Middle Township High School senior Matt Waldron stepped out of his parents’ car and adjusted his dark gray tie before he walked up the driveway — his parents trailing closely behind — and knocked on the front door.

Alyssa Sullivan, also a senior at Middle Township, answered wearing a white floor-length gown embellished with lace and beading above a billowing tulle skirt. Her hair was in a curled up-do, and her makeup was perfectly in place.

Her parents, Jim and Tina, were standing around the kitchen island, which was covered in a spread of appetizers and desserts Tina had set out.

Everything was perfect, until Alyssa caught sight of her younger brother, Kyle, perched on a stool, still in his lacrosse gear and eye black, devouring handfuls of crackers and pretzels.

“Are you serious right now, Kyle?” Alyssa asked.

Prom season is underway in South Jersey, and high school students and their families are spending record amounts of money in the pursuit of that elusive perfect night. As they do, the tradition continues to grow more expensive — a projected $1,900 per couple — and it’s becoming more of a family affair, with mom and dad playing an integral part in making sure the big night — which they aren’t invited to — lives up to its exceedingly high expectations.

The rising cost of prom

“Do you still love it?” an employee asks Sullivan as she steps in front of the floor-to-ceiling mirrors at Rissy Roo’s designer dress shop in Linwood wearing a $700 white gown. It’s March, and prom is still weeks away, but the preparations are in full swing.

Another employee steps up to help Sullivan adjust the back of her gown, which will need to be altered. That’s another $50.

Sullivan rattles off a checklist of what she — well, her parents — have spent so far:

  • Prom dress: $700, plus $50 for alterations
  • Hair: $75
  • Makeup: $75
  • Jewelry: $50
  • Manicure/pedicure: $70
  • Limo: $80

There’s also the cost of the professional photograph of her and her date to be taken at the prom, her tanning salon membership, a clutch to match the dress and too many other little things to count.

She has tried to save money where she can, such as the shoes — she’ll wear a pair she already has in her closet; a boutonniere for her date — a family friend is a florist and will make her one for free; and the cost of the prom ticket, which is $60 per person, but her date has offered to pay for it since she has agreed to pay for both of their limo shares, a total of $80.

Sullivan, an honor student involved in several extracurricular activities and service organizations, could not have paid for everything herself, so where else would she have gone?

“Please, Dad!” came the voice from the other end of the telephone.

Jim Sullivan knew how the conversation with his daughter was going to end, the same way it ended last year for Alyssa’s junior prom: with Alyssa at the cash register holding his credit card.

“I kind of take the approach of ‘it is what it is,’” Jim Sullivan said. “I check the checking account from time to time and wonder where all these lump sums of money are going.”

Two weeks later, Alyssa and her mom drove the 45 minutes from their home in Cape May Court House back to Rissy Roo’s to pick up the gown.

Prom was fast approaching.

A family affair

Stacks of $20 bills were spread across Tina Sullivan’s kitchen counter — limo rental money that her daughter’s friends had handed to her as they walked in her house. There were 50 of them now on the front lawn taking pictures with family and friends. Three party buses would be pulling up to pick up the teens within the hour and drive them to the Wildwoods Convention Center, where the prom was being held. The drivers were expecting to be paid.

The prom-goers had started arriving at the Sullivans’ house a little after 4 p.m., more than three hours before the start of the prom. With them came their parents and relatives to document every moment.

For a group photo, the teenagers lined up along one side of the long driveway holding colored balloons and banners that spelled out ‘Prom 2014,’ while the parent paparazzi formed a similar line across from them, holding up their smartphones and calling out, ‘Look here,’ trying to get the group’s attention and snag the perfect shot.

With a countdown of “five-four-three-two-one,” colorful balloons were released into the air. Meanwhile, Tina stayed inside counting the more than $2,000 in cash.

A teenage girl ran into the kitchen holding the bottom of her peach chiffon gown, which was soiled with mud.

“Only you, Alex,” her mother, trailing her, scolded. The mom wet a paper towel and dabbed the material. Several other moms, including Alyssa’s grandmother, who had also come to the house for the occasion, came to the young girl’s aid as Alex’s mom had to look away at the sight. “How is it that this happened to nobody else, Alex?” her mom continued.

“I’m not taking another picture outside,” Alex said, also distressed. For the rest of the night the girl, sometimes with the assistance of her date, would hold up the bottom of her dress to her knees whenever she was outside.

In the midst of the dress drama, Alyssa ran into the kitchen and reminded Tina to get her photo package and money together, which she would need to have the professional picture of herself and Matt, her date, taken in the corridor of the convention center. Alyssa then ran back outside to tell the group to make sure they looked over the three papers that were taped to the window of the house, which indicated by name who was in which of the three limos.

It was time.

The teens made their way into the limos and were transported to the Wildwood Golf and Country Club, with the parent paparazzi following closely behind in a caravan to take more pictures of the group in the more scenic space.

From there, it was onto the buses and into their cars again to make the last stop of the night, the promenade procession on the Wildwood Boardwalk outside the convention center, where the teens and adults would finally part.

As the limos pulled up to the convention center parking lot, the teens exited and made their way onto the Boardwalk and through the masses of people, exchanging hugs and hellos, while waving at relatives and strangers alike who had gathered to watch them walk though the double doors.

A velvet roped-off red carpet lined the Boardwalk and ended at the entrance of the convention center, where the teens, two at a time and arms interlaced, disappeared.

Jim and Tina stood patiently alongside the red velvet rope waiting for Alyssa and Matt to make their way to the front of the line, squeezed up against other parents and well-wishers, but not wanting to leave their post to see how far back the two still were.

Jim stood on his tiptoes trying to spot his daughter’s white dress, only to learn he had at least a dozen more couples to see off before his kid was up.

Finally, Alyssa and Matt’s names were announced over the loud speakers and the two strolled down the red carpet, pausing in front of their parents for yet another picture, before continuing down the walk and through the convention center doors.

Once Alyssa and Matt were inside the prom, Tina and Jim backed away from the ropes and made their way back through the crowd and to their car, to go home and clean up the mess left at their house while they waited for their daughter to return from the dance.

“When I went to the prom, my parents were involved, but they were like, ‘have fun, see you later,’ and that was the extent of it,” Jim Sullivan said.

Contact Elisa Lala:


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Five years as Ocean County bureau chief, 12 years as regional news editor (not continuous), 10 years as copy editor (also not continuous), all at The Press of Atlantic City.