She was gorgeous--about 5-foot-7, about 105 pounds, just gorgeous with this golden brown skin and hair. . . . "

Theme Was Fate

There might have been a prom theme, who knows? Ware's theme--and the line he used on Debbie--was Fate. "Fate had driven us together and Fate was on my mind. I was determined. She owed me her soul and her mind and her body because of Fate."

That night, Ware drove them in his father's Buick Riviera. But it was Fate that eventually drove them apart. After high school, Ware went on to the University of Oklahoma and Debbie became a flight attendant. Now, he said, she's the mother of three and weighs 200 pounds. He also is married and the father of what the comedian jokingly called a "baby from hell."

He still remembers prom night. What, exactly, he won't say. "Only that it was wonderful."

They were Tustin High School seniors, class of '72, and ready to party. Jeff Parker (now T. Jefferson Parker, author of "Laguna Heat" and soon to be published "Little Saigon") and a friend borrowed a yellow, four-door Cadillac. Then they rented lemon-colored tuxedos. "We were WASPs in heaven," he said.

Looking them over, Parker's father pronounced them mature-looking enough to order wine. So, they took their dates to Five Crowns restaurant in Corona del Mar, where Parker put on his best matter-of-fact attitude and ordered a couple of bottles of the house white.

"The waitress looked at us and started laughing."

'Hormonal Frenzy'

From there, they went to the prom at the Tail of the Whale in Balboa, where the band actually knew the songs from Neil Young's album, "Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere." When their favorite songs were played, Parker said, "We were in complete hormonal frenzy."

But afterwards, because they wanted to do something different, they drove north to explore the big city streets. They were somewhere in Los Angeles when they got hungry and stopped at a Norm's restaurant in the wee hours of the morning.

There they were walking down the aisle in their lemon yellow tuxedos with their dates, when they stopped, looked at one another and simultaneously realized that they looked very out of place.

They ended up watching airplanes take off at Los Angeles International.

Mamie Van Doren never went to her senior prom. By the time her classmates at Los Angeles High were seniors, Van Doren--the 1950s star of sex-kitten movies--had married, dropped out and signed a contract with Universal Studios.

Before that, however, she attended numerous proms of her countless boyfriends, recalled Van Doren, now 54 and a resident of Newport Beach.

While not part of the in-crowd, she said, "I stood out in my own way." At 14, her mature figure made her self-conscious, unpopular with girls and popular with boys, she said. She modeled herself after Lana Turner, bleaching the front of her hair and pinning it off to the side with flowers.

Dated Many

She may have walked the high school halls alone, but Van Doren said she dated many young men from private schools, such as Loyola High School. "If they had a dance, they had it at the best clubs down by the beach," she explained.

One escort was Bentley Kennedy, the head of the ROTC (Reserve Officers Training Corps) at Loyola High School. He drove her in his father's '41 Cadillac to a club by the beach where smoking and drinking were banned, she said. A live band played boogie-woogie and jitterbug. At the end came the slow dancing.

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