When it comes to extraordinary weddings, the county Circuit Court staff has seen it all. On any given day, one or a half-dozen couples might show up unannounced to be wed in a no-frills conference room or outside among the scenic environs of the County Courthouse in Ellicott City.
And the staff has learned to be prepared for just about anything.
On Halloween, staff members have seen couples arrive to be wed in costume: Dracula and his bride, a queen and her shield-toting warrior, even Sonny and Cher.
Civil court supervisor Ken Ridgeway recalls the time he stepped up to wed one couple and grew puzzled at hearing the tinkling tune of the wedding march. He saw no evidence of a tape deck. Amid giggles of the couple's friends, Ridgeway learned that the unblushing bride had worn musical undies for the occasion.
Esther Wall, a juvenile court supervisor who has performed marriage ceremonies at the courthouse for 15 years, recalls the bride and groom who arrived one spring day last year with a gaggle of attendants, all of them formally attired. The entire party -- about 15 people, including a ring bearer and flower girl who tossed flower petals along the way -- filed in procession down an outdoor walkway to the spot where the marriage took place.
"Another couple arrived at the courthouse with 40 or 50 guests and wanted to get married at the front of the courthouse," Wall said. "A limousine brought the bride to the side of the building and the father escorted his daughter -- who didn't want the groom to see her before the ceremony -- to the spot where the couple was getting married."
"I love weddings," said Margaret Rappaport, clerk of the Circuit Court and the official chief knot-tier. "We handle criminal cases, adoptions, divorces. The weddings are the nice part of this job. I like to see people happy."
Rappaport's enthusiasm is shared by Wall, Ridgeway and Deborah Cook -- all Circuit Court employees who perform the ceremonies.
Generally, they take turns during alternate weeks. But on busy days like Valentine's Day -- 28 couples got married on Feb. 14 -- all four shared the responsibility. They married 562 couples in all of 1991, 672 the year before. As of the end of May, 225 couples were married at the courthouse this year.
Couples make no appointments to be married and can drop in any time between 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m., Mondays through Fridays. They must have applied for their license, which costs $45, at least 48 hours in advance. The new husband and wife pay a $25 fee for the ceremony and receive their license on the same day. Blood tests are not required.
The simplicity of a courthouse wedding appeals to many.
"It was the easiest thing to do. Neither one of us wanted anything real fancy and it's just as legal," said William Curry, who wed Lynne Clary at the courthouse. Trailing behind the Columbia couple were 19 family members.
Because Rappaport wanted to provide a less sterile atmosphere for exchanging vows, she has turned a no-frills courthouse conference room into a cozy spot in which to say "I do."
"We put in a dimmer on the light switch to soften the lighting; we painted the walls, shampooed the carpet and added a vase of silk blush roses to place at the back of the podium," Rappaport said.
She also believes that those who are officiating the ceremony should be dressed for the occasion, even if some couples show up wearing jeans, flip-flop sandals or musical underwear. No matter.
"Ken will wear a suit. Esther, Deborah and I will either wear a suit or dress," she said.
Couples have the choice of being married in the conference room or in one of several spots outside of the courthouse, where, in the spring, dogwood trees are in bloom and the building itself provides a scenic background. During two recent balmy Fridays, Rappaport and Cook gave each couple a tour around the outside of the courthouse. In some cases, it was a somewhat ponderous decision for the brides, but the clerks persevered. Only one couple out of five recent weddings opted for an inside ceremony.
"I try to make it special for them and to put as much feeling into the ceremony as I can," Rappaport said.
Occasionally, the clerks are asked to marry couples in another location, such as a home or restaurant. Since Rappaport was appointed by the administrative judge, she has the authority to marry couples outside of the county. But Ridgeway, Wall and Cook must perform ceremonies within the county. They are not required to perform marriages away from the courthouse, but will do so on occasion.
"We are not allowed to charge people for our services; when they come in and they are so nice, they charm me into doing it," said Wall.
On a Friday afternoon earlier this month Tracey Tomlin, 23, and Andrew Stone, 27, were the last couple of the day to arrive at the courthouse. Although the attorney and his fiancee -- both Baltimore County residents -- had expected to get married about 2:30 p.m., the ceremony didn't take place until an hour later. There was some confusion about where the courthouse was located, and Stone's two sisters never showed up.
Tomlin's family lives in England and will be at the couple's church wedding, which is planned for November. For this ceremony, however, her fiance's family -- his parents Judy and Daniel Stone, grandfather George Tye, and cousin Lisa Tye -- nervously made small talk while they waited for the other relatives to appear. Then the bride selected the perfect outdoor spot. As the day grew warmer and beads of perspiration appeared on the groom's forehead, it was decided that the wedding must begin.
"I now pronounce you man and wife," said Wall.
The couple kissed. The mother cried. And the birds were singing sweetly.