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The Evolution of Prom: Through Mariemont Alumni

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After filling out copious forms, scheduling hair appointments, receiving Prom Promise pens, and posing for pictures, Mariemont High School is ready to celebrate prom once again. It’s hard to believe that we are not the only ones to have experienced such excitement. And looking forward to a night of glamour and fun, causes us to reflect… 

1980-Present: From Attendee to Principal

Not many people can say they’ve attended nineteen Proms at MHS. Dr. James Renner, however is the exception.

The year is 1980. Picture your principal clad in a baby-blue tuxedo, decked out in a white shirt with matching ruffles and white shoes. He’s headed to his senior Prom.

Prom in 1980 looked a lot different than it does today: no pictures at the concourse, no party bus or limos, no dinner at the Hall of Mirrors, and no after-Prom.

Renner explains there was no “big ask” with flowers or puns or posters… he just called a girl up on the phone and asked her. He estimates the whole ordeal left him only $80 out.

Prom was comprised mostly of upperclassmen. “There would be maybe one freshman and only a couple of sophomores,” Renner says. How things have changed.

Instead of having a DJ, live bands performed. “I had the job of checking out the bands and signing them,” says Renner. “It was the beginning of the rap era, so we had to find something cutting edge. We listened to a lot of The Spinners; Earth, Wind, and Fire; and the Commodores,” he adds.

The evening of Prom had little structure, and the parents stayed out of most of the planning. The day after Prom, students would go to Kings Island, but it was nothing officially organized.

Renner remembers Prom fondly but reminds students it might not be exactly like the movies. As an administrator who’s attended Prom as a chaperone, Renner says, “It doesn’t have to be perfect. If something goes wrong, go with the flow.”

Some lucky AFS girl got this guy as her date (PHOTO BY CHIEFTAIN '80).

Some lucky AFS girl got this guy as her date. (PHOTO BY CHIEFTAIN ’80)


Queen of Prom: Mrs. Toepfer

Mariemont’s longest reigning Prom queen, Mrs. Toepfer, the former English department chair and junior class adviser, retired last year. She helped plan Prom for over ten years and remembers it as the best time of the year.

“I absolutely loved doing it,” she says. “It was like having a party with somebody else’s money.”

However Toepfer gives the junior class officers a lot of credit. “I was just an adviser. The officers do all the planning themselves, working directly with the hotel’s event planner and staff to pick out tablecloths, napkins, and a color scheme,” says Toepfer.

“They handle the court, the voting, and tallying for Prom King and Queen. We also make sure to get a young, hip disk jockey, which keeps it really fun,” Toepfer says.

Toepfer remembers how students used to be able to come and go freely until the 1990s when a few students made poor judgement calls.

“The next year, once students came, they weren’t allowed to leave early. We only had 125 people, so it was a mass protest. That’s when after-Prom began, which was a success from the beginning,” she says.

This allowed everyone to have fun while staying safe. “It really emphasized not drinking, so it was easy for people to say no. It took that uncomfortable option out of the mix,” says Toepfer.

The best part of her yearly involvement with prom, in Toepfer’s opinion, was seeing the students dressed up having a good time. “I loved seeing all the girls’ beautiful dresses and seeing the boys utterly transformed,” she says.

Involved in the planning process as both a student and a teacher, Toepfer loved Prom season because it reminded her of high school. “I was a class officer at my own Prom in 1965. I remember decorating our high school gym with tacky Kleenex flowers,” Toepfer says.

Prom season is nostalgic for Toepfer.  She attended her own high school Prom with her husband. And after so many years as the queen, Toepfer says, “I think I looked forward to it as much as the kids.”


1989: Guns and Roses, ft. Lowery and Maness

Though the high school was smaller–about 90 students per class–Lowery recalls that the vast majority of the student body attended Prom. In 1989, Lowery estimates Prom tickets only cost about $30.

“I enjoyed having a good time, feeling young and pretty, and having a senior bonding moment with my friends before we went to college,” she says. “I also remember dancing to Guns n’ Roses with Mr. Maness–he’s a good dancer!”

Since there was no formal after-Prom, Lowery went to a friend’s house with a group and hung out for the rest of the night. The next day they went canoeing on the Little Miami River.

