The Washington Post

John Kelly's Washington

May 14, 2010

Post Metro columnist John Kelly chats about the people, places and things that don't get on the front pages, plus his columns.

Today: How was your prom? The best of times? The worst of times? Share your prom memories with Kristy Sammis who runs the Web site Promtacular. She invites readers to send in their gloriously awful prom photos.

SUBMIT: Show us your promo photos

I don't know what possessed me to pick a white rental tux for my prom. I guess I figured it would make me look suave. But the fact that I wore black shoes and (if memory serves) a black belt probably undercut the effect somewhat. Then again, it was 1980 in Rockville. The 1970s hadn't really ended yet. White was probably one of the least objectionable colors that night.

I do remember that my girlfriend, Diane, drove. We had dinner at the King's Contrivance in Ellicott City and the prom was held at Lake Kittamaqundi in Columbia.

Ah, prom. In the spirit of AwkwardFamilyPhotos.com, Kristy Sammis harvests the photographic evidence of America's promgoers at her Web site Promtacular. There are mullets. There are wings. There is teased hair. And that's just the boys. There is the traditional photo-in-front-of-a-fireplace. There is the taffeta explosion.

Kristy is my guest today. Please tell us about your prom and ask her about the sort of stuff she receives. And if you dare, send us your prom photo.

As you can tell, proms have been on my mind lately. This week I also wrote about criminal "queenpin" Odessa Madre, my sucky front yard, a JFK mural reborn in Arlington and where schools get those crashed cars they display to warn kids to drive safely. Which reminds me: Drive safely.

Kristy: Did you wake up one morning and say, "What the world needs is a Web site where people can post their prom photos?" In other words: Tell us about the genesis of Promtacular.

Uh, I spend a lot of time online. A few months ago, I found myself in an online forum where everyone was discussing what their prom dresses looked like (and it seemed everyone was trying to out-awful each other).  The conversation was hilarious, but there were no photos!

So, I held a contest on my personal blog to see if anyone would be willing to send their photos in, and was amazed at the response -- and the quality of the photos!

I decided a site needed to exist for the sole purpose of promoting these awesome (and awesomely awful) photos.

John, have you heard the radio ad protesting the proposed D.C. tax on sugared beverages, as mentioned on page B1 of today's Post? The two people in the ad spend almost of the ad complaining about how unfair new taxes are. What undercuts their argument is that the first few seconds of the ad are spent with the same two people complaining how Metro is late AGAIN, and that now they don't have time to stop and buy a beverage! Um, where do they think the money to improve Metro service is going to come from? This is yet another example of the discouraging inclination of Americans to want lots of government services without having to pay for them. (And its corollary: Don't raise taxes, just cut waste. And "waste" is defined as any government program that doesn't directly benefit ME.) I hate being snarky, but the solution for those two guys is to only buy diet beverages, which I understand won't be taxed. That would not only spare them from paying the beverage tax, but they would also be skinnier -- then Metro could fit more people into its existing rolling stock.

I've decided that I'm pro-tax. Soda has to be the stupidest product out there, sold at a price far beyond the cost to make it. I guess our advertising industry wouldn't exist without it, since the soda giants' revenues are spent mostly on ads. Plus, we wouldn't have cutting-edge research on the Limon. But I think of soda the way I think of diamonds: a rip-off. That said, I do drink it. I draw the line at diamonds, though, much to My Lovely Wife's regret.

My wife and I are long-time Marylanders who were considering going to the Preakness this year until we saw that unlimited beer will be available for $20! What are these people thinking? If they are going to encourage drunken rowdiness, at least make some money off it!

Our story says that $1 draft beers will also be available in the infield. So anyone who springs for the $20 bottomless beer mug is going to have to drink 21 beers to feel like they're getting their money's worth. It does sound like a recipe for disaster.

Preakness's marketing pitch and bottomless beers bring more controversy

John, I imagine you've seen this: Man Killed After Dog Urinates on Neighbor's Lawn

Yikes. What would he have done if the dog pooped on his lawn? Then again, the victim named his dog "Gucci."

