By People Staff
May 27, 1996 12:00 PM

Ah, spring! It’s the time of year when a high schooler’s thoughts turn from SATs and fake IDs to that other adolescent rite of passage: the prom. Years and even decades later, mere mention of the event, for those who have partaken, can conjure memories of baby-blue tuxes, big hair and really, really bad cover bands faster than you can hum the opening notes of “Stairway to Heaven. “And so it was for many of the people pictured on the following pages—with a twist: in each case their date went on to become famous. Laura Laycock Bach, now 37 and a homemaker, pinned a boutonniere on her escort, George Clooney. Anthony Otey, 42 and the director of a drug prevention center, gussied up for the dance with Gail Winfrey (no longer going by her middle name, she’s now known as Oprah). And grad student Bill Knight, 28, still recalls his surprise when bubbly Julia Roberts called to ask if he’d take her to her prom. “She still has that same smile and the same laugh she had then,” he says. “We had a great time.”

Like the rest of us, though, most stars on prom night were more clueless than cool. “Completely dweeby” is how Katie Couric describes the all-white ensembles she and date Ernie Sanders wore. Still, the passage of time hasn’t diminished the event’s luster for our participants, all of whom—except for Denise Jackson, who later married her date with the same last name, country music star Alan Jackson—saw their romances, if that’s what they were, wilt like week-old corsages. “It was the most exciting thing I had ever done,” says secretary Regis Vaughn, 57, who, on a balmy Memphis night in 1953, dined, danced and, yes, made out with a budding musician named Elvis Presley. “The same magic of that night remains with me.”

Break out the 45s, shake out the chiffon, and get ready to reminisce.

George & Laura: He was a cutup with a cool car

Every year, on the first Saturday of May, the townspeople of Augusta, Ky. (pop. 1,500), gather outside Augusta High School, cameras at the ready, to ooh and aah at the arriving prom couples. In 1978, Laura Laycock (now Bach), a college freshman, and her pal George Clooney, a high school junior, were among those on display. “We decided to go together just to have fun,” says Bach, who traveled in style that night in the red-and-white Corvette Clooney had borrowed from his dad, Nick, a local TV personality. “I was kind of like a tomboy. We palled around.” At the dance, they met up with friends before hitting the post-prom parties, where Clooney—true to form—played cutup. “George teased people and did imitations of friends,” says Bach. “It was just part of George goofing around.” A homemaker, Bach, 37, now lives across the street from the high school with her husband, Michael, the owner of a temp agency, and their three children, Derrick, 13, Schadle, 10, and Brent, 2 months. When Clooney, 35, comes to town, he and his old pal get together. “George was a typical teenager, like the rest of us,” she says. “That’s still the way his friends in Augusta think of him.”

Julia & Bill: She did the asking

After flirting while working summer jobs in 1984 at an Atlanta ice cream shop, Bill Knight, now 28, and Julia Roberts, 28, began dating. But by November their romance had fizzled. “It was an infatuation,” Knight says now, “and it lasted as long as infatuations last.” Nonetheless, they remained friends and, that spring, Roberts, a senior at Campbell High School in Smyrna, Ga., asked Knight, a junior at Atlanta’s Lovett School, to her prom. “She looked charming—she had her hair all done up nicely,” recalls Knight, who escorted Roberts in his Olds-mobile. “She was a lot of fun to hang out with.” Later that evening, Knight—who had to take a college entrance exam the next day—kissed Roberts an early good-night. Though they wrote a few times, he never saw Roberts after she moved to New York City that fall. Now earning his MBA at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Knight, whose girlfriend works in sales at the Georgia Dome, is tickled by his ex’s success. “It’s turned out to be a little amusing,” he says. “You don’t think of your friends being in the movies.”

Oprah & Anthony: Wheels of misfortune

Having regularly walked the two miles to Oprah Winfrey’s house during the two years they’d dated at East Nashville Senior High School, Anthony Otey was proud to roar up in his first car, a turquoise ’64 Mercury, on their prom night in 1971. “I’d had it only a week,” says Otey, now 42. But before he could say boutonniere, the car broke down, and the pair—she in a gold gown, he in a black tux—recharged the battery at a garage. When the car died again after the dance, Otey’s dad rescued them. Oprah was very patient,” says Otey. Splitting up that summer, they stayed pals. Now living in Norcross, Ga., Otey, director of a drug prevention center, appeared on Winfrey’s show in a 1993 episode on teen sweethearts. “Afterward, we laughed about old times,” he says. “It was wonderful.”

