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Still a few left to say, 'I do'

The Rev. Frank Smith looks like the Maytag repairman as he waits for the phone to ring in the Little Wedding Chapel in Elkton. The antiquated chapel is empty, a loud kind of empty.

Yesterday, oh, what I'd give for yesterday, fills the chapel as a guy sings Tony Bennett's "When Joanna Loved Me" on the boom box in the six-pew chapel. Newspaper articles in the foyer still boast that Babe Ruth, Willie Mays and Billie Holiday were married quick and easy in Elkton a long time ago. After the turn of the 20th century, the chapel was one of several that made Elkton the "Marriage Capital of the World." In the 1960s, roughly 2,000 couples were still getting married at the chapel every year, but the number has since steadily declined. These days, maybe 170 ceremonies are performed in the town's remaining chapel.

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Frank Smith - whose wife, Barbara, bought the 1813 Federal-style building in 1980 - sits alone at his computer-less desk. The furniture is Victorian; the altar roses are artificial. A cassette marked Wedding March Ceremony stands by near the video recorder aimed to record the 15-minute ceremony. Couples get the videotape, a roll of pictures, and a wedding certificate suitable for framing. It's a $400 package deal during the week. Not cheap. But the chapel is running a $300 special for Valentine's Day. Two bookings so far.

At the turn of the 20th century, Maryland had no waiting period or blood test requirements, as surrounding states did. Elkton became a virtual marriage mart. People came from all over the East to this rural wedge of northern Maryland. In 1939, Marylanders voted to impose a two-day waiting period on weddings, which eventually slowed the thriving quickie marriage industry.

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Couples used to line up in the chapel waiting their turn to get hitched. Today, people scour the Internet for people to marry them or fly to the islands for warm weddings, since air travel is cheaper and more prevalent. Church weddings remain popular, of course. Other folks are waiting longer to get married these days, Smith says. And you can always get married for cheaper across the street at the courthouse. All of it has cut deep into the chapel's business. That, and until 2003, it was illegal in Maryland for any business to advertise marriage ceremonies.

Yet, the Little Wedding Chapel's popularity and reputation have endured. A succession of building owners and ministers has been the caretakers of the tradition. Smith, a mail-order minister, assumed the mantle - or altar - 10 years ago and has married more than 4,000 couples.

The chapel hangs on through word-of-mouth, family tradition and Cecil County tourism links on the Internet. The county boasts the Conowingo Dam, the Elk Neck State Park, herb farms, a basket factory - and still lays claim to the Little Wedding Chapel at 142 E. Main St.

"There's still a little spark in the town regarding marriages," said Mary Jo Jablonski of the Elkton Chamber of Commerce and Alliance.

Wedding fatigue

"You do have burnout doing this," says Frank Smith. On a stinging cold morning in late January (the chapel's slowest month), he rubs his eyes and face awake. He's 59, and these last two months have been rough. His wife has been in the hospital with a serious back infection. She'll be all right, but having that to think about and run the business solo - well, the man is deservedly tired.

In fact, they want to sell the building. Time to get out of the wedding business. Maybe someone would come in and try to keep the wedding business alive, or the building probably would be converted into professional offices, Smith says. Either way, their marriage to the wedding business will end if the right buyer comes along.

"We're ready to retire," Smith says. They'd like to head to Arizona, live happily ever after, not marry people for a change.

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This morning, a woman comes into the chapel. She was not married here. She is homeless and cold, and Smith does not shoo her off. "I see you are running a business here," she says, before excusing herself in hopes that a church down the street has opened its doors.

The business is at 1 p.m., when Eddie Diaz and Nereida Boyer of Pennsylvania are scheduled to be married here, the only wedding of the day. As usual, Smith expects the bride and groom by 12:45 p.m. People tend to cut it close at the Little Chapel. Why come early just to wait and get nervous? At 11:45 a.m., Smith tucks in his white dress shirt and loops his black tie around his neck. The drill has begun.

Upstairs, a gas fireplace heats a dressing room where a tilted full-length mirror waits. Downstairs, the pews and altar are from the original chapel, the floor still creaks like an old ship and a grapevine of white lights illuminate the altar, which also boasts white candles. After all, candlelight is part of the deal. There is nothing Las Vegas about the ceremony or atmosphere.

"We don't do Elvis," Smith says.

Despite its quickie reputation, the chapel treats marriage with solemnity. Those who come here span religions and ages. Once he married a 17-year-old man (no one younger) and once a couple in their 90s drove up from Baltimore. They all teared up during that wedding. He's never done any celebrities - they don't come here to get married anymore.