So D.C. is going to tax regular soda because it's an evil sugary drink. How about taxing the heck out of Starbucks drinks? Those contain more sugar and calories than a regular Coke.

Could it be because those are considered "adult" drinks and aren't the sorts of things kids tank up on every day?

Tell us about your prom, Kristy. When was it? Who asked you? What did you wear? What did HE wear? If you had it to do over again, what would you change about your prom?

The sad truth? Both my junior and senior proms were completely uneventful. I went with my boyfriend (the same guy at both) and spent the evening with our  pack of friends.  And nothing particularly interesting happened.

 

Although from the MONTHS of searching for a dress before-hand, you'd think the prom would have been EPIC.  It should be noted that I opted to wear an all-black, lace/sequin explosion.

 

I suppose it could also be noted that my best guy friend brought a date who he didn't know very well, who only agreed to go with him because she wanted to get back at her ex, and whose hair was done up SO HIGH we could have smuggled beer in it.

 

I wish we had.

Kristy: You're younger than I am so you don't have the vast sweep of history at your disposal when it comes to Promus Americanus, but here's what I've noticed: The prom used to be a thing you had to have a date to go to. Now teens go solo, or in groups. What have you noticed perusing peoples' prom photos and reading their memories? Any changes?

I think the most marked thing about photos from the 70s and 80s is that people who submit them mention that they MARRIED their prom date. (Though some also mention they didn't stay married.)

 

Not one of the people who submitted photos from the 90s or 2000s made that claim, so to your point: I think the "date" part of prom is secondary to all other prom stuff.

While you're getting these photos from one half of the prom couple, aren't you worried that the other half might sue? And speaking of outfits, um, John, what's with the jackets, tie and shirt?

What can I say? I have a thing for stripes. If I see a striped shirt, striped pants, striped jacket, striped suit, I will buy it. I look like a *&#@! Dr. Seuss character. Maybe I think it makes me look taller? Curiously, I don't have any striped underwear, though I do have striped socks.

C'mon people, it's Friday. Let's talk about prom, not taxes and dog pee. Wait, that reminds me. My friend got pooped on my a bird on the way to prom -- and that was the highlight of the night. What are some of the best prom venues around D.C. I never see kids en route and I'd love to gawk.

I realize this wasn't a question directed at me, but I would just like to point out that some of my FAVORITE prom photos are those where there are a bunch of fancy-dressed prom-goers, and then a random person in street clothes next to them.

 

Like this guy.

This time of year I would think almost any big suburban hotel on Friday or Saturday night is going to have a prom. Same with "semi-classy" chain restaurants. Do not distract the promgoers, however.

What is your favorite memory from your prom?

We did all go to an after-party. It wasn't totally out of control, but it was fun and there was beer, and loosely supervised by parents (so no kids would drive if they were drinking).

 

It was fun because the party-goers were such a random-assortment of people, from all facets of high-school life. And everyone was still decked out in their prom finery, except behaving casually, as though dressed in t-shirts and jeans. Good times.

Not sure what it's like where you live, but tweens drink Starbucks out here in the 'burbs.

Right, but there's a difference between a kid shelling out $4 for a frappemachiospresso at a Starbucks and $1 for a Coke at his school. The soda companies are all proud of how they're putting more juice in the soda machines at school. Well, why are soda machines there at all? And here's the weird thing in Montgomery County: The machines are programmed not to sell sodas during school hours. But as soon as class is over you can get a soda. So all those kids there for after-school activities can get full-strength.

Kristy, John: I'm John's age and a Yankee and grew up calling it "the prom." Here, now, kids call it "prom." Is this a regional change? An age change? Something else?

My prom was in 1993, and we called it "The Prom," too. To be perfectly honest, I refer to it as just "prom" on the site because that's what the kids seem to be doing these days (AND I DON'T WANT TO SEEM OLD).


I have no idea when or how the change happened, though. I'm from the East Coast but live in California, where everyone puts a "the" in front of highway routes. 

 

So here, it's "THE 101" but it's "Prom." Blame California.

Good observation. Now that you mention it, it has changed. Soon "prom" will become a verb: "Who'd you prom with?"

