When I was a teenager, I spent a little too much time thinking about what my senior prom would be like. I wouldn’t call it an obsession, but I thought about the big end-of-high-school dance enough to keep my thoughts to myself as if they were some sort of dirty little secret. If I wasn’t writing about it, that is. Track down a copy of Collage, the Sayville High School literary magazine from 1995 and you’ll see a story called “Scenes from a High School Prom,” which is some sort of boy-finally-gets-the-girl story that only a lovesick teenager would write, or maybe even dream about (literally, in fact, because it’s based on a dream I once had). I even incorporated prom (specifically, that story) into a novel I wrote nearly a decade ago; although by then the message wasn’t so much about the fairytale of the perfect prom night but what happens the morning after and the baggage that comes with it.
In real life, I never had baggage concerning my senior prom experience. In fact, I had a great time mostly due to the fact that I went with someone very cool and avoided most of the bullshit drama that my particular group of friends was involved with at the time (at least for one night — certain friends of mine, if they’re reading this, know that there was drama that I definitely got sucked into during and after our senior year of high school). So I was never disappointed in my prom night, mainly because I was surprisingly well-adjusted coming out of high school (though I am the first to admit that I was both high-strung and immature … but enough about my issues). Still, I would be lying if I didn’t say that the prom fantasy definitely factored into my perception of what my prom would be like.
That fantasy, btw? The one featured in that short story I wrote in senior year creative writing? Well, boy takes friend on whom he has a crush to prom and at the last chance to finally do it, he tells her he loves her and she says she loves him and they kiss and everyone lives happily ever after. And where did I get the idea that this is what was going to happen at my prom because this is what happened at every prom? Usually I would have some long explanation regarding my unpopularity in high school coupled with my testimony of junior high dances being special, magical places; however, all I have to do is say three words:
Dance ’til Dawn.
In 1988, teen movies were still pretty popular, even if they were waning a little bit in popularity, and there were plenty of teen heartthrob television stars to go around, so someone got the idea to take as many of these stars as possible and put them into one television movie that would air around the time in the fall when most kids were in school and would definitely be home at night to watch. That night? Sunday, October 23. The stars? Christina Applegate, Alyssa Milano, Tempestt Bledsoe, Tracey Gold, a then-unknown Matthew Perry, as well as Alan Thicke and Kelsey Grammar. It’s like someone passed a flyer around during the off-season for a summer camp project and everyone in TV Land accepted.
Anyway, the focus of Dance ’til Dawn is … oh come on, do you really need me to explain that? It’s about the prom. Applegate, who was at the height of her Kelly Bundy popularity, plays Patrice Johnson, a money-obsessed bitchy girl and head of the prom committee who has decided that the theme of the prom is “Paris in Puce,” a color that could only have possibly been found in the bowels of the late 1980s, although you can tell how ’80s the movie is by the opening credits montage, which has some awesome ambiguous ’80s pop and effects that look like they were created in a high school video productions class.
Perry plays Roger, Patrice’s cuckolded boyfriend, a guy who obviously is dragged along with Patrice in all of this and who barely says a word, mainly because she doesn’t let him do much talking. It becomes obvious pretty quickly that this “queen bee” attitude is her way of compensating for the fact that her parents are constantly at each other’s throats. Larry and Nancy Johnson were hippie kids in the 1960s when they fell in love and then got married and even though they’ve made a pretty good life for themselves, Nancy feels like she’s the only adult in the situation while Larry misses being in a rock band.
Meanwhile, Chris Young plays Dan Lefcourt, a total nerd who is going to the prom because his dad, a swingin’ bachelor named Jack Lefcourt (and played sooooo well by Alan Thicke, btw) more or less forced him to go because the prom is just that important. He’s not so much interested in girls as he is in outer space and his plan is to placate his dad by appearing to go to the prom but really going to a science fiction film festival, where he will wind up running into Shelley Sheridan, the all-American perfect girl (Alyssa Milano) whose boyfriend never actually asked her to the prom so she’s paying her limo driver to cart her around all night instead of just going home.
Who did her boyfriend, Kevin McCrea (Brian Bloom–playing the Michael Schoeffling role here) ask? Well, it’s nerdy, dumpy, frumpy Angela Strull (Tracey Gold) who does a Cinderella-type transformation when she takes off her glasses, puts on some makeup, and gets a sexy prom dress. But her parents, Ed and Ruth (Kelsey Grammar and Edie McClurg)–whom Ed calls “mother” the entire time–don’t want her doing anything social and are so insanely Christian that they’re sending her to a very restrictive Bible college even though she wants to go to art school. Only he’s not doing it because he likes her or anything; it’s because his friends more or less dared him (and he has the most powerful 1980s mullet ever).
So what we have here, after all of that ensemble cast introduction, is a movie right out of a “teen movie plot factory.” You have the girl who wants to go to art school but whose parents won’t let her. You have the guy taking the nerdy girl to prom on a dare. You have the stuck-up girl who assumes she’ll win the night but is obviously going to have a horrible night. You have parents as comic relief, parents who are rediscovering why they fell in love, and parents who will be proven to not be as cool as they seem. You’ve got the dork actually getting shot at the class beauty. You’ve got wacky, cool friends. You’ve got mall hair, mullets and plenty of saxaphone-solo-laden pop. And it’s freaking awesome.
