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May 10, 2011 9:27 AM   Subscribe

Once a year, prom mania grips the entire population of Racine, Wisconsin.

A film by Ari Vena and Chris Talbott (Watch the Entire Film for Free)

"Once a year, prom mania grips the entire population of Racine, Wisconsin. The city's extravagant celebration begins with a rowdy parade where students compete for the most outrageous form of transportation, driving fire engines, 18-wheelers, even riding elephant-back through the city streets. Prom-goers from seven city high schools converge on one citywide prom to make red carpet entrances bombarded by the flash of cameras and screams from bleachers filled to capacity. Meanwhile, in sports bars and living rooms across the city, residents keep their eyes glued to the live television coverage of the spectacular event. If the Academy Awards were moved to the heartland, this is what it would resemble."
posted by Potomac Avenue (53 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite

 
I was really ready to hate on this, but assuming it's for graduating seniors who have worked their butts off to get there, cool.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 9:29 AM on May 10, 2011


Very interesting This American Life Prom Podcast covered this in one of its segments.
(Bonus photo of Ira Glass in prom "tux")
posted by Glinn at 9:30 AM on May 10, 2011 [2 favorites]


Sports bars?
posted by box at 9:34 AM on May 10, 2011


I just caught that TAL episode a couple of weeks ago, totally at random; interesting story. (Alternatively, the prom interrupted by a tornado? TERRIFYING.)
posted by epersonae at 9:38 AM on May 10, 2011


Before someone comes in here and points out that children are essentially getting praised merely for turning 18 without getting kicked out of school, or that it is a giant waste of money or a way of illustrating the class divide among children or that helicopter parents ruin everything, I just want to say that this is awesome and I wish I was in Racine and what a lovely thing for a town to come together to support and reward kids in an age-appropriate and fun way.
posted by jenlovesponies at 9:42 AM on May 10, 2011 [12 favorites]


Children are essentially getting praised merely for turning 18 without getting kicked out of school! This is a giant waste of money or a way of illustrating the class divide among children! Helicopter parents ruin everything!
posted by rusty at 9:44 AM on May 10, 2011 [43 favorites]


I once spent a day in Racine in the late 90s. It's an odd place. I grew up in a similar area in southwestern PA, which I sometimes describe as 'Green Acres meets the Twilight Zone,' but something was... different than that in Racine. It had a healthy, good-natured dose of the small Texas town in David Byrne's True Stories. I went there on a warm, lazy weekend afternoon with a few friends, and spent the day walking between a coffeehouse and a small, almost deserted bar across the street that introduced me to 80-cent beers in glasses akin to what one would put their orange juice in for breakfast. Those can get on top of you faster than you would think.

The town seemed deserted that day, save for an old man on an even older bicycle carrying a loaf of bread, who stopped to say hi and guess our age. He was an old carnie, and he retired there with a few of his friends. After incorrectly guessing our age, told us stories of the carnie life, and then pedaled off toward the shore, almost running over several Canada geese. Other than that, we saw no one on the streets or driving by in a car.

The pace was slow, but that day, it just seemed just a pleasant place to live.
posted by chambers at 9:46 AM on May 10, 2011 [3 favorites]


Must. Resist. Urge. To. Snark.

If anyone -- anyone -- in Racine /ever/ snarks about someone having "too much time on their hands" or makes any remark that suggests someone is overly invested in something they don't understand, I am personally bitch-slapping the entire city.
posted by clvrmnky at 9:50 AM on May 10, 2011 [2 favorites]


I'm in favor of anything that encourages the creation of culture rather than its mere consumption, created & packaged elsewhere.
posted by scalefree at 9:50 AM on May 10, 2011 [4 favorites]


There is a short film on the 'new' coffehouse scene in Racine from about 1969 here on archive.org.

