Above: Mary Ann Temple-Lee and Leonard Coffee were high school sweethearts and junior class officers who campaigned for Elmore City High School’s first prom in 1980. They inspired the principal characters of teh 1984 hit movie “Footloose.” They will the guests of honor and parade marshals Saturday at an event celebrating the 30th anniversary of the first prom. (Photo by Jim Beckel/The Oklahoman) Below left: Mary Ann Temple-Lee and Leonard Coffee are shown in a photo from the 1981 Elmore City High School yearbook. Below right: Kevin Bacon and Lori Singer starred in the 1984 movie “Footloose.”
A version of this story appears on the front page of Friday’s The Oklahoman. It is by BAM and my fine colleague Sheila Stogsdill.
Elmore City re-creates prom that inspired “Footloose” film
Okies say they weren’t as fancy free as “Footloose” characters
In the spring of 1980, many Elmore City juniors and seniors felt like they were actually on a “Stairway to Heaven” as they swayed to the Led Zeppelin anthem at the high school’s first prom.
On Saturday, the small Garvin County community is cutting “Footloose,” with a public celebration of the 30th anniversary of that landmark dance. The prom, which inspired the 1984 hit film starring Kevin Bacon and John Lithgow, marked the last waltz for a more than 80-year-old ordinance banning public dancing in Elmore City.
“We had all grown up watching ‘American Bandstand,’ ‘Happy Days,’ even the ‘Andy Griffith Show,’ they would talk about the community dance. It was just what I thought was normal for a community to do,” said Leonard Coffee, the 1981 Elmore City graduate that proposed the prom as a junior class officer.
“We wanted to dance.”
On March 3, 1980, the Elmore City school board made history when it voted 3-2 to allow the junior class to organize a prom. Although the decision sparked considerable controversy, it’s doubtful residents of this tiny farming community 70 miles south of Oklahoma City realized at the time just how much attention the vote would bring.
The town was founded by James Elmore in the 1860s and incorporated in 1898, said Elmore City clerk Lisa Rollings.
“There was no dancing from 1898 to 1980,” Rollings said.
When students gathered in 1980 to prepare for the junior-senior banquet, Coffee didn’t know the city had a law prohibiting public dancing. He was just appalled that the plans for the banquet were limited to a meal and then a class activity, usually renting the bowling alley in nearby Lindsay.
“I asked, ‘Well, why can’t we have a prom like other schools do?’ And it went like wildfire. Right after I asked that question, the rest of the class was, like, ‘Yeah, we want to do that,’” he said. “I didn’t know it until afterward, but I guess other classes had tried to have a prom.”
The 1980 junior class was actually the 10th to bring the dancing issue before the school board, according to The Oklahoman Archives. Some local churches and residents were staunchly opposed on religious grounds, believing dancing was immoral. Some worried a dance would lead to alcohol, fights and “dancing in the sheets,” Coffee said.
“We had to remain respectful no matter what was said to us,” he said. “We had everything to lose and nothing to gain by getting into an argument or a fight. But there were several townsfolk that it did become an issue. And it was almost neighbor against neighbor for a few folks.”
“It was a boring prom because they would raise so much money for a dinner. … And when the meal was over, they would read the prophecies and the wills and it was over. All the kids would basically just jump in their trucks, head across the Table Top Mountains and get drunk,” she said.
Raymond Temple, her father and then school board president, said the safety issue ultimately swayed him to cast the deciding vote in favor of dancing at the prom.
“They rented the bowling alley at Lindsay, and most of them never got to the bowling alley. And if they did get to the bowling alley, they were back on that dang mountain after. And that’s the thing we wanted to stop,” he said. “This was to have something for our juniors and seniors where they were well-supervised, and if they didn’t want to dance, it didn’t matter to me.”
Not only did the students decorate the cafeteria with silver foil-covered stars and a sequined cardboard spiral staircase to go with the then-popular prom theme of “Stairway to Heaven,” they also organized the gym into a game room as an alternative for teens who didn’t want to dance.
“The ones that were against it, the parents and all that, we just put them in charge of the game room. But it didn’t last very long,” Temple said.
The first dance started a little slowly, but once a few couples took the floor, others quickly joined in the fun, recalled Rollings, who attended as a sophomore server.
“None of us were just really great (dancers), you know, but we all had fun. Everybody got out there,” Coffee said. “I think probably everyone danced with everybody else.”
“I even danced with my dad, and that is one of my favorite memories,” Temple-Lee added.
Lack of skill or experience wasn’t the only obstacle the students had to overcome as they danced: The room was crowded with TV cameras, photographers and journalist from across the country chronicling the first prom. Not only did People magazine cover the event, the dance even made the front page in a Chinese newspaper.
“The whole outside area of the dance floor was just packed with newspaper people and television people and there were cords all over the floor. Really that’s just what I remember is just trying not to trip over the cords,” Rollings said with a laugh.
The news reached Hollywood and Dean Pitchford, lyricist for the movie “Fame.” He was so intrigued, he traveled to Elmore City, interviewed residents, including the Temple family, and penned the screenplay for “Footloose” based on the story.
Coffee, along with junior class president Rex Kennedy, served as inspiration for Bacon’s lead role, Ren, while
“It’s an incredible movie. It just didn’t portray us the way we were. I’ll put it that way,” Temple-Lee said. “We were extremely ornery, but no, we were not wild.”
“It’s an awesome soundtrack,” Coffee added of the film. “And it is a good message.”
Instead of “Stairway to Heaven,” the catchy “Footloose” theme will be the first song played at Saturday’s 30th anniversary dance. Along with re-creating the “Stairway to Heaven” theme of first prom inside the Elmore City Community Center, the daylong celebration will include a parade, dance contests, school reunions and a prom tradition not instituted at the 1980 dance — promenade, where attendees of all ages can show off their finery.
Coffee and Temple-Lee will be the parade marshals and guests of honor at the dance, which will spill out onto Main Street.
As the town celebrates one milestone, it actually is marking another.
“Since 1980, they’ve had a prom but we’ve never had a public dance. So this actually will be our first public dance that anybody can come to, and we’re just wanting everyone to come,” Rollings said.
Though the ordinance against dancing quietly disappeared from the books after the 1980 prom, Rollings said it still remained taboo to some. When the city took over the senior citizen center and made it the community center last summer, workers took down a ‘no dancing allowed’ sign.
Considering the town’s history, Rollings said she kept the paper notice. Just in case.
Elmore City will mark the 30th anniversary of the first prom, which inspired the film “Footloose,” with a public celebration starting at 10 a.m. Saturday. The event will include lawn mower races, an arts and crafts festival, dance contests, school reunions and a 3 p.m. parade.
The dance will start with promenade at 5:30 p.m., then the recreated 1980 high school prom will begin at 7 p.m. at the Elmore City Community Center, 104 S Main Street. South Main Street will be closed to allow the dancing to spill into the street.
For more information, call (580) 788-2345.