CERRITOS — This summer, Charles D. Ara began receiving telephone calls from strangers and friends he had not heard from in years.
Ara, who performed the marriage ceremony for Hugh Hefner, founder of the Playboy empire, was suddenly a very popular person.
Some of the calls were former Catholic priests who, like Ara, are married and no longer considered to be priests by the Catholic church. "Some of them said they wished they had been chosen to perform the wedding," Ara said.
Other Priests Offered to Help
Others were from priests who jokingly asked if they could participate in the July 1 marriage of Hefner to Kimberly Faye Conrad.
"Some asked me if they could hold the Bible during the ceremony," said Ara, a marriage, family and child counselor in private practice in Cerritos.
"Charlie was always known as a maverick who is very committed to his beliefs," said a priest in the Los Angeles Archdiocese who did not want his name used. He caid that a number of priests who discussed Ara's role in the Hefner marriage said it would be bizarre for them as Catholic priests to perform the ceremony.
But another priest, Father Terrence Richey, said: "I couldn't imagine doing the wedding, but I'm not horrified that Charlie did it."
Representatives of television talk show host Pat Sajak called and invited Ara to appear on the Sajak program.
Ara did not hesitate. He accepted. In fact, he appeared on the show on two occasions.
The talkative and humorous Ara showed no signs of nervousness while on TV. At one point during the first appearance July 7, Sajak joked that he could not shut Ara up long enough to get a word in himself.
Ara said during the show that his marriage was similar in some ways to Hefner's marriage to Conrad, who is Playboy's reigning Playmate of the Year.
Wife Is Younger and Taller
Just as Hefner, 63, is older than his wife, who is 26, Ara, 59, pointed out that he is older than his wife Shirley, who is 47.
"My wife is much taller than I, and Kimberly appears to be an inch or two taller than Hef," Ara said.
Ara says he is 5 feet 5 but his 5-foot-8 wife quipped, "He might be stretching it a bit."
The couple were married in 1970 and live in Cerritos. They have five children, ranging in age from 9 to 16. They met when Ara was a priest at St. Cecilia's Catholic Church in Tustin.
"I fell in love, got married and gave up my chance to be Pope," said Ara, who was born in Los Angeles and attended St. John's Seminary in Camarillo.
Ara was invited to make a second appearance on the Sajak show, he said, after the show received a few calls from viewers who wanted to know how he could be married and still refer to himself as a priest.
Bill Rivera, public affairs director for the Los Angeles Catholic Archdiocese, said the church had no comment on Ara's performing the ceremony for Hefner.
Ara "is ancient history (as a former priest). As far as we are concerned, he is just another lay person," Rivera said.
'I'm Still Helping'
But Ara says he still performs the duties of a priest. He regards himself as an ordained Catholic minister and consequently empowered by the state to perform weddings.
"I added matrimony to my priesthood. I'm still helping people. I help them get over their hurt," said Ara, who is active in CORPUS (Corps of Reserve Priests United for Service). It is a national organization that lobbies the church for changes to allow married priests to serve again.
Ara said he was surprised when he got a call from the bride-to-be asking him to preside over the wedding. "You could have knocked me over with a feather," he said.
"They had seen me perform another wedding in Malibu. They thought I was funny and did a good job," said Ara, who prides himself on being able to pitch humorous, but thought-provoking, one-liners.
Even in his practice as a therapist, Ara says he tries to inject humor to help his clients.
During a session, Ara said he sometimes switches on a flashlight and tells the person: "Lighten up."
He might tell a person who has been fired: "Losing your job might be the greatest thing for your wealth. Now, you can decide what you really will enjoy doing."
Ara said he advised the Hefners: "The grass isn't greener on the other side. The grass is greener where it is watered."
Ara said he was attempting to tell the couple that people "need to take care of their love."
Ara said he is planning to write a book based on a philosophy that also is the cornerstone of a workshop he is scheduled to teach Oct. 6 at Cerritos College titled "The 'A's' of Successful Marriages." The three-hour workshop, which costs $20, will begin at 7 p.m.
Ara said he believes that successful relationships depend on several "A" words, including having affection, giving attention to each other, acceptance of faults and appreciation.
Ara said he had fun mingling with the guests at Hefner's Holmby Hills estate during the wedding reception.
The Hefners must have enjoyed his performance, Ara said.
"They invited me and my wife and all of the kids for hamburgers at their home. The butler cooked hamburgers for everyone, including Hef."