FAIRLESS HILLS >> It’s Friday night and there’s just eight days to go before the Prom. And Pennsbury High School East is buzzing with activity.
Inside the school’s gym and hallways, floors are covered with mural projects as more than 50 students, parents and community volunteers put the finishing touches on some pretty elaborate scenery that will serve as the backdrop for this year’s big night on Saturday, May 19.
The transformation of the school by hundreds of volunteers into what has been hailed as “The Best Prom in America” by Reader’s Digest and Seventeen magazine and “the best prom in the Philadelphia region” by Philadelphia Magazine, is underway.
And if you think that previous proms were over the top, wait until you experience “Destination Prom,” says Senior Prom Adviser Tony Napoli of this year’s prom, which will transport students to exotic locations around the world.
“This is going to be the best one we’ve ever had,” said Napoli. “Everything is working like clockwork and everyone has just stepped it up a notch. We have some really cool entertainers coming, on par with previous proms. And the decorations are the best we have ever had.”
Napoli, who has 25 years of experience working on the Prom, including the last nine as head advisor, is beyond excited by this year’s event, which is shaping up to be another memorable affair.
When couples enter the school’s two-story lobby from the red carpet, they will instantly be transported to the beaches of the Hawaiian Islands, surrounded by exotic flowers, life-sized interactive Tikis rigged on motion sensors and a 14 foot cascading waterfall.
“It’s going to be a really beautiful area,” said volunteer Amy Waters, who was going over plans for the area Friday night with Terry Poulton. “We have a big Tiki hut going in the corner, lots of foliage, images of sunsets and palm trees. It’s going to be a very pretty Hawaiian oasis.”
Poulton and Deb O’Hara are the leaders of the lobby crew. This is Poulton’s fifth year volunteering at the Prom. He helped build the gazebo two years ago and the year before that it was the flying dragon.
The lobby’s centerpiece will be an impressive 60 percent scale replica of Stonehenge, a prehistoric stone monument in Wiltshire, England.
Students also will be treated to a giant 12 foot high, seven layer Destination Prom cake whipped up by John Piazza’s Bakery. The bottom layer will measure seven feet in diameter and the cake itself will be displayed on a 30 inch table.
“The cake is going to be amazing,” said Napoli. “He’ll be coming in on Friday night to cover the entire cake in buttercream icing. At the Prom on Saturday, we’ll be having a cake cutting ceremony at 9 p.m. And everyone will receive a piece of Destination Prom cake to take home.”
From the lobby, Prom goers will journey through the Italian countryside, past stained glass windows and the ancient Roman coliseum.
Working inside the art room on the “stained glass” windows is Rebecca Freeling, a senior this year who has volunteered with the Prom since the ninth grade. She is using tissue paper to replicate the colored glass elements.
“Everything has been turning out beautiful and they are so well done,” she said of the different elements coming together to create the backdrop for this year’s Prom. “I love how everyone works together. I also love art. And it’s great to see the whole community come out to see it. Without a doubt Pennsbury’s Prom is the best,” she said.
In a hallway near the cafeteria volunteer Kim Conti, who is chairing the cafeteria decorating committee, shows off a directional sign that will be part of the display.
The cafeteria is being transformed into a retro travel agency with murals depicting destinations from around the world covering its walls. The space also will be decorated with hanging globes and a luggage display.
“All of our murals are vintage travel scenes,” said Conti. “We have a U.S. and an international wall. We have different modes of transportation depicted - an old vintage blimp, a hot air balloon, a race car. We also have places like Hogsmeade, Dracula’s Castle, the Disney Castle and the Galápagos Islands,” she said, of the potential travel destinations that will be adorning the walls. “Fortunately we had a great turn out and we’re done painting. And we’re almost done glittering,” said Conti.
McCaffrey’s Markets will again be catering the Prom with a five-star dinner cooked by seven chefs and served by parents. In addition, hors d’oerves will be provided.
Adding to the experience, the “parents hallway” outside of the cafeteria will be transformed into an airport terminal. And each student will receive a special Destination Prom Passport.
“We’ll have baggage claim and we’re going to make the doors look like metal detectors. And down our main hallway it will look like a passport of destinations,” said nine year volunteer Leslie Kliesh, who was busy working on a colorful mural of Hong Kong. Other murals taking shape Friday night included Holland, Greece, a black sand beach in Hawaii and other destinations.
