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June 23, 2005

Weddings at Heinz Chapel: What’s old, what’s new

Complete the following common two-word phrase: “June ______.”

The winning answer is: “June bride.”

“Yes, June is still our most popular month for weddings at the chapel,” said Ronald Klebick, assistant director of Heinz Memorial Chapel, who books the weddings in (arguably) Pitt’s most beautiful setting.

“But August is another very popular month now, and, of course we schedule weddings year-round, between 170 and 200 annually,” said Klebick, who spent the first half of the 1990s as the chapel’s on-site wedding coordinator.

Klebick and Robert Digby (known to all as just Digby), who has been docent and wedding coordinator for the past five years, met recently with the University Times to discuss their observations on wedding trends and to share a few anecdotes from their combined experience of coordinating more than 800 weddings at the chapel.

Pitt students, alumni, faculty, staff and members of their immediate family are eligible to reserve the chapel for their wedding ceremony. Members of any University-related board, as well as employees of the H. J. Heinz Co., and members of their immediate family, also may be married at the chapel.

A maximum of seven weddings are held each week there (one on Thursdays, two on Fridays and five on Saturdays).

Of course, Heinz Chapel is not just for weddings. The non-denominational chapel, which was dedicated in 1938, hosts some 1,500 events annually. More than 100,000 people participate in religious services, concerts, classes, memorial services and guided tours. The chapel is open daily, except for University holidays.

But it’s the weddings that people most associate with Heinz Chapel.

“Every wedding is different, but the best ones seem to be where the couple doesn’t expect that everything will go completely perfectly,” Klebick said. “If they expect a few little things to go wrong — it may not seem so funny at the time — but those things end up being stories that they can share for a lifetime.”

The two wedding coordinators have seen it all: simple, traditional, faith-based bride-in-white weddings; all-out, whoop-dee-doo affairs with wild colors and gowns; weddings with massive numbers of attendants; weddings with kilt-wearing groomsmen (“One of the groomsmen wasn’t told until the rehearsal he had to wear a kilt and he wasn’t very happy about it,” Digby recalled).

“Our main goal is to be flexible, and to make the day special, particularly for the brides who have waited for it their whole lives,” Klebick said. “We are more flexible than we were when I worked here as a student in the ’70s when we had a number of rules you couldn’t vary from.”

The only hard-and-fast rules today are that the weddings must stick to the hour and 45 minute time allotment, bridal parties must attend a 45-minute rehearsal, and there can be no receiving lines in the immediate vicinity of the chapel.

“We don’t want brides walking past each other. They each should feel like it’s their day,” Klebick explained.

The two wedding coordinators agreed that the most obvious change in recent years is the prevalence of strapless gowns for brides and bridesmaids.

“About five or six years ago strapless gowns came into fashion,” said Digby.

“But 10 or 11 years ago, when I was the coordinator here, they were almost unheard of,” said Klebick, finishing Digby’s thought.

A self-described traditionalist, Digby opined, “Strapless gowns that reveal parts of tattoos — Pul-leeeze! But I don’t say anything. In my day the bride walked down the aisle in all white, but that’s not so anymore. Thank God, they’re getting away from wearing all black for the bridesmaids. Today, more fluffy colors are in. This year it’s turquoise, browns, pinks. I did one wedding where all the girls wore brown. The dresses were the same, and every bouquet they carried was pink, except each was a different design. That happened to work, I thought; it was very attractive.”

Other recent trends include a wider, more diversified musical selection during the ceremony.

“The chapel has three experienced organists who play at weddings, and we recommend the four most traditional marches,” Klebick said. “But the couple can consult with the organist in advance and provide sheet music and the organist will work with them.”

“More parties are asking for supplemental music, which they provide themselves,” Digby added. “They bring in soloists or a brass quartet or harps, and we go over at the rehearsal where that music will come in the ceremony. Only one of the last five weddings I did had the ‘Wedding March.’ That’s different these days.”

However, couples today are returning to more traditional vows, with fewer writing their own vows than a decade ago.

But ministers often will add personal touches to the ceremony, such as remembering when the minister baptized the bride or when the groom and his brothers were in the minister’s Sunday school class.

“And it’s not that unusual for couples to sing to each other as part of the ceremony,” Digby said.

Other trends: Double-ring ceremonies also are more common today than in the past.

Couples often will memorialize a deceased parent with a lit candle during the service.

Stepparents are becoming more involved in the wedding parties, the coordinators said.

“Sometimes the bride wants both the biological father and the stepfather to give her away, and sometimes they’ll say, ‘I want my stepfather in the front row, and I don’t care if that other S.O.B. sits three rows from the back,’” Digby said.

Klebick said, “That’s why we ask upfront if stepparents will be involved, so that the couple will think about that in advance and know what they want by the time of the rehearsal.

“We’re also, for whatever reason, seeing more people returning from out of state to get married in the chapel,” Klebick said.

On average, marrying couples are older, 27-30 today compared to 23 or 24 in the early 1990s, the two agreed.

The most likely candidate to faint at a wedding is the best man, who is responsible for the ring and a number of other pre- and post-wedding chores, Klebick said.

“But I’ve seen grooms absolutely fall apart, too,” Digby said. “Once I had my assistant call me and say, ‘Digby, get back here, we’re losing the groom.’ And I thought: Where’s he going?

