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Tying a simple knot instead

Despite the gloom and doom of the economy, couples are still game to say, “I do.” Indeed, the number of weddings expected to take place in the U.S. in 2009 is on par with recent years, holding steady at about 2.2 million. But the style and scope of those weddings are in flux. Many couples are reconsidering big, blowout affairs and big, billowy dresses. They are embracing less expensive locations, cutting back on guest lists and renting gowns. Some of them are even grabbing a few friends and running off to the county courthouse.

Big shindig to courthouse vows

Jill Cooper Clements was as excited as any bride-to-be when her boyfriend of one year proposed last year. Within hours of receiving her radiant-cut, 2-carat diamond engagement ring, she had already started planning what was expected to be a 275-guest, $150,000, New Year’s Eve wedding.

Within two weeks, she’d booked the Museum of Contemporary Art in La Jolla for the ceremony and reception. Within a month, she’d found her wedding gown at Saks. She sent out save-the-date announcements and put down deposits for the cake, her dress, an eight-piece band.

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Then Clements and her fiance, Bryce, got cold feet -- for the Big Wedding, that is. Less than two months before the Big Day, they canceled, opting to get married at the Beverly Hills courthouse instead.

“Although it was going to be this amazing, classy event, it felt really tacky to be so splashy and flashy in these times,” said Clements, 30, a publicist who owns the Michele Marie PR agency in Los Angeles.

Clements’ now husband, who works for a hedge fund, agreed. So they held on to their hand-calligraphied invitations. They forfeited $25,000 in deposits. They did, however, still dress for the occasion -- her husband in a tux and Clements in her strapless Amsale gown.

“I didn’t need to put on a frilly fairy tale wedding for everybody else,” said Clements, who picked up a bouquet from a local florist on her way to the high-rise courthouse. “We really just wanted to get married.”

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Despite the tanking economy, love still happens -- and so do weddings. It’s just where and how those weddings are happening that’s changing.

In L.A. County, civil wedding ceremonies performed in government buildings were up 17% in 2008 over 2007. Nationally, the number of couples marrying in civil, rather than religious, ceremonies in the first quarter of this year increased by 60% over the same period last year. according to Shane McMurray, CEO and founder of the wedding research firm the Wedding Report. “The increase in [civil] weddings really just says that people are quickening the ceremony process,” said McMurray, who is based in Tucson. “Those types of ceremonies are certainly on the increase and I would have to say it has a lot to do with the economy.”

So-called courthouse weddings have become so popular that Anja Winikka, editor of the Knot, is in the process of creating an entire section for them on the popular wedding-planning website. DailyCandy, the hip online destination for things to do, buy and see, launched a Weddings edition last week, and ideas for city hall weddings are beginning to get some play. Among the candy served up to the site’s readers recently: The suggestion that couples getting married at New York’s new City Hall chapel have their friends wait outside in a fleet of pedicabs to whisk them away to an after-party.

According to Dannielle Kyrillos, editor at large for DailyCandy, the pedicab idea is “fun, it’s eco, it’s resourceful and it’s memorable, and those are all at the very fore of every bride’s mind these days.”

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Or groom’s.

Cutting back after job loss

“I was just laid off a couple weeks ago, but that wasn’t going to stop me from getting married,” said Robert Perea, who until late March worked for an aerospace manufacturer in Camarillo.

Dressed in a crisp gray suit, his brown eyes ringed with chic Armani glasses, Perea was holding the hand of his fiancee, Dorjpagam Gankhuyag, outside the Beverly Hills courthouse on a recent Thursday morning.

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“We were planning to do something bigger, but the economy right now makes it kind of difficult,” said Perea, 34. “We wanted to get married no matter what, so we decided to do it this way and then hold off on having a bigger wedding maybe later on.”

Gankhuyag, 32, had picked up her lacy white dress and jacket the night before at the Sherman Oaks Galleria. Their wedding pictures and video were to be shot by family members. Perea planned to edit the video footage himself and make his own DVD.

To get to the courthouse wedding chapel, Perea, Gankhuyag and the 10 family members they’d invited had to run a gantlet of security guards, emptying their pockets and sending their purses and wallets through an X-ray machine just inside the court’s plate-glass doors. Checking in at the registrar’s window, they waited for their names to be called.

“Robert Perea?” asked Bronwen Savage, a smiling wedding officiant in a black judicial robe who would soon ask Perea to kiss his bride in the courthouse chapel -- a small room whose entrance is between an out-of-order water fountain and a bulletin board plastered with posters for victims of elderly abuse. Inside, decorative touches had toned down the chapel’s institutional feel. Its doors, walls and lockers were veiled with white chiffon. Its nine chairs were dressed shabby chic with ribboned covers.

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“It’s not bad for a government office,” said Savage, a deputy commissioner of civil marriage for the Beverly Hills courthouse who, every 15 minutes on Thursdays, walks grooms and their wives-to-be through their vows.

In L.A. County, civil wedding ceremonies cost $25 and are conducted at seven locations, all of which require appointments. Though some, such as the Beverly Hills and LAX courthouses, offer ceremonial services only one day a week, others, including the Van Nuys and Norwalk registrar-recorder’s offices, offer ceremonial services Monday through Friday. Locations vary widely in vibe and decor.

More money for home

The chapel at the Norwalk Registrar-Recorder’s office is sponged with blue paint, its walls dotted with framed posters of wedding rings and a tiered cake. In front of the six wooden pews is an archway ringed with fake flowers. Behind the pews: a door, through which the sounds of footsteps can be heard along with competing conversations and crying babies.

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On a recent Friday, the Norwalk office was so mobbed that the parking lot was entirely full, and the line was out the door and down the sidewalk. Standing with cups of soda and pushing strollers, most of the people in line were there to pick up birth, death and marriage certificates, but a smattering were crammed in a small lobby area, waiting to tie the knot.

Among them were Cesilia Bracamontes, in a strappy white dress and black stilettos, and her husband-to-be, Santiago Miranda, in a black suit and skinny tie. Inked, pierced and painted in matching black nail polish, the couple was standing outside with a small cluster of friends waiting to be called in to a chapel they weren’t even allowed to see before getting married.

“Right now with the economy the way it is, it didn’t seem like a good thing to take that kind of money and spend it for one night,” said Bracamontes, who plans to spend the cash she and her fiance saved on the wedding to furnish their new warehouse living space in Torrance.

“If things were the way they were a couple years ago, we probably would’ve spent mad money on a big party, but it’s a slow time right now,” said Bracamontes, 38, a clothing buyer. Miranda, 28, is an architect.

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It’s a slow time for Bracamontes, but not for the wedding chapel inside the Norwalk Registrar-Recorder building. The tiny, linoleum-tiled waiting room for the about-to-be-married was standing room only, packed with brides and grooms and friends and family. The deputy commissioner, who was running late for the couple’s 1:30 appointment, had to squeeze through the crowd and yell to be heard when she called their names.

“Santiago Miranda?”

Miranda took Bracamontes’ hand. Bracamontes screamed. And their friends hummed, “Here comes the bride,” as the excited group of eight headed into the Norwalk chapel.

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susan.carpenter@latimes.com


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