Like many small towns in Oklahoma, Elmore City is largely a farming community. Population 700-something. Thirteen miles west of Pauls Valley. Sits at a four-way stop sign. Blink-and-you’ll-miss-it.
Just about every Generation X-er nationwide knows that such an event went down in the 1984 blockbuster film “Footloose,” in which Kevin Bacon’s high school character relocates from Chicago to a small, unnamed town. He’s shocked to learn dancing is banned in this tiny, religious-right city but is so determined to have a senior prom, he’s going to do something about it.
But few know the real story behind the story — that the film is based upon actual events that occurred in Elmore City.
Enacted back in the late 1800s, an old law prohibited dancing within the city limits. For years, students had asked to be allowed to have a prom, only to be told “no” time and time again because it would be against the law and the school board never would allow it. Until the 1979-1980 school year, that is.
HOLDING OUT FOR A HERO
In 1977, Rachel Bailey was one bummed-out student at Elmore City High’s junior-senior banquet.
“I remember it was so frustrating to have raised $450 for a band and having to sit there with our arms folded, tapping our feet and not being able to dance,” Bailey recalled.
Enacted back in the late 1800s, an old law prohibited dancing within the city limits. For years, students had asked to be allowed to have a prom, only to be told “no” time and time again because it would be against the law and the school board never would allow it.
According to Dean Worsham, the high school principal from 1962 to 1981, “I believe it was there to keep down the riots and drunken brawls, even though we didn’t have any. It was an ordinance on the books that nobody paid attention to.”
Until the 1979-1980 school year, that is.
That’s when members of the junior class — responsible for planning the annual, dance-free banquet —set out to change the law keeping them from exercising their burnin’ yearnin’ to kick off their Sunday shoes.
“We just wanted to have a dance in a safe place,” said Mary Ann Temple-Lee, member of that now-revolutionary Class of ’81. “So we put together a plan to make it a win-win.”
Remembers Leonard Coffee — one of two students upon whom the Bacon character would be based; class president Rex Kennedy was the other — “We were having a planning meeting about the banquet and I, not knowing about the law against it, just asked, ‘Why don’t we have a prom like all the other schools?’”
It was a good question. As a 4H member and student council officer, Temple-Lee had the opportunity to dance only when going out of town for conventions for those organizations, and “it was always a big deal — pretty cool, pretty fun,” she said.
So, the class officers approached Worsham, who personally detailed how they should make a presentation to the school board and explain their need for a prom. If they could get past that unlikely obstacle, they’d have to do the same to get the City Council to abolish the outdated law.
Said Temple-Lee, “In our minds, there was truly no doubt that we could do it. We were very professional and organized, and we were doing the right thing.”
After all, they reasoned, because there was no dance, students would ditch the banquet and head for neighboring towns, sometimes getting killed in the process because of drunk driving and whatnot. All they wanted was a dance for those who wanted to dance, and other activities for those who didn’t, all under one roof. All for less than 75 students of the combined junior and senior class.
“We were told the school board was afraid things would get out of hand, so they were condemning us before we ever did anything wrong,” Coffee said. “Living in the Bible Belt, I understood their viewpoint, but I didn’t see why that should keep those of us without religious convictions from dancing. But once we all started talking, we had the support of several teachers and our sponsors, and it snowballed from there.”
But even with snowballs, somebody’s bound to get hurt.
Bailey, now Elmore City’s mayor, said the town was “bitterly divided” over the controversy. The Methodists were the only church in town in favor of letting the students dance the night away, while the Baptists and the Church of Christ preached that dancing would lead to dancing in the sheets.
Worsham downplayed the controversy, claiming “only a few people were vocal about it: a few preachers, who were expected to be against it. I don’t dance, but I’m not against it. There’s nothing vulgar about it.”
“What made a lot of people against it,” Temple-Lee agreed, “was that it was preached from the pulpit.”
Because of that, the students had their work cut out for them, as the school board was evenly divided with Baptist and Church of Christ members on one side and Methodists and sway voters on the other.
