Sidewalk Bliss


The music is Mendelssohn's "Wedding March." Mendelssohn, morning, noon and night. Mendelssohn booming out over the grimy city sidewalk, where pigeons peck at rice tossed at departing brides and grooms.

Any given week, 60 couples may enter single and, 15 to 30 minutes later, walk married out of the Guadalupe Wedding Chapel, which is wedged between the Goodwill store and Christy's Donuts on South Broadway in downtown Los Angeles.

Wee Kirk o' the Heather, it's not. "It doesn't look like a chapel. It looks like an office," concedes owner Maria Morchon. Some clients would get confused and wind up in a rival chapel nearby, so 10 months ago she decided to fancy things up.

A white lovers' bench with an arch of plastic flowers appeared on the sidewalk. "The Wedding March" was piped out, nonstop. People began noticing, all right. Tourists sit on the bench, posing as newlyweds, a little joke on the folks back home.

But the bench is also a hit with real brides and grooms. As friends chant, "Beso! Beso!" ("Kiss, Kiss!"), they perch there for photos, oblivious to the tawdry street scene.

When we visited on Easter Sunday, 11 couples were being wed in one of the three flower-decked chapels within the Guadalupe. It's one-stop shopping: For $145 they get the minister, the chapel, artificial flowers, the music, the wedding gown (a loaner), the rings (gold-plated) and either a video or a cake-cutting set.

All this, plus a honeymoon in Vegas--two days, including round-trip by bus.

Behind the plate-glass windows advertising not only "casamientos" but also income tax and immigration services, six women attend to the paperwork--things like marital histories, method of payment. Morchon mentions, "We do a lot of [paperwork for] divorces," being so close to the county courthouse.

On one wall hangs a rococo-framed print of "The Last Supper," on another, a "NO REFUNDS" sign, together with logos for Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Diners Club and Discover.

Brides and grooms of weddings past smile down from framed montages. There are brides in strapless gowns, grooms in tuxedos. And there are brides and grooms in jeans. Morchon says, "We have people getting married at 9 in the morning. They're on their way to work."

The chapel opens at 8:30 a.m. and is open until 9:30 nightly except Sundays, when it closes at 7. Some people get married on a whim, typical at walk-in chapels. People like to promenade on Broadway, past the Grand Central Market, the bridal shops, the joyerias (jewelers) with their pitchmen. And, who knows?

Guadalupe's clientele is 90% Latino, and Roman Catholic, though one chapel is devoid of religious icons to accommodate the occasional Hindu or Jewish couple, as well as any who simply opt for something secular. The Christian ministers look priestly in their embroidered robes, but make no pretext of being Catholic. The ceremonies are nondenominational.

Gabriel Garcia, 34, an auto painter, and Maria de la Luz Jaramillo, 23, a restaurant janitor, have come to be married after three years together. They live in Van Nuys and found the Guadalupe in the yellow pages.

Their ceremony begins as someone programs a CD player for "Here Comes the Bride." (Other options include "Daddy's Little Girl" and "We've Only Just Begun.") Ten minutes later, they're wed, none too soon for their toddler daughter, Alejandra, who's becoming fretful. Maria wipes lipstick from Gabriel's face, and they walk off down Broadway, the bride carrying Alejandra.

Next to wed are Mabel Teresa Alba, "21 and kind of shaky," a vocational school student, and Herberth Leonel Medina, 28, a construction worker. They chose the Guadalupe, she explains, because "I was just walking by and thought it was pretty."

They have come alone. There are no guests and, mid-ceremony, it's discovered that there are no rings. As she waits, joking that "he's left me standing at the altar," Herberth dashes out front and comes back with rings. Rev. Oscar Fugon pronounces them "esposo y esposa."

At 4 p.m., Juan Ibarra, a South Pasadena hospital worker, "19 and kind of nervous," arrives with Viridiana Garcia, 16, and their 10-month-old son, Juan Jr., who's wearing tiny white tails. As she's a minor, they have obtained both court permission and parental consent to marry.

"We could have gone to Las Vegas, but we wanted to be married here," Juan Sr. says. "Nice place, nice people." Though they've been together since she was 14, she wants a traditional wedding and has chosen a beaded gown with train from among about 80 loaners.

Before an altar flanked by a statue of the Virgin Mary and a colorized replica of Michelangelo's "Pieta," they take their vows. "The Hawaiian Wedding Song" plays as friends and family offer congratulations.

The groom is pleased with everything, but one relative grumbles about "mass production. It's like cattle--go here now, go there now. . . ."

Morchon just shrugs. "The more you give them, the more they want." And, she points out, because the bride is a minor, they paid only $90.

She says, "We're dealing with people who can't afford large weddings. Maybe they're people who've been together for 20 years and suddenly they come and get married."

Morchon, 35--once married, now single--backed into the wedding business in 1988. Her mother, Conchita, worked for the former owner and mentioned one day that the Guadalupe, Est. 1971, was for sale. Wanting out of her jewelry business, Morchon ignored her mother's warning--"Don't take it!"

"It was a dump," Morchon recalls. "It looked more like a funeral than a wedding." With the help of Conchita, who still works for her, and her father, Morchon spruced it up. Now, she's expanding into a former bridal shop two doors down. She jokes about getting that doughnut shop in between and making wedding cakes.

It's growing late and the street people are choosing doorways. But most won't linger outside the Guadalupe. Says Maria, "They can't take that music too long."

Teenage Wisdom

We dropped by the Beverly Hills Hotel for the coronation of Miss Teenage America, lured by the promise that the 12 finalists from nine states were going to tell us what's hot and what's not with America's teens.

Hot (partial list): dyed hair, Alanis Morissette, jeans, "Melrose Place," "Friends," "New York Undercover," Hootie and the Blowfish, backpacks, malls, logo watches.

Not (partial list): Brad Pitt, red fingernails, "Beverly Hills, 90210," Luke Perry, Alicia Silverstone (mixed reviews), boys with no sense of humor.

As for role models, well, predictably, Mother Teresa made the cut. But so did Regis Philbin.

The new Miss Teenage America is Katie Beam, 17, from Broken Arrow, Okla., chosen from among 10,000 entries received by Teen magazine. Gasping in disbelief, she protested, "I'm just a clown!" (In costume, she entertains at hospitals and nursing homes. She also plays the violin, sings--"I played a drunk mother superior in our school musical"--has a 4.0 GPA and insists she's "mediocre and average.")

Katie's favorite celeb is Billy Crystal, for his "commitment to career, charities, marriage and his family." She hopes to be an entertainment lawyer and with her $15,000 scholarship can now "choose a bigger college," like maybe Stanford.

* This weekly column chronicles the people and small moments that define life in Southern California. Reader suggestions are welcome.

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