I learned of it from watching the great Rifftrax version of this short.
posted by chambers at 9:52 AM on May 10, 2011


A class are essentially getting wasted without getting kicked out of school! Parents ruin children turning 18! Illustrating money divides everything. Giant helicopter. Praise!
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 9:57 AM on May 10, 2011 [7 favorites]


It's the closest America will ever come to prizing education.
posted by DU at 10:07 AM on May 10, 2011 [2 favorites]


Personally, I think that these children are all being taught a valuable life lesson: No matter who you are or where you come from, every one of you could one day grow up to star in your own reality television show!
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 10:14 AM on May 10, 2011 [2 favorites]


Formal events and protocol have become so much more rare an event* in America over the past 60 years, the 'Formal event' has become somewhat fetishized. There are so many little things that were common procedure for gender-mixed activities that have turned into a kind of ritual procedure, somewhat removed from the original context. It's odd what practices have survived from the old Victorian social practices.

*'Rare' in the sense that this amount of formal dress and protocol is isolated to very special occasions like proms, weddings and funerals, where in the first quarter of the 20th century, one would be criticized for going out to an event not dressed in formal attire.
posted by chambers at 10:17 AM on May 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


Darn. Now I want some kringle.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 10:19 AM on May 10, 2011 [8 favorites]


I once spent a day in Racine in the late 90s. It's an odd place. I grew up in a similar area in southwestern PA, which I sometimes describe as 'Green Acres meets the Twilight Zone,' but something was... different than that in Racine. It had a healthy, good-natured dose of the small Texas town in David Byrne's True Stories. I went there on a warm, lazy weekend afternoon with a few friends, and spent the day walking between a coffeehouse and a small, almost deserted bar across the street that introduced me to 80-cent beers in glasses akin to what one would put their orange juice in for breakfast. Those can get on top of you faster than you would think.

"Green Acres," "Twilight Zone," "True Stories" -- Racine sounds like a great place!
posted by blucevalo at 10:22 AM on May 10, 2011


Alternatively, the prom interrupted by a tornado? TERRIFYING.

My graduation and prom were both interrupted by tornadoes. What's worse is that the speakers didn't react appropriately, i.e. shorten your fucking speech. I think prom ended up lasting about an hour.

History of the Racine Downtown Rotary Club's Post Prom Parade
posted by mrgrimm at 10:33 AM on May 10, 2011


Alternatively, the prom interrupted by a tornado? TERRIFYING.

The survivor's guilt mixed with some of those teen's own stresses, doubts, and angst were pretty moving, where a couple of those teens wished the tornado to destroy only them, and save the others, like some sort of human sacrifice to the weather. There was a whole personification to that storm by the survivors, who spoke of a 'cursed class' of students, and that it was so precise and surgical for a reason, that it was a warranted, directed attack. I can't blame them for thinking that, but I hope it's only one stage of the reasons they come to as time passes and those kids come to grips with the sheer randomness of chance events in the world. Those kids have had a front seat to that kind of event, and it would take a lifetime to come to terms with it.
posted by chambers at 10:49 AM on May 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


it just seemed just a pleasant place to live.

I have lived in Racine, and it really isn't.
posted by drezdn at 10:50 AM on May 10, 2011 [3 favorites]


Huh, I live in Milwaukee. How did I not know about this? Oh right, I'm nowhere near my teens.
posted by desjardins at 10:55 AM on May 10, 2011


I live in Madison, and was downtown last Saturday night, which turned out to be prom night. The boys all wore dark suits with colored ties, not tuxedos! When did this happen?
posted by escabeche at 10:59 AM on May 10, 2011


The boys all wore dark suits with colored ties, not tuxedos! When did this happen?
Probably around the same time pajama bottoms replaced actual pants as appropriate dress for grocery shopping and other errands about town.
posted by usonian at 11:23 AM on May 10, 2011 [7 favorites]


I once spent a day in Racine in the late 90s. It's an odd place.

At least its not Kenosha - one of the Armpits of Wisconsin.
posted by rough ashlar at 11:23 AM on May 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


I have lived in Racine, and it really isn't.

I understand. If someone told me a similar rose-colored story about Avella or Washington, PA, I too would have just about the same answer you do (plus a list of weird stories of patricide, murderous escaped convicts, country mob justice, boxcar hobo hookers, a town-wide, almost pagan, memorial ceremony where an entire tree was ritually burned in the center of town, an invasion of bikers intent on destroying the town back in the 70s, the poverty of some next to just-built McMansions, country folk vs. new city commuter folk, wild bears and dogs, etc. But that would be a derail of epic proportions. I feel bad derailing even this much.).