I won’t get too much into recapping said plot beyond what I have already laid out because it’s a rather predictable comedy; instead, when I was watching it again for the first time in 23 years, I found myself remembering what stories were the more interesting and what was forgettable. I mean, Tracey Gold looks great–this is around the time when Carol Seaver was going through her popular student phase on Growing Pains–and the Kelsey Grammar/Edie McClurg slapstick stuff is kind of funny but I found Brian Bloom’s mullet so distracting that I really didn’t care that it was so obvious that he would fall for her and try to get her back even though it gets out that he only went out with her on a dare. Applegate and Perry are funny as well, if not for anything except that when Patrice says the prom color is puce, she takes it so far that she wears a dress that matches the decorations and has the mother of all puce and silver polka-dotted bows on her butt.
When I was eleven and saw Dance ’til Dawn for the first time, the storylines that stuck with me the most were Larry and Nancy’s and Dan and Shelley’s. The parents fighting then rekindling their love story I think I liked because I’d been watching shows like Growing Pains and Who’s the Boss and the always-confused, trying-to-get-back-something-that-was-lost parental storylines were commonplace by now. Plus, Cliff DeYoung is pretty fun to watch in both this and the 1985 C. Thomas Howell flick Secret Admirer (which I own on video because of Lori Loughlin, mostly). They obviously reconcile by the movie’s end, especially after the prom deejays (who are insanely obnoxious and are dressed like they just got kicked out of Animotion or something) play a cover version of “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'” and it jogs their memories and rekindles their love.
Dan and Shelley, however, definitely wound up in my subconscious because when I look at that story from high school, I see where I was inspired. First, the casting here is excellent. This was right around the time that Alyssa Milano was starting to hit her teen queen popularity and she has enough “cute” to really be the girl that you want the guy to end up with, as opposed to Applegate who is beautiful and has brilliant comic timing but is very much stuck in Kelly Bundy at this point. Chris Young is more or less “every guy” the same way that C. Thomas Howell was back in the early part of the decade. In fact, I’d say that because he pops up in a few teen movies of the late 1980s and early 1990s (The Great Outdoors, Dance ’til Dawn, The Book of Love, PCU), young is sort of the C. Thomas Howell of that period: you don’t remember who he is but you remember seeing him in something (as opposed to Seth Greene, who shows up in a few flicks and almost provides a bridge for the generation gap in teen movies).
The whole conceit of their plot is that because Shelley and Kevin never really officially said that they were going to prom together, he asks Angela and she then lies and says she has better plans but is really just driving around all night. She runs into Dan at the science fiction movie marathon (which is probably why I identified with him — I was really into Star Trek in 1988) and she’s so obsessed with not being seen not at the prom that she goes along with him all night. Pretty soon, they’re not only avoiding their classmates but Dan’s dad, who attempts to deliver the corsage that Dan left behind to the prom and discover that he’s not there.
Instead, he’s showing Shelley the stars. At what happens to be makeout point. This mortifies Shelley because everyone goes to makeout point, although she should have known that “everyone” was going to be at Patrice’s house for the after-prom party because Kevin is trying to nail Angela in order to win a bet, Angela’s parents are getting busted for spying on the party (and during which Edie McClurg says “Ed” enough times to make me realize why they named Kelsey Grammar’s character “Ed”). Well, except for Patrice and Roger, whose limo money runs out and they have to more or less walk across the valley to get there and break up in the process. Despite that, trying to hide out at makeout point is a bad idea, because what if someone sees them?
Dan decides that the best way to solve their problem (or maybe to shut Shelley up) is to kiss her and they more or less make out all night. I wanna say that he probably gets some but this is a 1988 teen-oriented TV movie and so it’s pretty tame. Besides, she announces at the diner the next morning that they’re “going steady.”
Going steady? Makeout point? Did I stumble upon an episode of Happy Days? I don’t remember my hometown having a makeout point. Then again, I didn’t do much making out in high school, which is probably why the Dan/Shelley plot resonated so much with me at eleven years old. That was the start of a very awkward part of my life. I was in the beginning of the sixth grade and not in junior high yet, and while some of my friends still played with old toys, most of our attention was on sports, movies, and some of the guys I went to school with were actually getting girlfriends. My slide down the social ladder was heating up and I definitely was destined for the nerd/dork status that I now kind of revel in and celebrate. So a story wherein the timid, dorky guy gets the beautiful girl was right up my alley.
In some ways, it still is. I never had an issue with the ending of Pretty in Pink like some people do, and even though I wrote that short story fifteen years ago, I still like it. And movies like Dance ’til Dawn might be the cinematic equivalent of bubblegum but even at 33 there’s still a certain charm in a flick where the credits roll and even though the teenage world has been turned upside down, everything is pretty much all right.