Jerry Zipperman, divorced for 50 years, coached the bride as she paused at the wrought-iron chapel entrance. "Walk slow and show the teeth," he advised in a knowing voice. She smiled nervously.
Zipperman fluffed the train of the bride's elaborate gown as she started down the aisle, turned the volume up on the wedding march record and watched with detachment as another couple pledged eternal love and allegiance at the altar of the Capilla del Amor.
"They always get it wrong on TV," he mused during the ceremony. "The minister says, 'I pronounce you man and wife.' It should be husband and wife."
Zipperman should know. About 500 couples a year desiring quick, relatively inexpensive marriage ceremonies are legally united in his stucco wedding chapel on San Antonio Drive in Norwalk, where it costs anywhere from $59.50 to $269.50 to become husband and wife. For the budget rate, the betrothed can bring along two friends. For "the max," they can have 200 guests, walk down the pew-lined aisle while recorded organ music plays and gaze into each other's eyes as 33 candles flicker nearby.
They can be married in a few minutes in English, Spanish, or both, with or without religious phrases, depending on their taste.
"It gives you a little more prestige than going to a courthouse," observed one of last Saturday's bridegrooms, 31-year-old Edward Aguilar of Whittier. He and his wife, Florence, planned to celebrate by spending the remainder of the weekend in the Whittier Hilton. "It's a compromise, if you can't afford a lot . . . this is decent and affordable," Aguilar added.
All a couple needs to be married in the "Chapel of Love" is money. "We can furnish a license without a blood test for two adults living together," Zipperman said, adding that three-quarters of his customers walk in without a prior appointment.
While the less impulsive can bring a marriage license from the county clerk's office, most of his clients buy a license from him under a century-old state law that allows couples who say they have been living together to marry without waiting or undergoing blood tests.
Zipperman takes payment in his cluttered antique shop next to the chapel, which once housed a fire station. Above the counter hangs a sign, "Everything as is, all sales final."
The business holds little romance for Zipperman, who, at 74, is no longer sure how many years his brief marriage lasted. He supervises the ceremonies with the brusqueness of a traffic cop and says he keeps the chapel because "it's easy, you don't need any brains."
It's different for Ronald Lev, an ordained minister with a modest, straw-colored pompadour who performs marriages for Zipperman. "You're a beautiful, beautiful bride, make him take good care of you," he benevolently instructed Florence.
Divorced for 19 years, Lev still seems to view marriage as an institution of hope and promise, an official way station in the pursuit of happiness. "Having somebody special in your life, what else is there, really?" he asked.
Once pastor of a church in Maywood, Lev ran his own wedding chapel in Lynwood for a decade before joining Capilla del Amor eight years ago. How many weddings has he performed? "I don't know--3,000. . . . Oh no, 6,000." Pause. "Probably more like 8,000."
His first bride of the day was a woman he had baptized as a baby. She married her companion of nine years as their three children looked on.
Formal commitment was not as hard to swallow for the second couple of the day. Michael Lamendola, an electronics technician from Bellflower, met his bride, Marilyn Leoncio, about three months ago. Thoughts of marriage soon followed.
"You meet the right one and you know it, especially when you've been through a few relationships," Lamendola said as he waited for Marilyn to arrive. "They messed up her hair or something and now she's trying to fix it up," he said. She got to the chapel more than 30 minutes late. "She's here and she looks great," Lamendola's father announced to his son's relief.
Lamendola still has a few things to learn about his new wife. Asked how to spell her last name, he turned for help to his father, who had it written down. But then, he noted, "she's taking my name."
Outfitted with recycled church pews, artificial flowers and viewless stained glass windows, the chapel is a room of anxious jokes, whispered promises and occasional drama.
One bride was in a wheelchair. "You're not walking down the aisle, are you?" Zipperman wondered as she reached for a set of crutches after emerging from the changing room. "Yes I am." She hoisted up her floor-length, white satin gown to snap on a pair of leg braces. Smiling broadly, she slowly negotiated the steps down the slightly worn aisle carpeting with the help of an escort.
Her groom, attired in white tails, a pink bow tie and white patent leather shoes, towered a good two feet above her at the altar. That did not stop him from wrapping his arms around her to give her a lingering kiss at the end of the ceremony. Family and friends enthusiastically applauded.