Weddings Are Autumn Staple for the Island

By JESSIE ROYCE HILL

Six years ago in the spring Bill Coggins saw Emily Hotchkiss on her way into Fancy That, a clothing boutique on Union street in Vineyard Haven. He was parked out front, his custom in those days for catching the ferry to check on his candy store in Bar Harbor. Bill was tempted to follow Emily into the store, but something about her coordinated outfit, the matching flower patterns, told him she was too well dressed to be a Vineyarder. She must be a tourist, and he wasn't looking for that kind of thing. Why bother?

Then, two years ago, Bill took his mother to Chesca's for Mother's Day. As they were leaving, Emily and her mother were on their way in. Bill looked at Emily and thought, "That's the type of girl someone will marry." But again, he didn't speak up. Bill's mother, however, was undaunted. Owner of Ben Franklin Store (now LeRoux Clothing), she recognized Emily from the Vineyard Haven business community - she owned that clothing store around the corner. And it's not every day you find an eligible Vineyard woman for your son.

"So, are you married?"

No, Emily was single.

"Are you in college?"

No, though she could pass for it.

"Oh no? So how old does that make you, dear?"

Thirty-three. Bill, in his late forties, was relieved. His mother was elated.

Two months later, Bill wandered into Fancy That to ask Emily out for the Fourth of July. Soon she tasted the ice cream concoctions he created at Ben & Bill's Chocolate Emporium, the store he and his twin brother own in Oak Bluffs. She met Bill's little boy from his first marriage. He met her cousins and toured the St. Pierre School, the sports camp and home her family owns on Lagoon Pond. He had spent summers as a kid mowing the grass in the field across the way for extra cash. They'd both grown up a few streets - and 14 years - apart in Vineyard Haven. Emily likes to call it "one degree of separation."

"Five hours go like a minute with her," Bill says.

"Every date was an occasion," Emily adds.

Last Saturday, Bill and Emily were married on that field by the Vineyard Haven Yacht Club, surrounded by a swell of 150 friends and family. The reception at St. Pierre's featured a new Ben & Bill's flavor - white mint with pink-tinted chips, Bill's tribute to his bride's favorite color.

A Lively Month

Mr. and Mrs. Coggins' ceremony was one of about 10 weddings that took place on the Vineyard last weekend, the biggest wedding weekend in September, which is the Island's liveliest marital month. The Vineyard is known anecdotally as the second most popular wedding spot in the United States, second only to Las Vegas. But, true to the Island's penchant for casual charm, its institutions tend not to chase hard numbers.

The chamber of commerce acts as a clearing house for wedding tips, meticulously organized into categories like beauty salons, balloons and blood tests. But they don't track statistics.

Marriage licenses issued at the Island's six town halls provide a clue; last year 254 licenses were granted on the Vineyard. Couples marrying here may obtain a license anywhere in the state, so that number is not exhaustive, but many couples getting hitched here prefer to apply on the Vineyard because the bureaucracy is smaller.

The true sense of proportion comes from the well-oiled machinery that powers Vineyard weddings, from the "quaint" package - barefoot on the Gay Head Cliffs by the lighthouse - to the "rustic but elegant" package, accented by bowls of white rose petals atop crisp linens by votive candlelight at the Grange Hall in West Tisbury. Each spoke in the wedding wheel is occupied by a vendor: the religious and lay officiants, caterers, florists, stylists, planners, bands, DJs, printers, photographers, venue managers and, most indispensable if your affair is out of doors and you plan to invite more than 10 guests, the portable toilet rental companies, of which there are exactly two on the Vineyard. One "unit" provides for 50 people at most, and the units go fast. Araujo Brothers and Dottie's Potties deliver six units each per wedding, on average, and can handle about six total deliveries on a weekend.

This season the potty companies did not max out on deliveries, but if you planned a weekend wedding in June or September, you had to book ahead.

By all accounts, both the number and size of Island weddings have edged off slightly since the peak season in 1999. That year there were 273 licenses issued on-Island, and many of these marriages included upwards of 200 guests. Now, very large weddings are unusual, say Vineyard vendors, because of the dip in the economy. A typical wedding currently involves 120 to 150 people and starts at $200 per person, including catering and alcohol; that still translates to a bill upwards of $40,000. And some say this summer is down 20 per cent, with many couples planning more modest parties.

For Mrs. Coggins, the process of planning for her wedding was eased by her affiliation with the business community. "I'd call up a caterer or a DJ and they'd say, ‘Oh, I know you! We're going to make this day perfect for you,'" she said. Faced with a finite number of hotels, inns and dedicated wedding sites on the Island and vendors who book at least a year in advance, couples who aren't connected to the Island (meaning they don't regularly visit or own property on it) rely on wedding consultants. The chamber of commerce alone lists six.

Consultants Have Advice

Patricia Blanc, who runs Island Affairs, plans weddings for business and medical professionals from New York and the West Coast. She says she's had just as many requests this year as during boom-time in the mid to late 1990s, but her couples are taking the extravagance down a notch. "There's no horse and buggy now. They use Dad's car instead," she says. "And couples are opting for fewer flowers and smaller bands. Maybe they'll use a trio or burn some CDs themselves." Some couples decorate the reception tables themselves, opting for found object ornamentation like beach glass and painted rocks, especially in the case of second marriages and weddings that include children. "They're more whimsical," Ms. Blanc says.

