Prom on Wheels creator cancels O.C. fairgrounds fete as in-person proms poised for a comeback

A rendering of Prom on Wheels, a drive-through prom developed by Newport Beach event planner Hollie Keeton.
A rendering of Prom on Wheels, a drive-through prom developed by Newport Beach event planner Hollie Keeton for O.C. fairgrounds. Keeton recently canceled the event, when coronavirus cases began to ebb.
(Courtesy of First Class Events)

If there’s anything Hollie Keeton has learned in 25 years of pulling off large-scale productions as owner of Newport Beach’s First Class Events, it’s that the show must go on.

That lesson was driven home last spring, when the coronavirus pandemic began dropping atomic bombs on even the best laid plans. Keeton was organizing 50 different high school proms when she began to see the writing on the wall.

“Every single one of them canceled,” the Newport Beach resident recalled. “I, like everybody, was completely in the spin cycle — I had no idea what to.”

Her first instinct was to postpone the events to later in the year. But as the pandemic wore on, and plans for 30 winter formal dances were dashed, Keeton knew she would have to retool.

Hollie Keeton, owner of Newport Beach's First Class Events
Hollie Keeton, owner of Newport Beach’s First Class Events, has continually retooled to offer clients options during the pandemic. Her latest effort is a traveling senior spectacular for high schools looking for outdoor proms or grad nights.
(Courtesy of First Class Events)

She’d noticed the proliferation of drive-through experiences, saw how they allowed people to celebrate in a safe and distanced manner. So, she attended all the drive-through events she could muster, taking notes on what worked and what didn’t, so she could craft a version for her own clientele.

The result was Prom on Wheels, an O.C. fairgrounds extravaganza that would let teens motor through a 1-mile wonderland, from a glowing red carpet light tunnel to five themed prom zones, complete with life-sized props, stages and special effects.

“I figured if I could take the key elements of what’s important for a prom and put it into a drive-through format…it could be the most epic experience ever,” Keeton said.

A certain school could block out some time, so students could celebrate with teachers and administrators as photos and videos of classmates were projected on walls along the way.

A rendering of Prom on Wheels, a drive-through event planned for the O.C. fairgrounds recently canceled by organizers.
A rendering of a themed zone at Prom on Wheels, a drive-through event planned for the O.C. fairgrounds recently canceled by organizers.
(Courtesy of First Class Events)

Keeton described Prom on Wheels’ grand finale, a huge Coachella-like staging area where students could watch as their school’s prom court and royalty were presented. Hearing the pitch, 10 schools booked dates for the O.C. fairgrounds fete, running April 15 through June 5.

In a global pandemic, however, there are no guarantees. And so, just as quickly as the rising tide of coronavirus had scuttled Keeton’s earlier plans, its rapid ebbing began to spell disaster for Prom on Wheels.

“I started this project right after Christmas. I didn’t think we were going to have in-person events in the next three months,” Keeton said. “But there was an announcement we were looking to be moved into the orange (reopening) tier. Once that announcement was made, everything changed.”

Schools began backing out as the prospect of in-person proms became conceivable. Meanwhile, the O.C. fairgrounds began preparing for the March 31 debut of a new county-run COVID-19 vaccination super site that might edge out Prom on Wheels.

A new COVID-19 vaccination super POD site at the Orange County fairgrounds in Costa Mesa opened March 30.
The March 30 opening of a COVID-19 vaccination super POD site at the Orange County fairgrounds impacted plans for a drive-through Prom on Wheels, which was canceled earlier this month.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

At the start of the month, Keeton made the difficult decision to cancel Prom on Wheels — but she still had an ace up her sleeve.

She’d simultaneously been developing a traveling “Senior Spectacular” event, outdoor celebrations for schools wanting to host their own socially distanced, on-campus senior soirees.

Like Prom on Wheels, the smaller productions would resemble a night-time carnival, with LED lights and themed zones. Students could dance to live music on tiny, distanced platforms, play games and go on rides without interacting too closely.

“You still get the dancing, you get the deejay, you see all your friends and get all the activities,” the event planner said.

The mother of a Newport Harbor High School junior and an Ensign Intermediate School seventh grader, Keeton is now reaching out to schools looking for outdoor party options.

Newport-Mesa Unified School District officials announced last week they would hold in-person graduations and promotions for most secondary schools, barring a shift in virus trends. On Tuesday, the district approved returning middle and high schoolers to full-day instruction for four days per week, starting April 26.

While no word has been issued on proms and other senior activities, district spokeswoman Annette Franco said Friday site administrators were putting their heads together.

“We have guidance for outdoor events, so I think every school is trying to figure out how to apply that,” she added. “Some schools are in talks right now about modified, in-person proms, but I don’t know that anyone has gotten into the planning yet.”

For anyone in need of a safe, fun alternative for seniors, First Class Events will be there.

“It’s been such a labor of love,” Keeton said of her year of planning, pivoting and reinventing. “In a lot of ways, it’s a love for my business, but also for the communities I serve who have been so good to me.”

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