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Luxury takes a hit

Putting the brakes on prom bills

Earlier this month, promgoers from King Philip Regional High in Wrentham hitched a ride aboard a yellow school bus driven by a student's parent. Earlier this month, promgoers from King Philip Regional High in Wrentham hitched a ride aboard a yellow school bus driven by a student's parent. (Rose Lincoln for The Boston Globe)
By James O'Brien
Globe Correspondent / April 12, 2009
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Ask most people how they got to their junior prom, and you won't hear about a yellow school bus driven by a classmate's mom decked out in a tuxedo.

But recessionary times call for a different kind of luxury ride.

"We decided not to take a limo," said Jenna Butera, a junior at King Philip Regional High School in Wrentham. "We got together a group of friends and decided to decorate a school bus."

Across the region, proms have a leaner look this year.

From the centerpiece on the table in Milford to the prom dress in a Franklin shop window, tighter times are bringing a new frugality - and some new creativity - to an expensive tradition.

"We're hoping to make tickets available for $50," said Milford High student Carolyn Iacovelli, chairwoman of the school's senior prom committee. "Not all students can afford much more than that . . . not everyone is working."

Iacovelli said school buses could also be an option for Milford's promgoers, picking them up at the high school and carrying them to the May 29 gala at Union Station in Worcester. And to help limit the cost, she said, "for the first time, it's a buffet for us, not a sit-down dinner."

Butera and nearly three dozen like-minded students at King Philip arrived for their junior prom this month in style, the 40-foot vehicle adorned with school slogans and paper streamers.

After saving up money to cover a portion of her prom dress, Butera and her friends started pricing limousines. But even the most economical rides, an oversized SUV or a party bus, would cost about $70 per person.

Then, along came Linda Bennett.

The mother of a King Philip junior from Plainville, Bennett drives school buses for W.T. Holmes Transportation, based in Norfolk, which is the third town in the King Philip district.

Bennett thought she could help promgoers in need of an alternative ride. "I said, 'Gee, why don't you rent a school bus? It's reasonably priced. You pay me for fuel, and wear and tear. I'll donate my time.' "

Total rental cost: $50, or about $1.43 per passenger.

Yellow buses aside, area limousine operators say this year's prom crowd is opting for 18- to 22-person luxury buses and SUVs, to accommodate more people and split the cost more ways.

A conventional limo split among three couples works out to about $125 per person at Emerald Square Limousine of Plainville, said owner John Lennon. The per-person cost for larger vehicles is about half that, he said.

Bob Nashawaty, operations manager at Accent Limousine Service in Milford, said only two of his limos were hired for Milford High's junior prom last month. Last year, he said, "I would say all seven of our limos, or close to it, were rented."

Such cutbacks are familiar to King Philip science teacher Loreen Meyer, a senior prom committee adviser. As in Milford, a buffet has replaced the sit-down plate of chicken cordon bleu.

Also trimmed from the list: King Philip's customized invitations (printed on an M&M box), elaborate prom favors and table centerpieces, and the "dual-screen projection unit for music videos to accompany the DJ."

For Meyer and the students on her committee, the May 29 prom must be financially accessible.

"As the economy worsened, I put the restriction of holding the tickets to last year's price or reducing it," Meyer said of the $60 admission charge. "They were also directed to have a pool of money available to provide financial assistance to students that would otherwise be excluded."

But even in a recession, some retailers suggested that a little last-minute panic would lead to some more traditional spending decisions.

Owner Kate Williams stocked Amari Bridal of Franklin with under-$400 prom dress options for the budget-conscious crowd this season. But in the final weeks, she predicted, some of her shop's more expensive dresses will be moving too.

"Maybe they're trimming in other areas, maybe not getting that limo or not getting the hair done," said Williams. "But the dress? That's the most important thing."

All of this seems a bit overblown to Susan Levitin, one of the teen coordinators for the formal dance thrown annually at Voyagers Inc., a home-school resource group based in Acton.

Levitin said preparations for the May 9 Arabian Nights-themed dance for home-schooled students would include teens cooking, decorating, and doing everything else to prepare the group's Main Street building for their big night.

"I think the kids enjoy it more when it's more theirs," Levitin said.

Case in point, she said, is the yellow bus to King Philip's junior prom.

"I bet they'll remember that way more than they would a more conventional means of getting there," said Levitin. "To me, that seems like something they'll tell their own kids about."