Getting Kevin Bacon to come to Payson, Utah, was no easy feat. Just about anyone who has spent the past year trying to get his attention will tell you that.

There’s been letter-writing campaigns, a 1980s-themed homecoming dance, a town screening of “Footloose,” a video from Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, a Mr. Bacon pageant, a #BacontoPayson social media effort and website, community outreach to raise money for his charity SixDegrees, and so, so much more.

To make a long story short, it worked.

On a warm spring Saturday, Payson High School students — many wearing their green-and-white student government sweaters and Bacon to Payson T-shirts that they designed themselves — gathered on the football field to welcome the movie star back to his “Footloose” roots.

Considering all of the effort that went into this moment, which has turned the high school and town at large into a national media circus over the past few months, the rapturous cheers — and even tears — that came as Bacon strutted onto the high school track to approach them wasn’t too surprising.

“You were all just tireless, unrelenting, in your desire to have me return,” Bacon said with a wide smile. “And you talked me into it.”

Looking out over the field through his black sunglasses, Bacon took it all in and marveled at how Payson has grown since filming “Footloose” in the summer of 1983.

“It just blows my mind, you know, things look a little different around here. I’d say the thing that looks the most different is me,” he joked.

In a brief speech, the actor praised the students for their efforts to bring him here. But he also applauded them for making his return about something bigger than himself. On the football field, the students worked together with Bacon and his charity to assemble 5,000 kits for communities and organizations throughout Utah, including Centro de la Familia de Utah, Encircle, Food and Care Coalition and Spy Hop.

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“I think it’s great to see that kind of commitment to anything,” he said. “I also think that’s its amazing, the power that this movie has had to just kind of bring people together and connect on the basic ideas ... of standing up to authority sometimes and being forgiving of people who are not exactly the same as you, standing up for your own freedoms and your right to express yourself and for having compassion for other people. And that’s what all of you have shown here by turning what could be just bringing a movie star back to give a pat on the back to something really positive.”

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Bacon’s return to Payson comes as “Footloose” recently turned 40. The halls of Payson High, which will soon be demolished to make way for a school rebuild, are still peppered with images from the film. And Bacon’s locker is still in tact.

—  “Literally at the assembly we had, I was just hysterically sobbing. ... It was such a ‘we did it’ moment. And it felt so good to finally figure out." -- Gracie Raff, a Payson High sophomore and student body officer.

“It does feel a little bit like walking back in time when you come into Payson,” Virginia Pearce, the executive director of the Utah Film Commission told reporters, noting that the celebration of “Footloose” comes during a year that also commemorates a century of film in Utah. “The school really feels like it did back in 1984. ... it really feels like you’re back on set.”

Evan Laker is carried by Isaac Cowie as students and community members welcome Kevin Bacon to Payson High School and partake in a community kit-building program with Bacon’s charity Six Degrees in Payson on Saturday April 20, 2024. | Marielle Scott, Deseret News

Part of Bacon’s return involved touring the high school with some of the student body officers, who chatted with him and showed him the locker and “Footloose” images. The school even awarded him an honorary diploma.

As the student council adviser at Payson High School, Jenny Staheli has had a front-row seat to the up-and-down roller coaster the students have navigated to get Bacon dancing in their school halls again.

“I mean, we pushed them out of their boxes, we pushed them past their boxes into the next field of boxes,” she told reporters out on the high school football field.

“They had to reach out to people they never would have spoken to, they had to do things they never would have done, they had to show up at times that were unimaginable to a teenager. It’s been really quite something to watch them go through this process,” she said, praising the students’ hard work.

From the start of this effort, Staheli said, the idea was about more than celebrity appeal. She wanted the students involved in a project that had a fun goal — get Bacon’s attention — but that also brought the community together. And joining with Bacon’s kit-building program, BKxKB, was a good way to get their foot in the door (the organization has an overall goal of creating 40,000 kits to commemorate the film’s 40th anniversary).

Bacon surprised the Payson High School students on Friday, March 22, with the news that he would be paying them a visit. The school assembled at 5 a.m. — and brought a remarkably high level of enthusiasm considering the hour — to hear the big reveal.

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‘He didn’t have to say yes’

It wasn’t necessarily a complete shock — Bacon had teased the students by liking some of their videos on TikTok and Instagram, said Alayna Bullard, the student body officer over events. But hearing him make the official announcement still brought plenty of emotions.

“I definitely started sobbing,” Gracie Raff, a Payson High sophomore and student body officer, told the Deseret News. “Literally at the assembly we had, I was just hysterically sobbing. ... It was such a ‘we did it’ moment. And it felt so good to finally figure out.”

Watching the community back the students and their efforts has been one of the more fulfilling parts of this whole project, Staheli said.

“We had a packed gym at like 4:00 a.m., it was crazy,” she said. “People want to be a part of this, they love this idea. The community has thrown itself into supporting us in just a monstrous way. I feel like the school community has reflected that 10 times more.”

On Saturday, out on the football field, hundreds of students and volunteers stood at several rows of tables to pack resource kits alongside Bacon. That included Payson High school teachers and substitutes and their children, Payson Mayor Bill Wright and city council members.

While Staheli said she always hoped Bacon would show up, finally seeing him in person brought a sense of relief and excitement.

“The 18-year-old kid in me is jumping up and down, but ... I’m looking at this as an adviser and wow, what an opportunity for all of these kids at Payson High School,” she said. “I knew we could do it and we did it the right way. I really was just very pleased, really was just so happy and felt so proud of my kids that they accomplished this thing for themselves and just grateful to Kevin Bacon, honestly.

“He didn’t have to say yes,” she continued. “And it’s taken some doing to get him here today, and the willingness that he showed to do that, what a generous guy. It’s great that he was willing to play along.”

Students embrace after welcoming Kevin Bacon to Payson High School and partake in a community kit-building program with Bacon’s charity Six Degrees in Payson on Saturday April 20, 2024. | Marielle Scott, Deseret News