At 12:30, Smith calls his stepdaughter, Susie Smith, to remind her that she has to run the video recorder and take the pictures because her mother is out sick. Family and friends have trickled in and found a seat. It looks like a real wedding: Kids eating crackers on the sofa. Babies in arms. Young men in their first nice suits with the labels still attached to their sleeves. Women looking like they know exactly what to do.

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The Tony Bennett crooner has been replaced on the boom box by the couple's chosen music - "Endless Love" by Lionel Ritchie and Diana Ross. Frank Smith surreptitiously spritzes lemon spray on the fake flowers to freshen up the place. Nothing too overpowering.

It's 12:50 p.m. No groom yet. "He's probably looking for parking - or an escape route," Smith says. More encouragingly, the bride is upstairs in the dressing room. Her sister, Luzdelia Boyer Arroyo, was married in the chapel in 2003. It's a tradition from a family that lives in Nottingham, Pa., just over the Maryland border. Their mother, Esther Boyer, sits on a Victorian sofa and confirms that she was also married here. "I don't even remember when," she says, destroying any nervousness in the room.

The bride is crowned with a tiara. "David's Bridal!" she says, giving a thumbs-up. Among these three Boyer women, no one stands a chance at being nervous - or unhappy. Smith, his black marrying suit on, pokes his head in to inquire about the estimated time of arrival for the groom. Someone hails Eddie on a cell phone. Someone loads a camera. "You can take a picture of me strangling him," says the bride.

Downstairs, Susie Smith has arrived to man the VCR and camera. She'd love to own the business one day, but she already runs a dance studio in town. If her mother sells, she hopes someone will keep this chapel going, she says.

The groom blasts in from the cold. Eddie Diaz looks sharp in a cream-colored suit that only certain guys can pull off. Eventually, he will stop grinning. The key players are finally here. Smith asks that guests turn off their cell phones and makes his way to the altar. The bride waits at the top of the steps. Her brother, Arthur Boyer, waits to walk her down. Watch that train. Remember, small steps.

Wait.

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The groom's mother is not here. She took a wrong turn in town.

Back in the day, you couldn't miss the place or the dozen or so other chapels in town. Lining U.S. 40, billboards in the 1920s advertised weekend rates for eloping couples. Ministers, innkeepers, even taxi drivers worked round the clock marrying an estimated 12,000 couples a year at all the chapels. Hotels and restaurants soaked up the business. Elkton - the first town over the Maryland line for northerners from New York and Pennsylvania - had a long, fast run as the East Coast's marriage capital.

That was before Maryland decided folks needed to slow down and wait two days to get married.

Special every time

"We are gathered today in the sight of God," Smith says. He knows the ceremony by heart; he just uses a cheat sheet for the names. Eddie and Nereida. Eddie and Nereida.

His voice rises to the occasion. He sounds pastoral, and, despite having officiated over 4,000 nearly identical weddings, he is thoroughly engaged. This is not factory work.

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"Marriage," he tells the couple, "is an act of faith." His words reach well beyond the two young people facing him. Did Babe Ruth or Billie Holiday feel something too?

Eddie and Nereida light a unity candle. Seems like a simple enough thing, but it takes a few attempts because, as anyone who has been married knows, hand-eye coordination is often the first to go during the ceremony. Maybe it's one of those trick candles. No. It finally lights. She has trouble getting the ring on his finger. Again, understandable. Now, the finale:

"I do," Nereida says.

"I do," Eddie says.

"Eddie," the minister says, "you may kiss your bride." No hitch there.

"Endless Love" is replayed, but the moment has passed. What a beautiful ceremony, the bride says. It could not have been better. As tradition dictates, Smith hands the couple the roll of film, videocassette and a marriage certificate. In the early 1980s, the bridal gifts included shampoo, washing detergent and a copy of a Harlequin romance, This Side of Paradise.

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Mercifully, times change.

No one is being pushy, but you are on the clock at the Little Chapel. Time for people to move toward the door. Smith shakes the groom's hand. "Congratulations," the minister says. "Have lots of fun." And like that, the chapel is empty again, as if nothing happened. But two people were married, and they were not celebrities. It was better than that.

Frank Smith blows out the white candles on the altar. The flowers still smell lemony. He unlatches his tie and sits down at his tidy desk. The phone hasn't rung. There are no more weddings today. Maybe someone else will come in from the cold.

In a few hours, Smith will drive back to the hospital to see his wife. Maybe this year someone will make a good offer for the building, and they can retire to Arizona. A quarter-century in the marriage business is a long time. Someone else can take a turn marrying people at the Little Wedding Chapel.

rob.hiaasen@baltsun.com


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