Sharon & Ray: A beautiful night, then tragedy

At their best, proms are a celebration of youth, romance and good times; Sharon Stone, 38, was to learn how fleeting those things can be. Two months after graduating from Saegertown (Pa.) High School, her date, Ray Butter field, died in a motorcycle accident. His best friend, Jeff Bradshaw, recalls how Ray, a popular football player, had requested that he ask Stone to the prom for him. “He was too shy—she was a little standoffish,” recalls Bradshaw, who works for a dairy cooperative. “I had to ask her for two or three weeks. Then she said yes.” On prom night, after dining out on Italian food, the couple hit the dance at the local Holiday Inn. “He had the hots for her big-time,” recalls Ray’s younger brother Bryan, 37, a road construction worker. “He was madly in love.” Still friendly with Stone at the time of his accident, Ray had planned to start college that fall. After the funeral, the family lost touch with Stone. “Ray never realized who he was taking to the prom,” says Bradshaw. “Sheri was just another kid in the class.”

Alan & Denise: Great hair and a T-Bird too

In 1976, when Denise Jackson, a junior at Newnan (Ga.) High School, met future country music star Alan Jackson, then a local furniture deliveryman, she knew he was the one. “It was his beautiful blond hair, but mainly his great ’55 Thunderbird,” jokes Denise, 36. “He looked so cool in that car.” Within months, they were headed to her prom in the car, but after they married, in 1979, Jackson sold it to make a down payment on a house; three years ago, Denise tracked down the T-Bird and bought it back. “It was the best gift I ever got,” says Alan, 37. Now living in Nashville with their two young children, the couple still look at their prom photo every day. “We keep it in our bedroom,” says Denise. “It’s a sweet memory.”

Steve & Christy: Out Past 11!

For San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alan Jackson, the prom in 1980 at Greenwich (Conn.) High School marked the first time his curfew went past 11 p.m. “Prom with him was PG-rated,” recalls his date, Christy Fichtner-Alhadef, 32, who went on to become Miss USA in 1986. “We were proper, goody-two-shoes kids.” Romantically involved since seventh grade, Young didn’t have to ask Fichtner-Alhadef to the prom. They just knew they’d go together. The pair spent the evening dancing at the high school and later whiled away the wee hours at the Greenwich Country Club with friends. “We were the couple in high school,” says Young, 34. “We were at the point where we were going to get married.” But after Young left for Brigham Young University and Fichtner-Alhadef began modeling in Europe, they broke up. “I’m not sure what happened,” says Young, who has never married but is currently involved with someone. “It’s difficult to say.” Fichtner-Alhadef, until recently the host of a TV sports show, now lives in Dallas with her husband, Gary, a dentist, and their three sons. She saw Young last fall for the first time in 10 years when the 49ers came to town to play the Cowboys. “He was always the shyest, goofiest, most awkward guy,” she remembers. “And cute.”

Janet & Darric: They tried a little tenderness

Never mind that Darric Graham had a girlfriend or that Janet Jackson, now 30, was involved with musician James DeBarge (their later marriage was annulled). When prom time rolled around at Los Angeles’s Valley Professional School in 1984, the two friends, both seniors, wanted to be together. “We’d talk on the phone four hours a night,” recalls Graham, 30, son of Sly and the Family Stone singer-musician Larry Graham. “We leaned on each other.” Briefly, during the bash at the Beverly Hills Hotel, the mood did turn romantic. “We did a little kissing,” he admits. “But she was with James, I was with another girl. We said, ‘I love you,’ but we said it as friends.” A record producer, Graham today lives in the L.A. suburb of Valley Village with wife Charlene, a secretary, and their son Arric, 1. Currently writing songs for his own album, he occasionally sees his old pal. “Who knows?” he says. “Maybe I’ll get Janet to sing with me.”

Elvis & Regis: The King and she

In 1951, seven years after her family arrived at Lauderdale Courts, a Memphis housing project, Regis Wilson Vaughn had a crush on her neighbor Elvis Presley. “He was a loner, a looker,” says Vaughn, 57. “Very sexy, with slicked-back hair.” Two years later they were dating, and though she was 14 and he was 18, he asked her to his prom at Humes High School. “I was thrilled,” she says. But at the Peabody Hotel, the man who would be King refused to dance. “He didn’t like to,” she says. Later they downed burgers and Cokes at a drive-in before making out—but nothing more—in the Chevy he rented especially for prom night. “I had heard he knew how to kiss in that deep way,” she laughs. “He lived up to my expectations.” Alas, after her family moved away a short time later, the couple lost touch. Now a secretary in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Vaughn has three daughters with husband Herb, a furniture company manager—and endless prom memories. “They’re all positive,” she says.