Kristy, do you focus only on the dresses, or do the guys' get-ups get some attention too? (As John said of his own tux, the tuxedo's can be pretty "promtacular" too!

This is a great question. I try really hard to focus on the ENTIRE photo: the dresses, the hair, the tuxes, the cars and especially the backdrops, which are always so random and funny.

 

Today's post features a man wearing a paint-splattered shirt, a white jacket with tails, capri-length pants, blue socks and black Chucks. Amazing.

Do you at least shower her with sparkly cubic zirconia, which are just as pretty as diamonds but affordable and not connected to evil regimes and corporations?

I made that mistake once. We were at the beach and there was a WalMart not far away. I got some "diamond" earrings for her. I didn't try to fool her, but in any case she wasn't happy. And you know what: I think there is a difference between a cubic zirconia (zirconium?) and a diamond. Diamonds do have a certain glow. But ever since I saw a documentary on how unrare diamonds are and how tightly their distribution is controlled by the diamond cartels, I've gone off them. Oh that and the fact that they're really really expensive.

In my town, only juniors get a prom. Seniors get "Senior Ball." Don't ask me why.

I hope they don't drop "the" before "Ball."

I'd like to share how wonderful my prom was...but it wasn't. Our class president changed the date to satisfy her own personal schedule for the original weekend and, of course, on the changed date I ended up with strep throat, a 101 fever and spending the afternoon in the emergency room. I decided I would go to take the picture. I had a beautiful dress and didn't want it to go to waste. I got my hair done ( being under a hot dryer with a fever is a special hell all to itself) and then went with my boyfriend to take a picture and return home. I think we watched a movie. He broke up with me a couple of months later so it isn't that big of a loss. I wish I had an awesome prom story but it wasn't meant to be.

If it's any consolation, from what I can tell from the folks who submit their photos and background, I think the prom outfits end up being the BEST and most memorable part of prom for lots of people.

Kristy! LOVE Promtacular (and She Just Walks Around With It, too). My theory is that most people have a nightmare story about either prom itself or the anticipation thereof, probably just because you're giving already emotionally-charged people a double-emotionally-charged situation, and asking them to plan ahead for it. Breakups, etc., happen. I had a fine prom, but the anticipation included NO ONE from my own high school asking me (to an event where we were actually not allowed to go stag), and the guy I asked (from another school) getting expelled for smoking a week before prom. Since he was already expelled, he decided he might as well tell his parents all his other secrets: that he was a sexually active bisexual who'd gotten another girl pregnant and paid for her abortion, that he'd done a bunch of drugs including ecstasy ... needless to say, he was grounded. I ended up asking another friend, largely on the grounds that he owned his own tux, since he wouldn't have time to rent one. We had a blast.

Wow. That's quite a scenario. But I think you're right -- proms (much like weddings) can take on a life of their own. I love prom photos so much because it's at the apex of drama. All the build-up has happened, but all the at-prom drama has yet to unfold.

"Soda has to be the stupidest product out there, sold at a price far beyond the cost to make it." Due to the U.S. government subsidies on corn production. This yeilds cheap corn which had companies develop high fructose corn syrup (had to find a use for the corn). This yeilds cheap soda. The movie King Corn explains it all.

Please tell me that eating veal and fois gras is okay. I don't think my conscience can take another hit.

Big leap from drinks to precious jewelry: Santa put an airline sized bottle of Goldschlagger in my Christmas stocking and I'm afraid to drink the gold flakes! Am I crazy to actually strain out the heavy metal and just drink the liquor? P.S. Santa, for future reference, I likie tequila!

I think the amount of gold in there is pretty minimal. You're probably more at risk from the alcohol than the precious metal. And didn't they used to treat venereal disease with gold back in the Middle Ages? Jus' sayin....

Do you eat the worm?

It hasn't changed. My prom was over 20 years ago in this area and we called it "prom." A lot of my college friends called it "the prom." I think it's a regional difference (or maybe even school by school) that's been around at least for decades.

