Andie Juliette Fortier was nervous as she prepared to walk up the steps toward the Earl L. Vandermeulen High School gym in Port Jefferson Monday night.
Then she saw a familiar face -- in unfamiliar attire.
"I got out of the car and my dad was Willy Wonka, and I was fine," Fortier said.
"Willy" is Andrew Fortier, 52, a recording artist and doting dad. He's one of many Port Jefferson residents who have continued a decades-long tradition of turning prom night into a whimsical themed experience -- one that has created a good-natured creative tilt pitting initial arrival vs. final destination.
The seniors never know what the prom theme is going to be until they roll up in their vehicles -- this year the Willy Wonka theme featured a chocolate factory-facade over the gym entrance. The inside featured "Wonka Bar" and the "Oomporium" -- the theme even extended into the men's and ladies' rooms with intricate decorations like towels folded into cupcakes.
And the hundreds of residents who showed up Monday night had no clue what mode of transportation was coming next to drop off the prom-goers. Just when one thought the Mr. Softee Ice Cream truck took the prize, the "Ghostbusters" ride upped the ante, followed by the convoy of Port Jefferson Fire Department trucks.
Monday night's fun was the result of months of planning, culminating in a marathon session starting Saturday morning at 6 a.m. to prepare the gym's exterior and interior. Vandermeulen varsity boys soccer coach and longtime volunteer John Poulianos says the help doesn't just come from parents of graduating seniors.
"Over the weekend, when we worked on it, we probably had over 40 people who didn't have a child in the senior class and whose kids have long since graduated, and they keep coming back," said Poulianos, who has continued to work on the project after his two sons graduated. "They just show up and say, 'What can I do?'"
According to Fortier and Poulianos, the tradition of prom on school grounds started in 1958, the year after a student was killed in an auto accident off-site on prom night. Over the years the theme has featured everything from pop culture favorites like Harry Potter and "Pirates of the Caribbean" to geographical destinations like India and Greek Acropolis. Before the students' arrival, the community is invited in to take a look at the finished product.
"Every year the parents take pride in creating such a wondrous journey, and every year is the best," Fortier said. "Someone told me earlier that the theme their year was the best. I said, 'Yours was the best.' Everyone's was the best."
As cars arrived, an Oompa Loompa grabbed a ticket with the students' names and raced up the steps to hand it to the PA announcer. Marco Scarda, 16, and Allegra Fils-Aime, 18, were among the most notable arrivals in the Mr. Softee truck.
"He had this seersucker suit," Fils-Aime said of her date's prom attire. "I thought he looked like a fancy-dressed ice cream truck driver. It started off as a joke."
Those kinds of unforgettable moments are what keeps the community so dedicated to making prom night special.
"It's easy to send a kid to a catering hall to a prom," Poulianos said. "Is he ever going to experience something like this?"