I did have a great, memorable time in Racine, though, for what it's worth.
posted by chambers at 11:25 AM on May 10, 2011 [2 favorites]


And then they go here and party.
posted by stormpooper at 11:29 AM on May 10, 2011


I once spent a day in Racine in the late 90s. It's an odd place

Yeah, in Wisconsin we like to keep these little pockets of weirdness around. You can usually tell you've entered such a place by certain signs, like the occasional raindrop falling upwards, or the crows speaking with British accents.

In Racine (and Kenosha IIRC) they do this thing where the on/off ramps from the interstate force you to cross oncoming traffic on the frontage roads that run parallel to the main road.

It's sort of hard to describe why this is both economical and absolutely terrifying for anyone who isn't familiar with it, because getting on the interstate at 65, you are really hoping that the car coming at you is paying attention to that stop sign controlling the crossing, otherwise everyone is going to have a bad day...
posted by quin at 11:34 AM on May 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


Derailing a derail:

If someone told me a similar rose-colored story about Avella or Washington, PA, I too would have just about the same answer you do

OMG. When I read your first comment about Southwestern PA, there was a deep part of me that thought, huh, I wonder if he means Avella...
posted by librarianamy at 11:39 AM on May 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


Learn more about the Stuck at Prom Duck Brand Duck Tape Scholarship Contest where students make duct tape ensembles as prom attire.
posted by rough ashlar at 11:43 AM on May 10, 2011


They need to pay Neil Gaiman to speak at the prom.
posted by benzenedream at 11:44 AM on May 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


Isn't this one of those things that encourages the brighter people to seek fame and fortune elsewhere, beyond Wisconsin?
posted by Postroad at 11:56 AM on May 10, 2011


[MetaTalk is where it has always been - please go there if you have problems/concerns/questions with how site moderation works. Thank you.]
posted by jessamyn at 11:57 AM on May 10, 2011


Grar @ Postroad.

Anyway, a warning to all you foreigners: Don't speed on the Interstate going through Kenosha or Racine Counties. AT ALL. There are speed traps about every 5 miles. For real.
posted by desjardins at 12:01 PM on May 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


Sports bars?

Sports bar.
posted by ericb at 12:27 PM on May 10, 2011


And then they go here and party.

After having supper here.
posted by Floydd at 12:28 PM on May 10, 2011


There are two kinds of cities: those that bright, idealistic young people move from; and those that bright, idealistic people move to. Racine is one of the former. Filled with people who didn't leave.

However, it does rank 26th on Forbes list of cities with most billionaires. So there's that.
posted by rtimmel at 12:43 PM on May 10, 2011


Love to stay and comment, but I'm off like a prom dress.
posted by maxwelton at 12:55 PM on May 10, 2011


I grew up in Racine and was in Racine on Sunday. Racine's Prom, while centralized and televised, can only be said "to grip the entire population" (82k) by taking a very, very broad view of "grip" and "entire".

As for the town itself, the S.C. Johnson companies and the Lake Michigan shoreline let it punch a bit above its weight. It isn't a place on the rise though.

On the upside, after years of lurking, this finally made me sign up for a MeFi account.
posted by farmerd at 3:21 PM on May 10, 2011 [2 favorites]


Huh, I live in Milwaukee. How did I not know about this? Oh right, I'm nowhere near my teens.

I'm 25, born-raised-live in SE Wisconsin, and I've never heard a peep of this either.
posted by hafehd at 5:03 PM on May 10, 2011


As for the town itself, the S.C. Johnson companies and the Lake Michigan shoreline let it punch a bit above its weight.

Well, and the almond kringle. Don't forget the almond kringle.
posted by toodleydoodley at 5:04 PM on May 10, 2011


Mmmm, kringle. Damn you, toodleydoodley.
posted by desjardins at 7:25 PM on May 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


Random thoughts:

They started this when an accident (presumably involving drunk driving) killed a few kids. I think it's nice that the town basically decided they were going to create a structure that would discourage a repeat occurance.

Thumbs down to the girl speaking with disdain about the Asian manicurists who have "just come here."

It's sad to hear that same girl talk about how women can change their hair and their nails and their clothes and become beautiful and saying that it's a form of power. I wish this weren't the only kind of power she seems to see herself as capable of wielding. Maybe I'm reading too much into that statement, but it saddened me.