I went to "the prom" in Montgomery County 30 years ago. My daughter is going to "prom" in Montgomery County this year. So that's some anecdotal evidence that it might be more than regional. I need to consult this book I once looked at that showed regional differences in dialect. It had maps that had isobar-like lines demarcating places where people said "paper bag" versus "paper sack" and "pop" versus "soda." (Maybe we should have a "pop tax" instead?)

Kristy: Prom is big business in the U.S. now. My teenage daughter started getting catalogues months ago. (She's a junior and her prom is tonight.) Do you have ads on your Web site and do any prom-related companies come to you to advertise? Gown makers? Limo companies? Press-on nail and fake tan suppliers?

I run ads through the BlogHerAd network, so they are not specific to my site's content. But I do have a Promtacular! Twitter account (www.twitter.com/promtacular) and have all sorts of funny prom companies following me there. I wonder if they've ever even been to the site...

"So anyone who springs for the $20 bottomless beer mug is going to have to drink 21 beers to feel like they're getting their money's worth. " I'm assuming one person in the group buys the $20 bottomless mug and everybody else brings empty cups. They take turns getting it filled up and then pour into their own cups.

Spoken like a true entrepreneur.

Which photo has drawn the biggest response so far?

The photo that won the contest on my blog and is now the "Welcome Page" on Promtacular! would be this one.

 

Although there are some real doozies. I submit two others for your consideration:

Kris, from New Jersey,

and

OMG with the sequins.

I had a pretty good time at Prom with a friend from another school. (My school also did not allow kids to attend "stag" so I called up a guy I knew from elementary school days and we went to each other's proms.) What I don't understand these days are the kids who put more effort into asking a girl to the Prom than most people I know put into their wedding proposals. And worse, girls who EXPECT a fancy prom "proposal." Where did this come from?

It was new to me this year, too. I joked in my column that eventually someone was going to hire a skywriter to write "PROM?" in the air. Then two people e-mailed to say that a kid at Osborne Park High in Manassas did just that. Not smoke, but he had a plane pull a banner. What happened to the nervous, fumbling phone call?

My prom date called me about 10 minutes before he was supposed to pick me up -- he had opened the box of shoes that he had rented with his tux and found 2 right shoes (I know, would be funnier if they had given him 2 LEFT shoes). His dad was going to go to the store to swap them and he would be late. He called about a half hour later. His dad had been in a (thankfully minor) car accident with his shoes. In the car he was going to drive us to prom in. "My" car had a flood in the drivers seat (don't ask) and my dress was floor length, so I drove my parents' minivan that I'd driven only once or twice. Our prom was on a boat and there was a thunderstorm. I actually lost my date on the boat. And then I showed up at home after the prom with two boys.

I wish I could have been there for the police report, when your date's dad would have been all, "BUT I HAVE SHOES! I HAVE TO GET THE SHOES TO MY SON!"

I think those in the infield typically do drink this much. A friend was there one year when a bunch of drunk guys tipped over one of the outhouses. Have fun hanging out with the drunks, everyone!

How is this handled at the Kentucky Derby? Is it "classier" than the Preakness? Or do mint juleps do just as much damage?

This Q got lost in the shuffle, so let me ask again: has anyone submitted a photo, and then the "other half" in the photo complained? Are you worried about getting sued?

That hasn't happened yet. I think generally the couples fall into two categories:

1. They still know each other, and both agree to the photo being submitted.

2. The person who submits the photo could not care less what the other person in the photo thinks, and takes responsibility for submitting it.

I have received a couple photos where the date's face was blacked out, and that's fine -- it doesn't detract.

 

Most importantly, I think, is that I am never mean in my summary of the photos. I make gentle fun, but I am not cruel -- the site is truly a celebration of ridiculousness. So no one has ever gotten mad at me (that I know of).

 

Though once, on request, I did alter my write-up a little.

Don't forget: You can send us your prom photos. Maybe I ought to go in the attic and dig mine out.

It will make your skin fall off - Goldschlager.

Don't believe everything you read on the Internets!

I never was asked to the prom. hrumph!

I'm sorry to hear it, though I hope that you might take some small joy in viewing other people's prom fashion atrocities.

