It was, by all appearances, an innocent if lavish 50th birthday celebration. Black tie. Elegant invitations. The patio outside the Beverly Hills Hotel Polo Lounge. Guests flying in from New York and Hawaii.
But suddenly, after the expected birthday toasts, the honoree watched her boyfriend commandeer the microphone, drop to one knee and announce to the crowd, “Susan, there’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you. I love you madly. Will you marry me?”
“Everybody screamed,” recalls Susan Lane, his intended. “They thought, ‘Oh my God, how fabulous! This is an engagement party.’ So then I took the microphone--we’d rehearsed this--and I said, ‘I don’t believe in long engagements. What did you you have in mind?’ He . . . said, ‘OK, big shot, you’re putting me on the spot. How about now? ‘ “
Thus Lee Wertheimer, co-owner of a Los Angeles janitorial and parking services firm, and Susan Lane, a bridal gown designer/manufacturer, hopped aboard a fast-spreading, late ‘80s trend: surprise weddings.
When She Said ‘Yes’
According to Lane, once she accepted the proposal, Wertheimer instantly moved in for the matrimonial kill. “He got up and yelled, ‘Reverend!’ The reverend--Connie Pujaney--was hiding in the bushes with my bouquet. . . .
“She . . . called the family forward. People were just still screaming, carrying on like you wouldn’t believe. They were yelling things like, ‘Are you sure?’ They’d had some Champagne. Then she started the ceremony. We have it on video. They panned around and people’s mouths were just wide open.”
Pop weddings such as the Wertheimer-Lane extravaganza of last July, have taken place at restaurants, the beach, country clubs and even a bowling alley, where the blissful couple posed beneath a Budweiser sign just after the service.
“Within the last year, they (surprise weddings) have come up more and more. It’s snowballing,” reports Kevin Ray, owner of the Bent Willow floral shop in North Hollywood. “Actually, I love them, because you’re not dealing with crazy brides changing their minds. It’s a lot easier and more fun.”
Occasionally the nuptial equivalent of a sly Penn & Teller magic/comedy act, the ceremonies are typically staged by those who say they want to avoid the hassles of traditional weddings in which many family members aid in the planning, sometimes disastrously.
As Lane puts it, “No one’s telling you that your Aunt Millie should be invited or that your fat cousin in Iowa needs to be a bridesmaid.”
Couples who choose such unorthodox rites include celebrities and non-celebs alike. Talk show host Geraldo Rivera and his producer/wife C. C. Dyer, for instance, lured family members to Cape Cod in 1987, promising them a clam bake and family reunion. Says Dyer: “I didn’t want a big wedding. It was Geraldo’s idea. Everyone was really happy about it. . . . The only people who were (upset) were his ex-wife and my best friend, who weren’t invited.”
In the same year, actors Tom Cruise and Mimi Rogers had a surprise wedding in Upstate New York. And Anson Williams, one of the stars of the TV’s “Happy Days,” who now directs episodes of such television shows as “Hooperman” and “L.A. Law,” married television producer Jackie Gerken last Thanksgiving in a surprise ceremony. They billed it as special “entertainment” following a Thanksgiving dinner with both families at a local restaurant.
Says Gerken: “About a half hour before dinner was over . . . (we told) everyone to meet us at the Hotel Bel-Air. No one had a clue. . . . (Given the formality of the dinner party) we knew everyone would be dressed nicely and look good for the picture. If you try to do one of these things, you have to be careful of that.
“My parents arrived first and even when they walked in the room and saw this big wedding cake and champagne, they still didn’t get it. I had changed into a white long dress and Anson had on his tux and they still didn’t get it. I just had to tell them, ‘We’re getting married.’ Luckily there was a chair close by. My mother’s legs sort of went out.”
Adds Williams: “There’s something about the traditional wedding, at least for us, that takes the joy and spontaneity away. You’re basically having it for other people, not yourselves. . . . A wedding is feelings and sharing them with the closest people in your life.”
Rather than premeditated and orchestrated, Williams says the wedding was warm, caring and emotional. “Everybody there thought it was the best one they ever participated in. I’m somewhat against the traditional type of wedding. I don’t think it starts couples off on a healthy time with their families. There’s so much pressure. You’re dealing with everybody except your mate.”
Recently, however, a bridegroom managed to do exactly that--and still concoct a surprise wedding. Last October, Edward de Roo, a Newhall video editor, arranged a wedding that everybody knew about . . . except the bride.
After he had lived with and spurned his girlfriend’s marriage suggestions for eight years, De Roo says he decided to marry her. With the help of her daughter and stepson, he had proper, engraved invitations sent to all their friends and family members. And he had one other invitation--to a phony wedding of a couple the two knew--printed up just for his intended.
Linda de Roo simply thought she was attending somebody else’s wedding when she showed up at the Knollwood Country Club in Granada Hills.