Said Coffee, “A lot of folks told us we were wasting our time, that the board was never going to allow it. We were defeated before we started.”
“We knew we gave it our all and we knew we would still have a great banquet, dance or no dance,” Temple-Lee said.
After the students made their presentation to the board, the vote came in at a tie. It was up to the school board president — rancher Raymond Temple, Temple-Lee’s father — to cast the deciding vote. He voted “yes,” and the rest is history.
“We were ecstatic,” said Coffee, who credits persistence and one-on-one contact with board members for helping them achieve their ultimate goal.
Bailey, who was then in college, remembers hearing about the reversal of misfortune and being “thrilled to death. We were all very proud of them for taking a stand. It was just time.”
Added Worsham, who still serves the school as a bus driver, “We might have some help from above, too, but the kids did it correctly. They learned how to accomplish something the right way. We didn’t intend to have any publicity, though.”
LET’S HEAR IT FOR THE BOY
Items about the Elmore City controversy began making their way throughout the press, leading to the eventual prom being covered by People magazine.
Half a country away, one Oscar-winning songwriter was taking notes.
Having won an Academy Award in 1981 as the lyricist of the theme song from “Fame” (you know, “I’m going to live forever / Baby remember my name”?), Dean Pitchford had found himself flooded with movie offers. Unfortunately, they were the “really stupid kind that we had done to death,” he said, noting he was looking for a movie to support the music and not the other way around.
When he read about Elmore City’s minor student uprising and the neighbor versus neighbor disagreements it caused, “I knew I had immediately fulfilled my mission,” he said.
But Pitchford was a songwriter, not a screenwriter. After formulating a first draft and realizing he was looking from the outside in, Pitchford hopped a flight to Oklahoma City and rented a car to head for Elmore City. And at first, he couldn’t find it.
“All I saw was the sign that said, ‘Now leaving Elmore City,’ and I went, ‘Oh, that was it?’” he recalled.
For a week, Pitchford did his research around town, visiting the high school, hanging out with the students, attending prayer meetings and talking to shopkeepers and other locals.
“I had only a second impression of Elmore City, since my first impression was that there wasn’t anything there,” Pitchford said, “and that was it was an extremely small, little slip of civilization. And everybody I met was quality people and I had the most wonderful time. I’m very grateful to them.”
Returning home to revise his script, Pitchford soon found the film greenlit by Paramount Pictures. Slated to direct was Herbert Ross (who died in 2001), who had previously combined Oklahoma and music on celluloid before with 1977’s ballet drama “The Turning Point.”
Right away, however, Ross wanted to take the Oklahoma out of “Footloose.”
Explained Pitchford, “He made a good point that if we set it in a specific time and place, the opportunity could arise where you can point to it and say, ‘That doesn’t happen anymore.’ So, we changed the turf — there’s no reference to a real town — and let the whole story float above a date and place. It never crash-lands in reality.”
“Footloose” was shot in Utah on a budget of just above $8 million, which, Pitchford noted, is “what they spend to make a TV movie now.” Although not a critical success (“seriously confused,” Roger Ebert raved), the film defied expectations — if there were any — striking enough of a chord with moviegoing audiences to gross $80 million when it was released in spring 1984. In today’s dollars, Pitchford said, that box-office take would be close to $200 million.
Even more successful was the soundtrack, which found Pitchford competing against himself in the Best Song category at that year’s Oscars (he lost to Stevie Wonder). The Loggins-led soundtrack album has sold some 17 million copies worldwide — no trip to the dentist is complete without hearing at least one track from it — and became a Trivial Pursuit answer for dislodging Michael Jackson’s behemoth “Thriller” from the No. 1 spot.
“Nobody had a clue,” Pitchford said of the film’s runaway-hit status. “At the time, everything about the movie was low-key and small. I’m not even sure the studio knew about us. We were a diversion.”