Country-style weddings writ large is the specialty of The Preservation Trust, which oversees some of the Island's most popular wedding sites - the Old Whaling Church, which rents for $5,000, and the historic Dr. Daniel Fisher House, $500, among them. Edgartown hosts the most Vineyard weddings. The Trust alone consistently books about 70 weddings in Edgartown each season (the number of Trust weddings is restricted by residential noise ordinances).

"Everyone wants to get married on a Saturday in June or September," says Janet Heath, the Trust's special events director. "The roses along Main street make an attractive backdrop - it looks like they've bloomed just for their day. But there's a premium on those roses."

Mariko Kawaguchi, of Donaroma's Florists, hears the phrase "simple, yet elegant" from the majority of brides she serves. "No one ever tells me they want it to be contrived and difficult," she says. Some might want wildflowers with an elegant presentation; others go for ornamental grasses and greens or single orchids.

Ms. Kawaguchi oversees flowers for 50 to 100 weddings a year. The higher end of her spectrum accounts for weddings for which she makes full deliveries and decorates the site, scaling lighthouses and beams, depositing fragrant gardenias into the sneakers a sloppy bridegroom leaves on the floor of the bridal suite she and her team are meant to bedeck. The lower echelon includes small pick-ups and last-minute requests. She's worked on $5 budgets where the bride stands at the alter with a single rose, and $40,000 budgets with liberal sprays of lily-of-the-valley, which goes for $5 a stalk.

Ultimately, florists are constrained less by the couple's budget than by accommodating their global tastes on an Island scale. "I'll have an August bride who sees ranunculus on the cover of Martha Stewart Living - a cover they shot six months ago - and decides that is what she wants," says Ms. Kawaguchi. "But she doesn't understand it's a winter flower. They want peonies and lilies in the autumn. Can't they go for chrysanthemums, which are seasonal?"

Many Cultures, Requests

What Ms. Kawaguchi likes most about working on weddings is that they span many cultures. She's worked on Brazilian weddings, supplying calla lilies and large bouquets, no matter how petite the bride; pagan-themed rituals; conservative Jewish ceremonies, and a Wampanoag wedding. Her job, she says, is to keep the tools of her trade - the dozens of buckets, rolls of ribbons, tense international phone calls - invisible to the couples. "For us, it's not about whether it's going to rain on Saturday. I'm worried if there's a coup d'état in Ecuador, will I get my roses. I'm worried about a hurricane in Miami shutting down the pre-cooling plants."

Caterers also contend with bold and lavish requests on relatively modest budgets. While couples skimp less with food - hors d'oeuvres for 120 are hors d'oeuvres for 120 - than in other areas, many look to simplify their parties in keeping with the Vineyard's ease. Jan Burman has made lots of family-style paella platters this season, which feel hearty and generous. "I haven't done a sit down dinner for more than 200 people in several years," she says. "I get couples asking to provide their own utensils and tablecloths, drinking out of jars they collect rather than rented glasses, all to save a bit here and there."

Others forgo the once ubiquitous raw bars, which require shuckers paid on the hour. Specialty drinks are in this year, says Ms. Burman, with mojitos and watermelon martinis at the top. Featuring one type of hard liquor lends personality to a reception and eliminates the need for a full bar, beer and wine notwithstanding.

Ms. Burman says half of her clients are Islanders and the others choose the Vineyard as the site for their destination weddings. She can tell quickly which she's dealing with: "Vineyarders aren't afraid to say, ‘I want pie for my wedding, not cake,' whereas people from the mainland say, ‘I don't really like cake, but won't people expect it?'" She also explains that "first dances are not very Vineyard," nor is the tradition of introducing the bride and bridegroom as "Mr. and Mrs."

Everybody Welcome

One Island wedding last weekend erred on the side of inclusion by taking advantage of the flexibility a private residence affords. Amy Cohn and David Crawford, both of whose families are Island transplants, were married on Sunday at the Cohn family compound in Edgartown, inviting over 300 guests, half of them from the Island community, to join them.

"We wanted to bring together many parts of our lives," said Amy, "and my parents' yard is a natural amphitheatre, we've held so many productions here." In the past, those productions were theatrical - literally - as Amy and her mother, Sally Cohn, both work for the Vineyard Playhouse.

It was at that theatre that Amy met David in the fall of 2000 when he turned up to audition for Look Homeward Angel, a play for which she was stage manager. David, 32, the technical coordinator for the Up-Island Regional School District, had recently come to the Vineyard after tiring of a hi-tech, urban landscape. Amy, 28, had also experimented with life in the city, and felt she'd come home returning to the Island. David got the part, the girl and some lessons in Reform Judaism. They discovered their names both mean "beloved" in Hebrew.

Over the past year since their engagement, Amy and David met with a rabbi to script a ceremony that would encompass their two large families (Amy's one of five; David one of seven), and shared dramatic flair, without breaking the bank.

"We decided to have a big garden party with dancing, but with no assigned seating, no sit down dinner, no DJ," David said.

"But a civilized party," Amy added, a gentle hand on his arm.

And so it was. The rustic set accented by Donaroma's lavender bouquets, Ms. Burman's spinach Parmesan hors d'oeuvres, clusters of guests posed for Betsy Corsiglia's camera. This is the moment when the mechanics cease to show, and the Vineyard wedding dance begins.