Katie & Ernie: Très Chic

For teen sweethearts Katie Couric and Ernie Sanders, the 1975 senior prom at Yorktown High School in Arlington, Va., was a chance to get sartorially adventurous. “Ernie wore white tails, a white top hat and a white cane, and I went in a white eyelet dress and a long, white, très glam cigarette holder,” says Today show cohost Couric. “At the time we thought we looked fabulous, but now I look at those pictures and want to kill myself.”

Sanders, now 38, and Couric, 39, started out with a romantic dinner at a French restaurant and, after the dance and a slew of parties, ended the evening with a 5:30 a.m. breakfast. “It was a delightful evening, a fun time,” says Sanders. But that fall, after both enrolled at the University of Virginia, they split up. “We just had different interests,” he explains. An accountant and comic book illustrator, Sanders—still friends with Couric and her family—lives in Falls Church, Va., with his wife, Christine, an attorney, and their two children, Katherine, 18 months, and Paul, 16 weeks. Over the years, Sanders says, little has changed about Couric: “She is exactly the way she appears on TV. She was always fun to be with and a real person. It’s not an act.”

Charles & Amy: First date

NBA great Charles Wade Barkley, onetime star of the Leeds (Ala.) High basketball team, confesses that his 1981 senior prom outing with Amy Shorter Foster “was the only date I went out on in high school. I had my mind on other stuff.” Says his mother, Charcey Glenn: “All he wanted to do was play basketball. I had to insist that he go to the prom.”

The date was a first too for Foster, then a 15-year-old sophomore. “It was my first time ever being out with a boy,” she says of the event at a local Ramada Inn. And even though Barkley, now 33, wouldn’t fast-dance, she recalls, “I was on cloud nine.” Now married with a 6-year-old son, Foster, a Birmingham secretary, remembers Barkley, then known by his middle name, as “real sweet. He was shy, and I liked him ’cause I was shy too.” As for the flamboyant Sir Charles of NBA fame, Foster says, “I just remember him as Wade. Charles Barkley’s a person I don’t know much about.”

Meg & Ray: Group dynamics

Ray Buckley and Meg Ryan, then known as Peggy Hyra, had been dating for a year in 1978 when he escorted her to Bethel High’s junior prom at a Danbury, Conn., reception hall. “We had a lot of fun,” he recalls of that night with Ryan, a popular B-plus student. “We went with a lot of friends.” Buckley (who declined to be photographed), now 35 and owner of a sports publishing company, has kept in touch with Ryan, 34, who, despite stardom, remains “the same person,” he says. As for the magnitude of his date’s success: “It was a surprise.”

Jack & Nancy: What? No good-night kiss?!

When Nancy Purcell (née Smith) broke up with her boyfriend just before the 1953 senior prom at New Jersey’s Manasquan High School, she assumed she would spend the big night at home. But 16-year-old junior Jack Nicholson had other ideas. “I remember standing in the hall talking to Jack, and he said, ‘You have to go. I’ll take you!’ Jack was everyone’s friend. A real outgoing, fun kid.”

A gentleman too. Nicholson came to her doorstep in a gray suit and slipped a white carnation corsage on her wrist to complement the black-and-white prom dress her mother had made. But no sparks were tripped by the light fantastic, and the date ended with the evening’s last jitterbug.

Now 61, Purcell is a Unity church minister in Lynchburg, Va., where her husband of 37 years, Bob, recently retired from teaching. Though her three grown daughters may marvel that Mom once dated the Joker, Purcell still recalls Nicholson, 59, as a sweet 16-year-old who “didn’t kiss me good-night.”

Marge & Artie: Heartbreak for Homer

After meeting Marge Bouvier in detention at Springfield High in 1974 (she was there for burning her bra), class under-achiever Homer Simpson was so smitten he asked her to the prom. But Bouvier already had plans to go with Artie Ziff. “After trouncing her in the debating finals,” recalls Ziff, now a millionaire, “I felt it was the only sporting thing to do.” At the festivities, a heartbroken Homer came stag while Marge and Artie were elected prom queen and king. “I was so lightheaded I thought I would swoon,” says Marge. “Later I realized I was dizzy from Artie’s Primatene Mist.” Later that night when Ziff got fresh, Marge dumped him. On the drive home, she found a forlorn Homer walking along the road—and the rest is history.