“Her daughter had the wedding bouquet. She came up to her and said, ‘Mom, you’re getting married today,’ ” Edward de Roo remembers. “She (Linda) gave it back to her and said, ‘Don’t be ridiculous.’ . . . Finally, she was rushed up to the altar and only then, when she saw me standing there, did she realize it was her wedding day.”
Adele Cooke, general services manager for an L. A. investment management firm, was similarly shocked when her boyfriend arranged a surprise wedding for her as a Christmas present in 1985.
As one of her gifts, Cooke received an envelope with a card containing a series of “yes” and “no” questions.
“They were questions like ‘Can you be ready in an hour?’ and '(Can you refrain from making) any phone calls until I say so?’ And then, ‘If you answered yes to all the questions, would you marry me. . . . If you answered no, it’s the thought that counts,’ ” Cooke says.
Two Tickets to Las Vegas
The next envelope contained two tickets to Las Vegas. So with her boyfriend, publisher Jim Wiggins, Cooke left immediately for the airport. There, she says, was her best friend, ready to be her maid of honor and equipped with “all the things you’re supposed to get--something borrowed, something blue, a halfpenny for my shoe.” The best man also arrived at the airport and the four flew to Las Vegas for a ceremony at the We’ve Only Just Begun wedding chapel.
“We were living together for eight years so this was unexpected,” Cooke explains. “I had talked about marriage a lot. He never had. It was the ultimate shock when he asked me and meant it.”
But surprises aren’t limited to the uninformed. Sometimes, even a partner who knows a wedding is in the works winds up being surprised as well.
Last March, commercial realtor Donna Binder Roth totally floored her fiance with a double whammy: a birthday party/surprise wedding at a Santa Monica bowling alley.
The two were engaged, Roth recalls, and her bridegroom, toy inventors’ agent Jay Roth, knew a birthday party was planned for him. But he had no idea where it was. When he found out the birthday bash also included his wedding, he told his soon-to-be wife, “This has to be a progressive wedding.”
It wasn’t. But the couple did change clothes and move the party off the lanes and into the attached restaurant for the ceremony. “It was a shock to everybody,” Binder Roth recalls. “Who would do it there? A bowling alley is dark, smoky and dingy. Who wants to be a bride without sunlight and beauty?”
She adds that the event was a hit with everyone present. “We took the wedding picture underneath the Budweiser sign. . . . We were hoping to make Bowling Monthly but we didn’t.”
What do etiquette experts think about such surprise tactics?
“It’s nice but it’s selfish,” says Letitia Baldrige, who headed Jacqueline Kennedy’s White House staff and has written six books on etiquette. “A wedding, to me, is a coming together of all generations, a multigenerational, give-and-take kind of thing. This is strictly for the bride and groom. It’s their choice and they can do it, but they’re not giving as much pleasure to the other people in their families.”
Barbara Tober, editor-in-chief of Bride’s magazine, finds the phenomenon “an interesting new idea . . . a clever thing for people planing a wedding in a hurry or thinking of their wedding as the party of a lifetime.”
Tober’s counterpart at Modern Bride magazine, editor-in-chief Cele Lalli, likewise considers pop weddings “fun and appropriate for older couples. It’s not inappropriate for younger ones, but it’s more logical for older couples. Younger people are looking for something much more of ritualistic rite of passage, something both families can share in the planning and anticipation of.”
But for a dynamically charged ceremony--one Los Angeles art dealer G. Ray Hawkins describes as “spontaneous combustion"--there’s nothing like slipping an extra twist into the wedding knot.
Hawkins and his wife, gourmet food products manufacturer Susan Hawkins, planned a surprise wedding for her friends in 1985.
Initially, a wedding shower had been planned for the bride and the couple planned to marry in a judge’s chambers two weeks later, holding a larger reception after that. “We were two adults who’d been married before. We spent a lot of time with people who represent certain locations and homes. We considered all sorts of things,” Susan Hawkins says. “In the meantime, the shower was approaching and we still hadn’t decided what we were doing for the reception. G. Ray said: ‘Why don’t we just get married at the shower?’ ”
So the couple contacted all the mates or boyfriends of the women invited to the shower and let them in on the plan. Then, after the women had lunched at a Beverly Glen restaurant, the men all entered at the same time, each handing his companion a sealed envelope with a card that read:
Roses are red,
Violets are blue,
Today’s the day,
The surprise is on you.
“It was really terrific,” G. Ray Hawkins remembers. “Everybody pulled together tighter than a sardine can. . . . It was a real pray-in. . . . People were weeping. . . . Other couples who’d been married for 15 years--they were hugging. It was incredibly intimate. . . . Nobody wanted to leave.”
What’s more, nearly four years later, the event is approaching legend status. Says the art dealer, sounding as if he’s still enjoying the honeymoon: “We hear about that wedding from total strangers. I have talked to people who say, ‘I heard about that wedding--was that you?’ ”