Despite the talk about class, it does seem like these kids are pretty broadly representative. None of them seem to be doing too well college-wise and several are going into the military.

Prom-as-a-big-deal is one of those things that, as a Canadian, I thought was an only-on-TV thing that turned out to be an American thing (see also: School buses, elementary school cafeterias, cheerleaders, pep rallies). I don't quite get it. For starters, I'm really confused about whether it's only the graduating students who go. They seem to imply that, but they also imply that the same student goes more than once.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 7:35 PM on May 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


You had me at "boxcar hobo hookers."
posted by jsavimbi at 7:40 PM on May 10, 2011


For starters, I'm really confused about whether it's only the graduating students who go. They seem to imply that, but they also imply that the same student goes more than once.

Some schools will have both a Junior & Senior Prom. Plus some seniors will invite juniors as their date (and vice-versa).
posted by scalefree at 7:45 PM on May 10, 2011


Ok, now that I see them arriving in all manner of vehicle, not secured with any sort of seatbelts, hanging off the side, riding on the outside, etc. etc. I'm less impressed with the community's ability to arrange a way for them to be less likely to die in a car accident.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 7:46 PM on May 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


How did they talk all the high schools into having their prom on the same night? I mean by now I'm sure it's just assumed and coordinated, but it must have been hard those first few times. And what happens to people who want to go to the proms for two schools?
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 7:55 PM on May 10, 2011


Prom-as-a-big-deal is one of those things that, as a Canadian, I thought was an only-on-TV thing that turned out to be an American thing (see also: School buses, elementary school cafeterias, cheerleaders, pep rallies).

What? They don't have school buses and elementary school cafeterias in Canada? How do kids get to school? Where do they eat?
posted by desjardins at 7:58 PM on May 10, 2011


Learn more about the Stuck at Prom Duck Brand Duck Tape Scholarship Contest where students make duct tape ensembles as prom attire.

Oh man, I've got that outfit. I had to spade for DAYS to get enough pieces.
posted by Dormant Gorilla at 8:01 PM on May 10, 2011


What? They don't have school buses and elementary school cafeterias in Canada? How do kids get to school? Where do they eat?

There are school buses in rural areas, and some handicapped kids take school buses. But in cities, you walk to school or you take the regular old city bus. Sometimes there are school buses for field trips, but if the field trip doesn't leave the city, usually we'd just take the subway. In high school they would just tell us to meet at the museum at X o'clock. But if the field trip goes out to the country somewhere then they'd get a school bus. And you either bring a lunch or go home for lunch.

Now more random thoughts on the fascinating prom movie: The girl at the beginning who talks about how she always dreamed about prom and said "ANd you wonder how your chest will look that night...," is she the one shoving her boobs into the camera as she dances at the prom? Love the couple dressed as pilgrims or peasants or whatever they are. Do they really hold the school prom in the school itself? When do they eat? (if the school prom is held in the gym and the rotary prom just has finger foods, where's dinner)? I take it there are no gay teens in Racine?

Fascinating. Let's have a meetup in Racine next year on prom night on the bleachers.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 8:07 PM on May 10, 2011


Hi. I'm from Racine, graduated from high school there, and went to the World's Best Prom (four times, actually, but we'll get to that later). You can see a picture of me with a date for a flash of a second during the movie, and my Mom's best friend is interviewed in the This American Life piece.

Let me begin by saying that Racine is kind of a shithole town. I mean - if you said that, I'd probably have to deck you, but I can say that. It's like how I can say my sister is ugly, but if you said that... well, we'd have words, you and I.

Anyhow, the one thing Racine does right is celebrate Prom. We had a mayor that got arrested for soliciting sex from a minor. Unemployment is on the rise since the JI Case plant closed. Economic disparity is a mile wide. But once a year, the whole fucking town comes out to celebrate the kids who graduate from high school. More than anything, it's a right of passage. I think it stems from the time when folks would graduate from high school and head for good-paying jobs and the factory, and it was important to celebrate the success of staying with 12 years of school. It became a tradition, and it's stuck with my town.

