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A Courthouse’s Rites of June : Lines Form for Weddings

Times Staff Writer

His sister was getting married, Robert Brakke reasoned, so why not wear a tuxedo?

Never mind that the bridegroom was wearing only a shirt and tie and that the wedding ceremony would be conducted over the counter at the marriage license office in the Orange County Courthouse in Santa Ana.

“I’ve gotta dress up for my sister’s wedding--it’s a special occasion,” Brakke said with a grin as his sister Karren and her English fiance, Richard O’Neill, filled out their marriage license application.

It was 2:30 on a Friday afternoon in June--the busiest month of the year for the marriage license division. By the end of the day 108 marriage licenses would have been issued and 15 couples would have been married by one of the nine clerks who double as deputy marriage commissioners.

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Karren Brakke, a 24-year-old Los Alamitos resident, and O’Neill, 21, met through a mutual friend three months ago in Arizona where Karren was training with a touring gymnastics company. “I’m very nervous, but I’m not as nervous as I thought I’d be,” said Karren, wearing a white lace dress she and her mother had picked out the night before. “This is the best way to do it, I think. We decided to get married yesterday and I only had one night of no sleep.”

Following the brief ceremony, the newlyweds would have to drive to San Pedro to catch a cruise ship to Mexico at 5 p.m.--a wedding gift from Brakke’s grandmother.

There was, however, a slight hitch to their plans.

The clerk at the counter informed them that their marriage health certificate had not been signed by the medical laboratory technician. They would have to drive back to the lab in Los Alamitos, get the certificate signed and return before the marriage license office closed at 4:30 p.m.

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“OK, you two, we’ll type this up and we’ll be waiting for you,” the clerk said, as the couple, along with Karren’s brother and two friends, headed for the door.

Despite the bureaucratic snafu, the two took the bad news in stride.

But then tempers never flair at the marriage license division--even on busy days like this when more than two dozen people, including a formally attired wedding party of 18, are jammed into the office like sardines.

Every couple that enters room D-100 of the courthouse, it seems, is afflicted by a severe case of premarital bliss.

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At the helm of this landlocked “Love Boat” is Phyllis Hanson, who, since taking over as marriage license division supervisor in 1967, has piloted more than 270,000 couples onto the sea of matrimony.

“It’s a pleasure to come to work every day,” enthused Hanson in an interview. “We, I’m sure without exception, enjoy the work because we only get people who are happy. Does that sound corny? But it’s true!

“I can’t even think of the time there’s been unpleasantness with a couple. They’re very happy. And many of them are very expressive in their love for each other in the office: arm-in-arm, kisses and things"--she laughed--"you know--little pecks on the cheeks, lips and things.”

Hanson said many couples are obviously nervous when they step up to the marriage license counter, the first step in the process of taking the proverbial plunge: “They’ll sign their names wrong; they’ll put the current year instead of the date of their births--just little things.”

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On some occasions, Hanson acknowledged, the anxiety level is so high that prospective brides literally grow faint at the prospect.

Hanson remembers hearing a thud while examining one couple’s application at the counter. The young woman’s fiance revived her, but she hit the floor again. “He thought if she were on her feet, she’d be all right, but she kept disappearing,” said Hanson.

At closing time on another occasion, Hanson was unlocking the door to let out a couple who had just received their license.

“I could see that color on this girl’s face--it was green--and her legs were wobbly. I said, ‘Lay her down on the floor, she’s going to faint.’ He looked at me like I had flipped. We laid her on the floor and she was out. He told me she hadn’t eaten all day.”

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Hanson smiled at the memory: After all, she said, “This is the ‘big step.”’

Last year, 19,716 Orange County couples took the big step. When Hanson became supervisor in 1967, the office issued only 9,432 marriage licenses.

Marriage license applicants range from those who are under 18 and need parental consent and a court order, to couples in their 80s--and above.

“A man called yesterday who was 90,” Hanson said, “He just wanted to know what he had to do for his marriage. He said they’re not getting married right away.” Hanson sighed: “It’s just beautiful.”

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A list of some of the better-known applicants who have passed through the office includes TV host Bill Burrud, singer Jose Feliciano, actors George Kennedy and Willy Aames and former Olympians Cathy Rigby and Rafer Johnson.

“When they (celebrities) do come in we just try to act as though they’re nobody special,” said Hanson. “We give everyone the same kind of treatment. We just do our best to make it a pleasant kind of experience.”

The procedure is simple: Couples, who must apply together, bring in their marriage health certificate, which is issued by a physician after a premarital blood test. They fill out a license application, a clerk types up their license and then administers an oath in which the couple swears that the facts they presented are true.

When Hanson started work in the marriage license division in the early ‘60s the fee for a marriage license was only $2--the same price it had been since the turn of the century.