Pitchford’s post-“Footloose” writing career began and ended with 1989’s flop high-school musical “Sing,” but he’s kept busy as a lyricist ever since, penning songs for such films as “Chances Are” and “The Lizzie McGuire Movie.” And proof to the enduring “Footloose” legacy, he adapted the film for a 1998 Broadway musical and a Lyric Theatre production that was performed in Oklahoma City last year. The event brought Pitchford back to this state for the first time since his initial research more than two decades ago.
“It was only at that time that I learned about the impact it had in Elmore City,” he said, citing the town’s own “red carpet” premiere. “Only 20 years later am I hearing about the people of Elmore City again.”
And thanks to a recent E! cable television series called “Based On” and Paramount’s 20th anniversary-edition DVD — both of which visited Elmore City for documentary interviews — he’s not the only one.
Twenty years after it first rock ’n’ rolled its way across American movie screens, Worsham said he remembers “Footloose” as being “pretty accurate” but warned, “we’re not a bunch of country bumpkins.”
Although in the film, Chris Penn famously played a student who was inept at dancing until being tutored in the moves department by Bacon, Worsham said no such embarrassments occurred during that historic prom.
“At first I was afraid they wouldn’t know what to do, but when the music started, all my worries went away,” he said, “which means it wasn’t their first dance!”
Temple-Lee said she felt the movie portrayed the teenagers as “a little wilder than we were, but that’s Hollywood, and it’s OK. The fact we were so professional, not a lot of that came out.”
Temple-Lee is commonly believed to be the inspiration for the female lead, Lori Singer’s rebellious daughter of hardheaded preacher John Lithgow (although Temple-Lee’s father was a rancher). But, she said, “there’s no way I would do the things she did because my dad was so highly respected in the community. I knew how to have fun and still do, but I was always safe and respectful.”
Oh, come on — no chicken races with tractors? No straddling two moving vehicles on the highway? No late-night rocking out in the barn with dramatic backlighting?
“You’ve got to be kidding,” she said. “Our dads would’ve killed us. The tractors are like $100,000 and a major part of the family income! That would not be something the kids from this area would even dream of doing.”
Agrees Coffee, who was Temple-Lee’s high school sweetheart, “As far as I know, that stuff never happened. They showed fights before the dance; never happened. They portrayed a lot of dissension, like the students against the world, and it wasn’t like that. It would have been a better movie had it been more accurate, but if I don’t think about it, it’s a pretty good movie. Although, I think Kevin Bacon was a lot better in ‘Tremors’ than he was in ‘Footloose.’”
“A few things were exaggerated,” Bailey said, “but as far as the emotions go, the movie is very accurate. The idea that people believed dancing is wrong, that you would go to hell, is hysterical to me.”
The mayor said Elmore City is quite proud of “Footloose,” even if the town has changed a great deal since the movie came out.
“The Internet has brought the world to us,” she said. “Back then, not everybody had a TV. We’re not the repressed community we were after the oil bust.”
To show how far the town has come since the events of 1980, Bailey said she’s in the middle of planning a public street dance this spring. And yes, she promises, Loggins’ “Footloose” theme will be among the songs played.
Now working as a school counselor in Noble, Temple-Lee said she believes that, despite the inaccuracies, the film carries positive messages from which today’s youth can benefit. “It can help other kids, showing them there are appropriate ways to change policies,” she said.
Today a member services representative and loss control coordinator for Rural Electric Cooperative in Lindsay, Coffee finds his own little contribution to Elmore City history and Hollywood history “strange. If you look on the Internet, it’s almost a cult film, like ‘Rocky Horror Picture Show,’ and that, to me, is weird.”
So strong is that cult that Paramount has a remake in the works, to bring the gift of “Footloose” to a whole new generation. And all because some kids in little ol’ Elmore City got this feelin’ that time was holdin’ them down.
But what makes Coffee “more proud than anything is that they still have a prom every year and haven’t done anything to do away with it. That is a great feeling of accomplishment,” he said. —Rod Lott