Like I said, I got to go four times, and every time was so.... I really don't want to say amazing, but it was. My freshman year in high school my sister's friend's date bailed on her at the last second and I got tagged to go. It was goofy. We were one of the less exciting groups to arrive - we showed up in a big stretch limo (this would've been 1989). I don't remember what my group did for my sophomore year.

By my junior year, though, the group I was with went in a 20 foot sailboat towed behind a truck, and for my senior prom we rented a moving truck and filled it with furniture (one of my friends worked at a used furniture store). My guy friends and I got mover's coveralls to wear over our tuxes, and as the truck pulled up to the school, we rolled up the back door, jumped down and pulled down the ramp. We carried our dates out on couches and loveseats, then tore off the coveralls and escorted our dates into the school to the hoots and hollers of the onlookers. We did it again after the parade at the Festival Hall. It was an 18-year-old's idea of cheek and fun.

A few data points from my personal experience: Look, I'm no fan of Racine. I got the heck out of there right after high school and only reluctantly go back to visit friends and family. But every spring I wonder if St. Paul (where I live now) is doing enough to celebrate the right of passage between youth and... whatever comes next.
posted by elmer benson at 8:15 PM on May 10, 2011 [16 favorites]


Do they really hold the school prom in the school itself? When do they eat? (if the school prom is held in the gym and the rotary prom just has finger foods, where's dinner)? I take it there are no gay teens in Racine?

Dinner is not served at prom - you go out to a restaurant. I'm sure there ARE gay teens in Racine, but it's a conservative town. I'd certainly be afraid to hold my same-sex partners hand. Madison is about the only place in Wisconsin where you could probably walk around without fear, although my neighborhood in Milwaukee has a noticeable lesbian population.
posted by desjardins at 8:16 PM on May 10, 2011


Hey, I went to this thing in 2002. My friends and I were going to show up in cool ninja costumes we ordered off the Internet, but they didn't show up on time so we just went in our formalwear from the real prom. There were, as there are every year, rumors that people from Seventeen, Marie Claire, and MTV were going to be covering the event. I'm surprised to see that it finally got the media attention everyone seems to have thought it deserved.

At least its not Kenosha - one of the Armpits of Wisconsin.

Armpits don't have cheese castles or mammoth skeletons. Well, maybe yours do, but mine don't.
posted by yomimono at 8:16 PM on May 10, 2011


What a great thread this is. Thanks for your wisconsin memories y'all. Makes me miss it bad.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 4:56 AM on May 11, 2011


I'm in downstate Illinois and kids around here still actually promenade at the prom. Which I had no idea was even a thing. The dress stores also write down who from which school bought each dress for what school's prom, to spare you the embarrassment of showing up in the same dress as anybody else. Which seems so ... odd.

I grew up in the suburbs, it was just an expensive school dance.

My mom pointed out it's a rite-of-passage that was a much bigger deal when few people went to college and it was kind-of the last hurrah before assuming the mantle of adulthood (work, possibly marriage, etc.) as well as a first formal adult event. So it makes sense that it survives as a bigger deal in smaller towns and rural areas where communities are tighter, these kids have known each other for 12 years, and -- staying or going -- it's their last hurrah as the community's children, even though we don't nearly-universally expect kids to launch to full adulthood at 18 anymore.

One of the things about living in a smaller town/city is, community events of ANY sort are a big deal. Local people MUST participate to make them run, so you ALWAYS know some of the organizers/volunteers/artists/actors/whatever. (My husband, who does not even drink beer, ended up organizing the beer fest for two years running!) And there are limited options of things to do, so even things that aren't your "thing" are a big deal. We have the best-attended Ren Faire I've ever SEEN down here because it's something family-friendly to do on a Saturday. People get fully as excited over it as over high school football playoffs. There's a lot less concern over whether something is nerdy or lame or not your thing; it's mostly inexpensive so even if you don't like it you're only out a couple of dollars, and you'll certainly see everyone you know. So we go to jam-packed art fairs, Ren faires, jam sessions, carnivals, spaghetti dinner fundraisers, community theater productions that sell out weeks in advance, etc. I've never seen anything like it in the suburbs or the Big City. Personally, I think the amateur aspects of local culture make it more fun.

Where'd I start at? Oh, right: small town traditions may be dorky, but they're fun.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:49 AM on May 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


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