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Party like it's 1939: Now that's a SENIOR prom

Retirement homes give seniors the chance to experience the prom they missed the first time around

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Brittany tears up the dance floor with her grandfather, Myer Silverstein.

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Brittany tears up the dance floor with her grandfather, Myer Silverstein.

With all the fancy gowns and updos, spray tans, tuxedo rentals and limousine rides, today's high school graduation can look more like a wedding than a teenage rite of passage.

"Ours was really extravagant. It was at the Fort Garry Hotel and we had limos and everyone went to get their hair done," Brittany Silverstein, 20, recalled of her commencement from Winnipeg's Gray Academy a couple of years back.

The prom is making a big comeback, according to a recent USA Today article that reported recession-strapped parents are loosening their purse strings this year, spending $1,139 on average on a graduate's memorable night.

But it's not just high schoolers pinning on the boutonnieres and corsages these days. A new group of celebrants is really putting the "senior" in senior prom.

Which is how Silverstein found herself on the dance floor at the streamer- and balloon-festooned River Ridge Retirement Residence this week, cutting a rug with her grandpa.

"I went straight from high school into the army. There was a prom, but I didn't go," said Myer Silverstein, 87, who served in the Canadian infantry.

"We couldn't afford it. My father had five sons, who were in the Air Force. Plus, I didn't have a girlfriend," said the graduate of St. John's Technical High School.

River Ridge was just one of 19 All Seniors Care Living Centres across Canada -- six in Winnipeg -- this week to give residents like Silverstein the prom they were denied because of the Second World War -- or other circumstances of life 70 years ago that pushed such celebrations out of reach for many.

"The Depression was on then; we didn't have prom. You were lucky to even get through school," said Patrick Ramsey, 96, an Air Force veteran who was forced to drop out of school halfway through Grade 9.

Ramsey, whose daughter and granddaughter were his dates for the big night, was also chosen as River Ridge's prom king.

Each of the residences had a prom committee and a prom court, complete with cardboard crowns. The evening featured a 1940s dinner menu (shrimp or fruit cocktail, roast beef or chicken with croquettes or piped mashed potatoes, peas and carrots with biscuits, and peach cobbler for dessert) and live, swing-era music. The venues were decorated with burgundy, green and white balloons and streamers, and there was a table with a punch bowl and bowls of Cracker Jack.

If it weren't for the long row of walkers parked near the entrance -- and maybe the imbalanced ratio of women to men -- you'd almost expect someone to pull out a flask and spike the punch bowl and the crowd to break out into a jitterbug.

Proms weren't always the domain of young people. According to Time magazine's Brief History of the Prom, the word prom, short for "promenade," simply refers to "the formal, introductory parading of guests at a party." The event as we know it began in 19th-century America as a simple co-ed banquet for graduating university students.

"A growing teenage culture pushed proms younger and younger, and by the 1940s, the adolescent dance we know today had almost entirely taken hold," claims the Time article.

In the 1950s, a thriving postwar economy allowed high schools to bypass the usual gymnasium venue in favour of hotels and country clubs.

Golden agers seem to be jumping on the bandwagon in recent years. A high school in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., recently celebrated its ninth annual senior citizen prom, while another in Connecticut hosted a makeup graduation for the Class of 1943, who, like many teens of that era, had to go without.

Meanwhile, at the Seine River Retirement Residence, Winnipeggers Don and Bobbie Purdey said that until tonight, they've had to experience prom vicariously through their children.

"There was no prom; war was in full swing," said Don, 88, who graduated high school in Wapella, Sask., in 1944. "As soon as school finished, I had to go and get a job. We got our diplomas in the mail."

He ended up hiring on as a ticket agent with Canadian Pacific Railway, where part of his job was to deliver telegrams to mothers whose sons had been killed in the war.

Bobbie, his wife of 60 years, was denied the opportunity to complete Grade 12, let alone attend her graduation, because her rural school only went to Grade 11 and her parents couldn't afford to send her to "town school."

"No one had money for big celebrations," she says. "It was all for the war."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 29, 2013 G3

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