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The Punch Comes Spiked

The annual citywide prom brings residents of North Adams, Mass., together regardless of age, class, or whether they flunked PE

by E.S. Cormac on June 19, 2013

We all remember Prom night: gowns, corsages, tuxedos. But what if it could have been better? No warning speeches by nervous parents. No high school principals. No chaperones. No pressurized pubescent promises of the most important night ever.

Now imagine the possibilities if there were a full-service bar.

North Adams, Mass., holds a citywide prom in June that promises just that. The yearly function spearheaded by local resident Kate Merrigan seeks to provide an opportunity for people in the small town to get together and have fun.

“We want to give people a cheap opportunity to dress up,” Merrigan says. She began throwing prom-style parties in 2003 at a local bar with only 100 attendees. The event drew more than 500 people this year, and the North Adams Elks Lodge No. 487 played host.

Although there are many galas similar to the NAMA Prom, as it is officially known, one important factor makes the North Adams event stand apart: This gala is not a fundraiser. All of the proceeds go to the cost of the event itself.

“It’s a party for the sake of having a party,” Veronica Bosley, a member of the prom committee, says. “Many of us work for nonprofits and hold fundraisers and benefits. We look forward to just throwing a party.”

Bosley is the Director of Tourism and Community Events for the City of North Adams, and Merrigan works for the Northern Berkshires Community Coalition. Darcie Sosa of Dalton, Mass., joined the pair on this year’s prom committee.

“Being on the committee is a big commitment,” Sosa says. “We have weekly meetings, make a budget, and have to contact people.”

“Money is one of our greatest challenges. Three people shared all the expenses for this event,” says Bosley.

“People think we are making money, but really we are just paying ourselves back,” Merrigan says.

The relatively small size of North Adams was an important factor in the decision to hold a prom-style event. The city, nestled in a valley between Mount Greylock and Florida Mountain in Berkshire County, is home to 13,583 people, according to the 2012 U.S. Census Bureau estimate. “There is no population for a nightclub here,” Merrigan says, “so prom is a pop-up nightclub.”

The event is popular with people from the Berkshires and beyond. “People came from New York City, Boston and Montreal,” says Sosa.

At this year’s event, one attendee, dressed with a makeshift cardboard box scuba mask to tie into the prom’s Under the Sea theme, was from France. “I came here because it is fun, everybody likes a party,” says Antoine Scalbert, who has an internship through the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts for the summer.

Many more of the revelers dressed in nautical-themed attire. Jen Smith of Williamstown, and her friend Jen Tebo of Northampton, dressed as twin pirates and posed to have their picture taken in a booth set up for prom night photos.

Some chose to use the night to recycle fashions from past life events. Sarah Russell of North Adams wore the same blue taffeta and satin gown from her high school junior prom. “It’s the perfect excuse to put on that bridesmaid dress that just sits in the closet,” says Sharon Thomas, who attended with her husband Dr. Christopher Thomas, both professors at MCLA.

“This is just something to do and a way to dress up,” says Adam Bushey of North Adams. Both he and his girlfriend, Angie Choquette, plan on attending future prom-style events. “It’s small town camaraderie. You’ll never find a group of this many people without an issue; everyone’s having fun and that’s all that really matters.”

One of the most remarkable facts about the NAMA prom is that throughout its history, there apparently has never been a single disruptive incident. “We don’t have security; we don’t need it,” Merrigan says. “We’ve never had any problems, or any fights.”

The only semblance of any authority at the Elk’s Lodge that evening was a lone fire marshal. Because the building does not have a fire suppression system, state law requires him to stand and make sure the exits are clear. He chose this post for the last two years. “I get paid good money, and it’s interesting,” Shaun Hayden, a North Adams firefighter of four years, said while surveying the crowd on the dance floor.

Not everyone at the NAMA Prom was as enthusiastic. After finishing playing the cocktail hour, local musicians Pat McGuire and Jack Demming decided to make an exit. “Proms and me don’t get along, I’ve been blacking out at every one since high school,” says McGuire. The duo also had another gig at an area bar.

Merrigan, Bosley, and Sosa plan to continue holding town proms, and also plan on continuing incorporating a theme into the evening. “Maybe we’ll do a space theme. Veronica and I are both huge sci-fi nerds,” says Merrigan.

Choosing a theme also takes careful consideration. The trio try to avoid typical high school prom themes, and there are other dangers. “We did a Candy Is Dandy theme one year,” Sosa says. “Cleanup was a hot mess.”

This year, the Elks helped the prom committee with the cleanup. “We really owe a lot to the Elks. They are awesome and we have a wonderful relationship with them,” says Merrigan. Not only did members of the Elks Lodge help set up before the event and clean afterwards, their members bartended on all three floors of the lodge, according to Merrigan.

The NAMA Prom is held every year on the first or second weekend in June. There is also a Snow Ball held in February. Both events are open to the public.