The rules were also relaxed: students drove themselves downtown to the Hall of Mirrors and could leave early if they wanted. Lowery recalls, “I was a good kid though, so following the rules was really an afterthought–I probably didn’t really notice them at all”

Though Lowery has never chaperoned Prom, she has attended MHS Homecoming as a teacher. She doesn’t find the dance part to be all that different. “However I think people go way more over-the-top in the preparations than I did; although I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not very good at being a girl,” says Lowery.

Mrs. Lowery back in the day at Prom in '89. (PHOTO BY LOWERY)

Mrs. Lowery back in the day at Prom in ’89. (PHOTO BY LOWERY)


1958: An Iconic Couple, Then and Now

Prom of 1958 was unique because it was featured in Life Magazine, it lasted over 32 hours, and at least one couple found forever-love. William Dunham (class of ’58) and his wife Jeanne (class of ’59) were dating at the time and attended the MHS Prom together that year.

Imagine if we danced like this today! (PHOTO BY MILLER).

Imagine if we danced like this today! (PHOTO BY MILLER)

Mrs. Dunham describes Prom as the social highlight of the year. “It was something everyone looked forward to because you didn’t venture out of Mariemont all that much. We would go to the theater in Mariemont, or to Ault Park for a picnic… maybe a show downtown,” she says. But a night of unparalleled youth and glamour only came once a year.

“It was very well-organized because as kids we knew what we wanted, and our parents followed through to help orchestrate it. They just wanted us to have fun,” says Mr. Dunham.

Students understood the implicit rules. If something went wrong, if someone stepped out of line, they were sure to be sent home. However neither of the Dunham’s remember any delinquent behavior.

William recalls, “We looked up to our teachers, and we knew they wanted us to have fun while staying safe.”

“We wanted to outdo the classes before us, and I think we did,” William says with a youthful, reminiscent chuckle.

Just kids being kids (PHOTO BY MILLER).

Just kids being kids. (PHOTO BY MILLER)

The evening began with a spaghetti dinner and cake by the bell tower. “I think we had the most fun when the girls were on our backs and when we played tug-o-war,” recalls William. “There was a lot of group activity.”

Then after changing into formal attire, the students drove to Kenwood Country Club. The girls wore full skirts down to mid-calf, not the long, straight ones many wear today. The boys wore a tux with a white or black jacket and bought flowers for their dates.

“Nobody went by themselves; you didn’t have groups of girls and boys going stag like you do today,” William says. He and Jeanne just assumed they would go together because they were dating. The boys who were too shy to ask would find another female as messenger. The answer– yes or no– would be conveyed either in elated giggles or wide-eyed whispers.

Following the dance, the students went to Coney Island to enjoy the swimming pool and Moonlight Garden. There was a large pavilion for dancing and music performed by live bands.

The classes of '58 & '59 on the Ohio River (PHOTO BY MILLER).

The classes of ’58 & ’59 on the Ohio River. (PHOTO BY MILLER)

But it didn’t stop there. After Coney Island, the students spent all night on a riverboat. Because they couldn’t get off, the students were captive and could mingle because the boat wasn’t that big. “Everybody seemed to get along with everybody,” William remembers.

Kids ate breakfast together the following morning and many went to Swordsville Lake, basking in the sleepy sun. William says,“It was just awesome. Everyone seemed to hate when it was over… except for being able to sleep.”

The ordeal was legendary, as documented in Life Magazine’s June 1958 issue. “I kept the magazine until we moved to Debary, Florida, and it was really neat because we didn’t know of any other schools that had the coverage like we did,” says William. “We always wondered who knew somebody in the press.”

William says that the class of ‘58 is still very close: they keep in contact over Facebook, phone, and email while still getting together for reunions every five years.

“Growing up in Mariemont was very special, something that most people will never experience in their lifetime,” says Jeanne. If any event epitomized this era of teenage bliss, it would be Prom of 1958.



Francis Miller—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

The 1958 spread as it appeared in Life Magazine. (PHOTOS BY MILLER)

1 Comment

One Response to “The Evolution of Prom: Through Mariemont Alumni”

  1. Don Books on May 1st, 2016 11:32 am

    Wonderfully written Ellie.

If you want a picture to show with your comment, go get a gravatar.

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