Editor's Note: This story originally appeared in Newsday's LI Life section on June 19, 2016.
Islip High School Class of 1961 graduate Richard Henkel doesn’t remember much about the destination of his senior class trip, but he sure remembers how he got there.
“It was really phenomenal. . . . I remember the ride very clearly,” said Henkel, 73, now a resident of Phoenix. “I do not remember the layover time and how long we had out there. I seem to recall we got something to eat out there.”
Henkel’s selective memory is understandable, considering his commute to the Montauk Surf and Cabana Club was headline news. Henkel was one of 98 Islip seniors to take part in what was described at the time as a “rolling prom” aboard a Long Island Rail Road train.
The event was conceived by local businessman Jack Schoenholz, who owned a McDonald’s franchise in Islip and paid $1,700 to fund the LIRR’s “Midnight Special” — a slow-speed ride to the East End on a three-car train decked out for the graduating class. Parents and faculty members thought a train ride was a safer alternative to having the students drive to Montauk, especially considering the legal drinking age at the time was 18.
An empty baggage car was transformed into a dance hall, complete with Hawaiian-inspired decorations and a four-piece rock-and-roll band. In an adjacent car, revelers could dine on 400 hamburgers and 100 hot dogs prepared for the trip, and sip refreshments at a nonalcoholic bar, according to Newsday’s coverage of the June 23, 1961, event.
A third car allowed students to “ride this one out,” according to Newsday’s coverage. Students and chaperones could sit and talk there, or get some rest.
“I remember that there was no lacking for anything,” said Henkel, 73, who went on to serve in the Air Force and later worked as a senior executive for the Grumman Aerospace Corp. “But I was dancing most of the time.”
Class of ’61 graduate David Schaper, who helped organize the event, said that while parents were not allowed to come on the trip, there were no problems recruiting the 18 adult chaperones who came along for the ride.
“There was a list of probably half the Town of Islip. . . . They wanted to be part of it,” said Schaper, 73, who lives in Sayville and recalled a send-off at the Islip station worthy of a head of state. “Every newspaper was there. They had a hard time getting the train going. . . . There were so many guys taking pictures.”
Then, it was all aboard for the trip, 74 miles each way, as the train chugged along at just 12 mph to allow revelers to dance to the music of Mad Mike and His Maniacs without rocking-and-rolling all over the baggage car.
Newsday reporter Jane Gerard detailed the scene, describing the “student-made paper lotus blossoms, fish nets and sawdust” that decorated the train car and graduates exploring the “sinuous mysteries of the Twist, Hutch, Stroll and Slop Bop.”
It was “wall-to-wall mayhem,” according to Gerard.
“Well, at least they’re well-behaved,” said one chaperone quoted in Gerard’s account. “I mean there’s none of this smooching.”
In the pre-dawn hours, the train finally arrived in Montauk, where students transferred to a bus for a short ride to their destination. Once at the Surf and Cabana Club, they changed into their swimsuits.
“They had just filled the swimming pool, so I think the swimming pool was like 50 degrees,” recalled Schaper, who lives in Sayville. “But it didn’t make a difference to us.”
After an early morning breakfast, the students made their way back to the train. Dancing was banned during the return trip, as the train moved at regular speed to allow for the LIRR to resume its usual morning schedule. The exhausted riders didn’t put up a fuss.
“It was a ban that was well-received by most everybody,” said Schaper, who recalled most graduates sleeping the whole way back to Islip station, where their parents waited to pick them up.
Just 36 hours after their return, the graduates of Islip High School’s Class of 1961 received their diplomas.
A more traditional prom dance was also held for the class, but it was the railway romp that would leave a lasting impression on the seniors — and others.
The following year, Islip’s Class of 1962 returned to the LIRR for a sports-themed trip to Montauk. Riverhead High School also followed Islip’s lead with a shorter trip to the same destination.
Despite students’ fond memories, LIRR spokesman Salvatore Arena said accommodating a rolling prom in the modern rail age “would be impossible.”
“None of our current rolling stock has an open floor plan and we are not about to remove the seating to create a dance floor,” Arena said. “But if a high school wants to transport their students to and from a prom via the LIRR, our group sales department should be able to take care of them.”
And so the unique experience of a prom night dance aboard a rolling baggage car remains reserved for those lucky enough to board the “Midnight Specials” more than a half-century ago.
“These poor kids have no idea, as far as what fun is,” Islip Class of 1962 graduate Janice Brown Berry-Chen, 71, of Upper Marlboro, Maryland, said of today’s youth. “Fun was going on this trip and singing along to Frankie Valli.”