MOUNT STERLING — Montgomery County's Clay Community Center looked like the site of a movie premiere Saturday night.
Hundreds of onlookers began gathering early in the evening behind a metal fence that had been set up along the community center's front sidewalk.
Some brought lawn chairs; others arrived early enough to get a seat in the bleachers. Latecomers stood six deep, and cars were parked along the bypass because parking was at a premium. There were velvet ropes, a red carpet and a sharply dressed announcer with a microphone.
The stars of the evening weren't actors and actresses, though: They were seniors from Montgomery County High School and their prom dates.
Gracie Back and her husband, Pearl Back, arrived about 4:45 p.m. to get a good spot for viewing their granddaughter.
"To her, it is a big deal," Gracie Back said.
Pearl Back wore a pair of binoculars he'd bought at a yard sale earlier in the day.
"The kids go all out for this prom," said Mary Hiler, who was waiting to watch her grandson and granddaughter make their big entrance.
Jennifer Trimble, whose family regularly hosts foreign exchange students, said the spectacle surrounding prom has gradually increased since 1984, when she was a senior.
"It's just grown year after year," she said. "The community expects it now. What are they going to be in? How are they going to be dressed?"
Kenn Johnson, a retired teacher who taught at the school, said other high school events, such as the musical and Junior Miss pageant, are also well-attended.
"It's a small town, and we don't have a lot to do," he said. "Everybody supports their kids."
"And everyone else's," Trimble added.
On Saturday, the students formed a parade of vehicles in which they made a grand arrival, completing red carpet interviews and posing for pictures before strutting into the prom.
The parking lot looked like a classic car show might be about to begin.
"Everybody likes to have something a little bit different," said senior Shelby Chandler. She was at the front of the line of vehicles in a 2013 Ford F150 procured by her dad, who works at an auto dealership.
Other modes of transportation included a tractor-trailer cab; pickup trucks pulling a pontoon boat and a horse trailer; a racing pace car; and many antique vehicles.
Hannah Turner and Gabe Kirk came in a replica of the Tardis, the time machine from the British science fiction series Doctor Who.
Turner said she and some friends had planned to come in a limo, but they decided that was too expensive.
"Doctor Who's kinda my favorite," Turner said. "Dad was like, 'Why don't we just make a Tardis?'"
The contraption, which included a smoke machine, was pulled on a trailer behind a pickup truck driven by Turner's father, Todd Turner.
Hannah Turner said she wasn't sure what would become of the Tardis after prom, but her family just put in a pool, so it might be put to use as a changing room.
Gabe Rupe took an understated approach, driving himself and his date in his gray 1994 Buick Regal Custom.
But, he said, "It's got more sentimental value than every car here put together.
"My entire high school career is wrapped up in this car," he said. "What better way to finish than what's been with me all along?"
Tickets to the prom are free, but to get them, students must have fewer than 10 unexcused absences and have paid all their fees — including library fines and lunchroom tabs, said Diana Cline, a Spanish teacher who serves as co-sponsor for the prom.
Cline said the students hold fundraisers to raise money for the prom. This year's class raised $6,000. On top of that, the community donated $13,000 in money and prizes for the after-prom party, Cline said.
So after dancing the first part of the night away, many promgoers will spend the rest of the night playing games, culminating in an early-morning water balloon fight on the soccer field.
"It's going to be a lot of fun," junior McKenna Bowling said.
Karla Ward: (859) 231-3314. Twitter: @HLpublicsafety