“This was a guy who could have played tackle for Pitt — no neck, the head just screwed on — and he had perspired not only through the shirt, but through the tuxedo, and he was the color of death.

“We took him downstairs and stood him in front of a big fan and took his shirt off and everything. And he said, ‘I don’t think I can make it.’ So I got out the ammonia capsules, and snap, I said, ‘Oh, yes you can.’”

Digby and the assistant walked the groom back upstairs in time for the start of the wedding. “At first, he was grinning from ear to ear, but the minute he saw his bride coming down the aisle, the tears started flowing — there’s a mood-setter.

“When she came down and they held hands, she patted his hand, and you could see him starting to relax. After they pronounced them man and wife, he turned around and swooped her up in his arms and said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, I want you to meet my wife,’ and he carried her 90 feet all the way out of the chapel. So you see the whole range of emotions, and sometimes all in one wedding.”

Wedding parties also have grown in size over the years, Klebick said, averaging 3-5 in his tenure and 8-10 today.

“I did one where there were 25,” Digby said. Among others, “There was a bridesmaid, a maid of honor, a matron of honor, six flower girls, two ring bearers, six dancers — and I was told emphatically there were six, 16-year-old virgins.”

“But I hold the record,” Klebick said. “I worked a wedding where there were 144.”

In the wedding party?

“Yes. In the processional walking down the aisle. The bride was a lady who owned a dance studio, so she had her alumni and all her current students. It took the organist 15 minutes to play them in,” Klebick said.

“And it wasn’t bad; it was quite attractive; it’s just tough to pace that many in a processional.”

Fortunately, the chapel seats 400 comfortably, so there was plenty of room for guests, as well, he said.

Other wedding trends include diversification of flower choices, with roses a popular choice during the Christmas season and chrysanthemums in the fall, Digby said. “Florists have access year-round to all these flowers now. One bride carried gardenias. There also are different color flowers. We had a wedding last month where the bride carried a multicolor of tulips, and it went with the outfits,” he said.

Digby was reminded of one wedding, a holiday season ceremony where “the florist really screwed up with the flowers. He had put pine cones and — I don’t know what they were, balls or something — in the bridal bouquet. Well, that bride went ballistic! And she said, ‘Digby, what can I do?’

“But I had a little pillow and I said, ‘Can you carry this?’ So we stripped down the arrangement — if you could call it that — and got rid of all the balls and pine cones and we were left with just the white and red flowers and so we made a makeshift bouquet.”

There was a band attached to the bottom of the pillow that served as a handle, and the bride was content, Digby said. “Until we came upstairs, and the florist was trying to handle the train of the dress, and she said, ‘You don’t need to do that; Digby will take care of me from now on.’

“So I got her to the aisle and I got the dress all laid out and I said, ‘You’re absolutely breathtaking.’ And it turned out to be a beautiful wedding. The only remark after that she made to the florist was, ‘Don’t think you’re getting paid for this.’”

Klebick said there are fewer full-service florists for weddings these days. Now the florist often drops off the flowers, leaving the wedding coordinator with the added responsibility of distributing the flowers to the correct people.

Digby agreed. “I often have to put the boutonnieres on. I don’t mind, because I know how to do it so they’ll hold. But then I’ll hear: ‘I don’t want my flowers on the left.’ And I say, ‘That’s where they go, because it’s over the heart.’”

It’s these many bits of wedding etiquette that the coordinators must know to guide the wedding parties, acting as part surrogate wedding planner, part adviser (“I tell everybody, ‘Don’t get married on an empty stomach,’” Digby said), part father confessor, part calming voice of reason.

“We try to cover everything at the rehearsal, hoping they’ll remember it all the next day,” Digby said, including the order of the processional, how groomsmen should seat the guests, when the bridal party starts down the aisle — often things that weren’t thought of by the nervous wedding party.

When a bride wants her own way, the coordinator will suggest — gently — the proper etiquette, although the bride always has the final decision, Klebick said.

Digby recalled a bride who, at first, insisted that the bridesmaids and groomsmen occupy the front pew, instead of the traditional benches to the side of the altar area. “Well, we tried it, and the mothers were screaming, ‘I won’t be able to see the wedding!’ So I said, ‘Let’s try the traditional seating,’ and the bride agreed that it worked much better.”

Digby said his recurring fear of a glitch involves the flower girls.

“Children scare me,” Digby said. “They may act perfectly during the rehearsal, but when they come into that doorway for the ceremony and they see that chapel full of people, that can really upset a child.”

He recalled a wedding that had two sisters as flower girls, one 2 and the other 3 and a half years old. “They were fine at the rehearsal,” he said. “At the wedding, their father, who was a drill sergeant, said to me, ‘When the time comes, you just tell them: Go to daddy, and I’ll give you the magic word.’

“The magic word? I thought to myself. What is he talking about? But when it was time for the girls to start down the aisle, on daddy’s instructions, I said: ‘Go to daddy… Chocolate.’ You never saw such big smiles in your life. And off they went.

“Almost always, though, when you see a married couple come out of the chapel you can see a big sigh of relief: ‘Thank God, that’s over. Let’s go to the reception and have fun!”

For Heinz Chapel wedding information, which includes fees, and information on florists, music, videographers, photographers, reception sites, parking, hotels, decorations and a range of other wedding day considerations, access the web site: or call 412/624-4157.

—Peter Hart

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