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Formal Education

May 09, 1993|MAUREEN SAJBEL | Special to The Times

Tune out 1993's music and haircuts, and prom nights look no different than those of years, or even decades, past. This anachronistic American ado lescent rite has survived into the late 20th Century with surprisingly little innovation. Prom kings and queens are still crowned in popularity contests. Their courts still wear glitter-printed sashes over rented tuxes and shiny dresses, and there are still tear-wrenching themes like "Make It Last Forever."

On any given weekend over the next two months, hundreds of 17- and 18-year-olds will gather at the Biltmore, Los Angeles' prom epicenter, or other area hotels, for their Night to Remember. They'll struggle with corsages and boutonnieres, jam dance floors and have their likenesses immortalized on photo key rings.

Last Saturday, the first big prom night of the season, three Biltmore ballrooms were taken over by 1,350 teen-agers from three schools: Bell High in Southeast Los Angeles, Antelope Valley High in Lancaster and Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy, a Catholic girl's school.

These were the first formal events many of the students had ever attended. Judging by the confusion as they gave up keys in exchange for slips of paper, the evening was also the first time some had encountered valet parking.

This age group is the tail end of the reportedly Angst- ridden Generation X, the post-Baby Boomers who grew up with a dismal economy and diminishing opportunities. But, as in any generation, those who go to the prom tend to be the most conservative and optimistic. They talk about college or joining the service.

A few reminders of today: A homeless man begged money from kids getting off buses; girls wore strapless, gravity-prone dresses and some prom-goers carried camcorders.

Another sign of the times: The teens were mandated to good behavior by contract. Many schools now require that students and their parents sign papers vowing that prom-goers will forgo drugs and alcohol, dress appropriately (the school-day ban on gang apparel applies here, too) and behave with decorum. That's all before they pay about $100 for two tickets.

Antelope Valley bused everyone on prom night to eliminate drunk driving. Flintridge displayed a smashed car in a school parking lot for a week before the prom to discourage the same. Bell chaperons staffed exits so kids couldn't sneak out to cars or rented limos.

Meanwhile, the Biltmore's other guests seemed amused by the deluge of adolescents. Japanese and Austrian tourists peered into ballrooms. Comedian Rodney Dangerfield bummed cigarettes from Antelope Valley students while he waited for his car. And one 34-year-old businessman from Boston turned his chair around in the lobby's Gallery Bar to watch the kids walk past. "God, I feel old," he said, sighing.

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