I only went my senior year, since my junior year I broke my shin 2 days prior and was too loopy on pain meds to make it. So, to my 18-year-old self, senior prom was A . BIG. DEAL. even if there was no limo and my hair wasn't getting done and I wasn't scheduled to have my make-up professionally applied. I had a dress, a date, and dinner reservations, and, most importantly, two functioning legs. And then my mother informed me that she and my brothers were off to the beach for a long weekend and I was on my own. Devastating. And prom didn't exactly live up to the overblown expectations that came along with it. But dad saved the day, waiting up for me until some ungodly hour, and greeted me with "Hey, I taped the hockey game for you! And I made popcorn." Lesson learned, I should have just stayed home and watched the game!

Yes, but what did your dress LOOK LIKE? :)

THE stupidist? Even stupider than Goldschlagger?

I can't get past the name. "Goldschlagger." Just saying it contorts my mouth in unpleasant ways.

Then again, "Laphroaig" isn't much better in that regard.

Yes, I went to the prom. (We called it "the" in my part of New England.) I should have gone bowling.

Don't you mean, you should have gone to THE bowling?

There was an expose in The Atlantic Monthly about that back in 1980 or so and we desperately hoped that it would cause the collapse of the cartels and diamonds would become as affordable as they should be. Didn't happen (obviously). Okay, does she like pearls?

There's only so much you can do with pearls, I'm afraid: necklace, earings. Lucky for me, she likes emeralds, rubies, sapphires, unicorn horn....

One of many things best left in our teen years. Haven't we grown beyond this?

Yes! And that's really the whole point. We took our proms so. very. seriously. that it's completely and utterly laughable now.

 

I think that's why prom photo "backdrops" are especially enjoyable. Someone took painstaking effort to conceive and build them, and they make no sense and are completely silly.

 

The only reason the site is funny is because we've realized (and, hopefully, embraced) the folly of our high-school ways.

And yet it's scary how often life imitates high school. Is that because we carry that baggage with us or because life really is like high school?

If you think it was tough figuring out your fare before, its about to become impossible. The only group with more additional fees are the airlines.

I'm all in favor of charging people who stand on the left on escalators.

I almost never drink soda, diet or not (reflex problems), but I oppose the tax on principle. First, it's the parents' responsibility to supervise their children's diet, not the government's. Second, I oppose Mary Cheh's efforts to control what I eat  and drink because she thinks it's bad for me. Is she going to try to tax salty foods next (pickles? ham?) because so many children and adults have high blood pressure? What about red meat? Red meat is a contributing factor to obesity. Potato chips? Candy bars (actually, D.C. had to repeal its snack tax because it was such a debacle)? Bagged sugar?

Have you seen parents lately? Some can barely supervise  their toenail clippings. And red meat and bagged sugar aren't marketed to youngsters as vigorously as soda is. I don't think a penny an ounce is gonna bankrupt Pepsico.

Have you received photos from anyone famous? Like, I don't know, let's say "A WASH POST COLUMNIST?" (C'mon, John!)

I think we'd ALL love to see John's photo. *ahem*

 

I have not received photos from celebrities, though I have found and posted a few, including Brad Pitt's, Jennifer Aniston's, and the infamous "is it a shadow" Kellie Pickler's.

In the mid 70s, kids fro my Montgomery County cchool had their prom in a D.C. hotel. My boss leant me his car, I picked up my date, we had dinner at G.D. Grafitti on Rockville Pike, and went to the prom. To this day, my date to the senior prom, is one of my best friends. We share a bond of growing up together (different schools) that her husband, nor my wife can understand. Being best friends without marrying your prom date, must be some kind of record. (The prom was 34 years ago). If I may say, to those present day prom goers. . . PLEASE PLEASE DON'T DRINK 'n' DRIVE. Don't make your prom memorable, for all the wrong reasons.

G.D. Grafitti. Now there's an old Rockville hangout.

I'm sure no promgoing teens are reading this chat, but in case any are: Don't drink and drive. You want to be able to laugh about your prom years from now.