But the centerpiece of this year’s Prom will be inside the gym where a massive vintage steampunk airship with a belly stretching 60 feet across will be hanging from the ceiling. Suspended below the airship will be a 12 foot long cab “that will be absolutely magnificent with a Falcon masthead with wings,” said Napoli.
“It looks like an old ship that was turned into a turn-of-the-century flying machine with propellers, searchlights and steam coming off of it and two video screens,” said Napoli.
The lighting and video elements that will be part of the display are being put together by Charlie Santella from Lower Makefield who is inside the art room using his theatrical projection skills to work on the airship project. He’s also working on the waterfall element and the voice-activated Tikis that will be part of the Hawaiian section.
The experience is invaluable for Santella, who will be attending Temple and studying entertainment, design and technology, and who hopes to one day work for a production company.
The screens on the airship will live stream the entire Prom, from the arrival parade to the night’s A List performer, which Napoli is keeping a closely guarded secret to prevent it from overshadowing the Prom.
But past acts have included John Mayer, Maroon Five (when they were touring high schools), Metro Station, rapper Asher Roth, Ryan Cabrera, Pennsbury’s own Matthew Schuler (the year he appeared on The Voice), comedian Bob Kline, Bo Diddley, Two Live Crew, QuestLove and DJ Pauley D.
The Faculty Band also will be performing inside the school’s auditorium. Among their selections will be Led Zepplin’s, “Stairway to Heaven.” Also entertaining will be a hypnotist.
When all is said and done, Napoli estimates that more than 700 parents, students and community volunteers will have been involved in putting together and contributing to the Prom’s success.
“There’s no other school that we know of that holds the entire Prom at the school. A lot will do after prom and some of them are pretty elaborate,” said Napoli.
According to Napoli, Pennsbury’s first in-house Prom took place in 1971 under the leadership of Prom advisor Jim Cunningham, a high school social studies teacher.
“At that time the drinking age in New Jersey was still 18. The idea was to keep the students at the school until morning - show them a movie, give them breakfast and keep them here until 5:30 a.m.,” said Napoli. “Having said that, they didn’t want it to look like a school so the idea was to decorate it and get parents involved. It just snowballed from there,” he said.
Today, the Pennsbury Senior Prom culminates many months of planning and decorating by scores of students, their parents and teachers.
According to Napoli, as soon as the Prom is over brainstorming begins on the following year’s theme with the cutting and pasting of the murals beginning on the first day of school.
The work kicks into high gear following Sports Nite - the third Monday in March - when prom workers get exclusive use of the gym to create their murals and the 3-Dimensional pieces.
The final phase begins the week of the Prom with the transformation of the hallways, gym and cafeteria.
“Its amazing to watch the process,” said Napoli. “This is the closest you’ll come to seeing art take over an entire school. There are community members, teachers, students, ninth graders, 12th graders all just painting. And as an art teacher, it’s pretty cool for me to see that.”
According to Napoli, it takes between 300 and 400 kids, parents, volunteers, administrators, custodians and district workers to pull off the transformation.
“The lights go up in the cafeteria. From there it gets more intense,” said Napoli. “The kids kind of see it happen magically within a couple of days. They see their school building transform into one of the most beautiful places in Bucks County.”
McKayla Horton of Falls Township, who graduated last year and has come back to help this year, said the transformation is remarkable.
“You don’t even realize you’re in school anymore,” she said. “There is just so much going on between the decorations and all the stuff you can do. You don’t even realize where you are. You’re just having a great time.”
And one of the most beautiful and surprising things about the Prom, said Napoli, is “how little of an imposition it is on the normal school day, the curriculum, the custodians and everyone.”
This year’s Pennsbury Senior Prom is under the leadership of advisors Tony Napoli, Curtis May, Tara Bellman and Kelsey Adair. The principals of PHS are Lisa Becker and Reggie Meadows. The PHS administrator overseeing the 2018 prom is Assistant Principal, Laura Tittle.
Free Public Walk Through of the Prom
A free public walk-through of the Prom decorations is scheduled from noon until 3 p.m. on Saturday, May 19 at the high school. The event allows the community to walk through the entire first floor of the building and enjoy the detailed prom decorations, from the two-story entry foyer to the student dining room, hallways, the gymnasium and even the boys’ and girls’ lavatories.
Afterwards, the community is invited to watch the traditional Pennsbury Prom arrival parade and red carpet walk from 5:15 to approximately 7:30 p.m. along the inner driveway on the high school campus. Early arrival for the parade is suggested.