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The fee rose from $2 to $5 in 1966 and remained relatively stable until 1980 when it was raised three times in 12 months: from $6 to $20. It’s now $34, but it will increase again in July to $35.

Costs More Today

Hanson said many couples are surprised at how much it costs for a marriage license today, particularly older couples who have been married before and remember when it was only $2.

“You know it’s we on the line who take the brunt (of criticism) when we ask for the fee,” said Hanson. “But, of course, it’s part of the job and we do it as cheerfully as we can.”

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Because of the diversity of nationalities living in Orange County, Hanson said it’s not uncommon for couples to bring along an interpreter. She remembers one couple years ago--Czech refugees in their 60s--who had their license issued through an interpreter. After paying the license fee, the Czech man asked in halting English, “Do I get green stamps?”

Although a marriage license is valid for 90 days, many couples choose to get married on the spot. The fee is only $15.

“It’s a civil ceremony, a simple exchange of vows that takes about three minutes,” said Hanson. “But it’s very permanent, I can tell you.

“And we make it meaningful for these people. I don’t know how many times we’ve gotten letters from people saying how meaningful it was to them.”

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Weddings have been performed in the marriage license division office since 1974. In the beginning, the ceremonies were conducted in a small, adjoining room and the clerks would don blue robes for the occasion.

But the robes haven’t been used since 1979 when the room became unavailable and the ceremonies were moved out to the counter.

If the counter-side ceremony is less private, there’s one advantage. “We can accommodate many more people because we have them at the counter,” said Hanson. “Our biggest day we had 50 ceremonies.”

And just because these couples forgo elaborate--and expensive--church ceremonies, that doesn’t mean they don’t make the best of it.

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Some Very Formal

“There are many interesting ceremonies where the girls will have a long, traditional white gown and veil and the fellow will be in a tux and the witnesses and friends will be dressed just to the hilt,” said Hanson, smiling. “It’s just beautiful.”

Some couples add their own twists to the occasion, bringing flowers and taking pictures. One couple placed a candelabra on each side of a bouquet of flowers they placed on the counter. Another couple brought champagne and Twinkies. (However, Hanson duly notes, the bottle wasn’t uncorked on the premises.)

Some guests throw rice. Entire wedding parties have been known to break into song.

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Hanson remembers a Dutch couple and their 20-member wedding party “singing love songs from Holland--it was just beautiful.”

Another time, an Irish couple who got married on St. Patrick’s Day sang Irish songs and danced a jig. “Oh, gosh that was hilarious,” said Hanson.

“And we had one wedding--this is so cute--we heard this music in the distance. Kazoos! All the friends who had come with them to get married, they were playing ‘The Wedding March’ with kazoos!”

Hanson wryly noted there are times when people pass by the office and can’t resist sticking their head in the door and saying, “Hey, don’t do it!”

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But frequently, she said, the entire office full of applicants breaks into applause when the clerk pronounces a couple husband and wife.

Of course, that’s providing the crowd in the marriage license office isn’t so large that they can’t even hear the ceremony.

Couple Returns

That was the case when Karren Brakke and O’Neill returned with their properly signed marriage health certificate shortly after 3:30 p.m.

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“You wouldn’t believe this mad drive!” said Karren, nevertheless managing a big smile. “I’m glad we made it back. I’m a nervous wreck.”

The couple turned the health certificate over to the clerk and O’Neill, his tie loosened and his sleeves rolled up, went out in the hallway to smoke a cigarette.

Karren stayed behind, waiting for their names to be called.

“We didn’t want a big ceremony because we’ve got two families in two different parts of the world,” she said, noting that in September they will fly to London where O’Neill’s parents own a hotel. “We’ll have a reception in each place and not hurt anyone’s feelings.”

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Finally, clerk Chris White stepped up to the counter.

“Richard and Karren,” she called out.

The couple, smiling, approached the end of the counter which White euphemistically called “our chapel.”

“It is our purpose here to unite in marriage Karren Brakke and Richard O’Neill . . . ,” began White, who has married so many couples during 2 1/2 years on the job that she has the ceremony memorized.

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Speaking clearly and sincerely, White cautioned them that “the contract of marriage is not to be entered into lightly” and advised them to “strive all your lives to meet this commitment with the same love and devotion that you now possess.” She concluded with the traditional, “I now pronounce you husband and wife.”

It was over in less than three minutes.

“You may kiss the bride,” said White, smiling broadly.

The bridegroom, appearing somewhat embarrassed, gave his wife a peck on the mouth.

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“Kiss her!” chided a friend.

“I already did,” said O’Neill.

“Kiss her!” the friend insisted.

O’Neill repeated the kiss, this time lingering a bit longer.

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“It was great!” beamed the new Mrs. Richard O’Neill immediately after the ceremony. “It wasn’t scary at all.”

Does she feel married?

“No, not really,” she said, as they headed out the door to catch their boat, “but it’ll hit me sooner or later.”


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