Only in Washington DeeCee would Two people ask that question. Down lawyer! Down! You're on your lunch break fer gods sake!

They must be fishing around for a class-action lawsuit. Or should I say, classy-action lawsuit.

I was shocked to learn on Jamie's Food Nation that Chocolate Milk has more High Fuctrose Corn Syrup than coke.

You don't want to know how much high-fructose corn syrup Jamie Oliver has.

What?? Nonsense. You can do anything with a pearl that you can do with other precious stones. I have a pearl bracelet, a pearl ring, and a pearl brooch to match my pearl necklace and earrings.

Who are you? Pearl Bailey?

Don't get me wrong. I like pearls. I'm wearing a tasteful strand right now. But what I mean is, a pearl pretty much looks like a pearl, no matter what you do.

I'm 28 and grew up in New York... and I went to "the Prom"... Anywhere else it's been just "prom." So, you're not old.. you're just foreign!

That must be it. Phew.

John, right now I am drinking a glass of fruit juice (Cran-Peach, since you asked) diluted about 3 to 1 with soda water. Not bad, but IT'S STILL TOO SWEET!!! Costs about a dime, on the other hand.

In England we got turned on to Ribena. Also something called elderflower. I never really developed a taste for Pimm's.

Thank you.

There is no better way to explain a verbal contest involving sequins, lace, tulle, ribbons, bows, and perms.

As far as I'm concerned, it's "the" prom and not just "prom," like people from England say "in hospital" and not "in the hospital." This is the United States, not some foreign country.

That's not what people in Arizona think.

What do you think about the plans to have a flash mob tonight at 7th and H where people actually dance across the intersection as if it were a barn dance instead of a Barnes Dance?

Great idea. I'll help spread the word. But what time?

"Thanks for bringing up painful memories I never was asked to the prom. hrumph!" I asked a girl I hardly knew. A friend of a friend without a date. We went on one date before the prom, realized we don't nauseate the other so we went to prom. Never heard from her after. Probably would have been better to stay home. Would have cost a heck of a lot less.

But you wouldn't have that charming memory!

It's a mess. Went to it instead of the prom. although you weren't allowed to bring your own alcohol in, there was plenty of smuggling. My parents taught me well at a young age. If you're ever in the infield at the Derby, check out the Too Much Fun Club. Hunter S. Thompson would be proud to this day.

Uh-oh. Too Much Fun? Not to be confused with Too Much Joy.

I figured Roger Moore couldn't be wrong and did a traditional tux for my prom in 1977. If you follow James Bond and Steve Mcqueen you are always cool. Driving to Nags Head to go surfing the next morning in a 73 Econoline Ford Van with orange shag carpeting from Burke was just sickening. Remember legal drinking age in 77 for beer was 18yo.

I have to agree, it's hard to go wrong with a traditional tux. Though if you have a photo of the tux next to the '73 Econoline Ford Van with orange shag carpeting? THAT would be a winner.

Thanks, everybody, for stopping by and favoring us with your prom memories. Don't forget to check out Kristy's Promtacular site. I want to thank her for joining us today. Whenever I need a reminder of why I'm glad it's 2010 and I'm a grown-up, I will drop by Promtacular.

Enjoy the weekend, however you're spending it. If you're going to a prom, drive carefully. In fact, I think that's pretty good advice no matter what you're doing.

Thank you so much for hosting this Q&A, John! I certainly hope that the soda tax doesn't diminish folks' enjoyment of their Big Nights.

 

And yes, please. Enjoy Prom responsibly.

In This Chat
John Kelly
John Kelly's column "John Kelly's Washington" appears Sunday through Thursday online and in The Post. He blogs at "John Kelly's Commons." He started at The Post in 1989 as the deputy editor of the Weekend section. Since then he's edited Weekend, founded KidsPost and been a general assignment reporter in Metro. He drives an old sports car and plays the drums -- though not at the same time. He lives in Silver Spring, where he has one wife and two daughters.
Kristy Sammis
Kristy Sammis runs a Web site called Promtacular: The sequins. The lace. The photographic evidence.
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