Putting more pop in the question

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(Illustration by Violet Lemay)

Michael Pesi may have met the woman of his dreams in the modest surroundings of a Merchant's Tire waiting room, but when it came time to propose marriage, he thought big.

He considered whisking girlfriend Aletta Muzila off to New York and popping the question over dinner at their favorite celebrity chef's restaurant but nixed the idea.

"It was trite," Pesi concluded. "It's been done before."

So the Parkville entrepreneur and investor came up with a more unusual scheme. He took Muzila, a psychotherapist, to his childhood home in West Virginia last Thanksgiving and tricked her into going out to the mall with relatives. She returned to find the house lit only by candles, the floor strewn with rose petals and Pesi's two musician-brothers serenading her. One by one, his mother, his sister and a young nephew came forward with bouquets of flowers.

Then Pesi appeared, got on one knee and pulled out a ring — a whopper from Tiffany, incidentally, lest anyone think the homespun proposal was the groom-to-be's way of taking the cheap way out.

"My family's very, very important to me," said Pesi, who had Muzila's sister travel from Washington to be there and displayed photos of the rest of her family, all back in her native Botswana, around the room to make them part of the moment. "I really wanted everyone in the family to say, 'Hey, welcome.' "

It may be the rare groom-to-be who goes that far, but more and more men are finding unusual, sometimes elaborate ways to propose marriage, according to bridal-industry experts, area jewelers and travel agents.

The trend seems to be the outgrowth of two seemingly contradictory desires: A growing number of women (67 percent) want to pick out their engagement rings (Pesi knew Muzila wanted the Tiffany Legacy), while nearly 70 percent of women feel "the 'surprise' factor was essential to the perfect proposal," according to a joint survey conducted by TheKnot.com and Men's Health magazine.

"A lot of couples will go ring shopping, and then it's time for him to plan the event of proposing," said TheKnot editor Anja Winikka.

And she does mean event.

What used to be a mostly quiet moment between lovers has become, in some cases, a celebration on par with a wedding reception.

Rachel Karceski, a Baltimore County prosecutor, got engaged last summer by way of a scavenger hunt that started at her Federal Hill condo and ended — after a plane ride and a side trip to a boutique for a new dress — in a suite at New York's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. There, on a balcony with a sweeping view of the city, boyfriend Mark Ravalico got down on bended knee.

Minutes later, the knock on the hotel room door that Karceski thought was room service champagne turned out to be her parents, who had traveled from Howard County at Ravalico's invitation to be part of the evening. When the couple returned to Baltimore, they stopped for a drink at the Federal Hill bar where they'd met, where the groom-to-be had arranged for 20 relatives and friends to celebrate with them.

"I think there's some pride in doing something really elaborate for the guy in some way," said Karceski, 34. "It's always all about the girl. Maybe now we get to tell the story, and the guy gets some kudos for being creative."

Creative doesn't have to mean expensive.

Byron Abaidoo, 39, of Ashburton cooked up a plan to have an engagement ring incorporated into a jewelry exhibit at the Walters Art Museum, where his art-loving girlfriend admired it in a display case before reading the object label: "American. 21st century. Engagement ring for Kendra from Byron."

"I didn't want the kind of engagement-ring-over-dinner [proposal]," said Abaidoo. "Amongst my friends, I was the last to get engaged or get married. About five other people around me, either they went to dinner or tried to surprise somebody on a date. It was just handing her the ring. I wanted to do something different and special."

Kendra Abaidoo, 36, said the proposal bowled her over.

"I was really surprised," she said. "I knew our relationship was definitely progressing in that direction. … I didn't think he'd dig that deep and be that creative."

With growing emphasis on the proposal, some prospective grooms are turning to professional proposal planners for help. The cost ranges from a few hundred dollars to thousands, depending on how much logistical assistance is required, Winikka said.

Proposal planning has become something of a sideline for some jewelers and travel agents.

Men buying rings at Nelson Coleman Jewelers ask for engagement advice so often that the store keeps a list of eight suggested proposals on hand. Some of them, including the suddenly popular scavenger hunt, are "a lot of work," concedes Peggy Coleman, general manager at the Towson jeweler. One suggestion calls for having a custom storybook printed up. ("Be ready with the real diamond when you get to the last page, which reads, 'Will you marry me?' ")

"We've had so many guys ask for ideas that we wanted to make it easier for the sales team to come up with things," Coleman said. "Guys come in, and they're very nervous. There's always two things girlfriends ask the girl: 'Where'd he get the ring?' and 'How did he propose to you?' "

In recent years, Smyth Jewelers has cooked up some ready-made proposal plans with Ruth's Chris Steak House and the Hippodrome Theatre.

Under a partnership forged about four years ago with the steakhouse, a man with a black suit, sunglasses and an attaché case handcuffed to his wrist will appear tableside to present the ring.

"It's really funny stuff," said Rhoula Monios, senior sales manager at Smyth's in Timonium, adding that there is no charge for an appearance by "the Smyth guy."

Smyth's deal with the Hippodrome allows for a public proposal at a show. During intermission, the man leads his girlfriend into one of "the fancy boxes on the side," Monios said. "The bride just thinks she's going to have a drink or something, and whammo: spotlight." The man grabs a microphone and makes his pitch.

If neither of those proposals appeals to a customer, Smyth employees will "shoot ideas around" at the morning staff meeting, she said.

"We do all kinds of crazy stuff," Monios said. "We had a guy propose in a hot-air balloon."

The trick is to make sure the proposal reflects the couple's style and interests, Monios said. For someone who loves Disney, for instance, she's suggested presenting the ring in a Waterford crystal glass slipper.

Not that a trip to the Magic Kingdom itself would be out of the question for some. You've heard of the destination wedding? We have entered the era of the destination proposal.

Mary Eve Vonberger, owner of The Cruise Lady in Canton, recently helped a customer take his girlfriend on a surprise trip to Paris; she thought they were flying to visit her parents in Chicago. He asked her to marry him atop the Eiffel Tower.

"It's very nice to see some guys be very creative and that thoughtful," Vonberger said. "He was so into this. He was very cute about it."

Vonberger also has had a couple of customers take advantage of a proposal service offered by Princess Cruises called "Engagement Under the Stars." While aboard the ship, the man meets with a videographer and records his proposal. In the evening, when a crowd gathers on deck to watch a movie, the woman is called to the front, and the taped proposal is played.

"They get her up there on whatever pretense, and it's a surprise," Vonberger said. The proposal package, which also includes champagne, chocolate-covered strawberries, dinner for two, a couple's massage and more, costs $695 — plus the cost of the cruise.

Of course, the more elaborate and public the proposal, the greater the disappointment if it is not well received. Even getting down on one knee over dinner can feel like going foolishly overboard if she says no.

Charleston restaurant in Harbor East has seen its share of attempted engagements, successful and otherwise.

"The memorable ones are the disasters," said restaurateur Tony Foreman. "I recall this girl screaming, 'It's our third date!' That was great. …

"My favorite was a guy who was very Zen about the whole thing. He was very dressed. She was very dressed. … And she said no. She collected her purse. Then he proceeded to ask for a menu and drank the entire bottle of Cristal and a couple glasses of port. He ate, like, a three-hour dinner by himself.

"When things go beautifully, it's beautiful for everyone to see," Foreman said. "And when they don't, it's very interesting for everyone to see."