Carolyn Hinsey 2013-02-14 21:05:21
Pioneering gay marriage officiant explains how to make your wedding your own “I performed my first gay wedding ceremony six days after it became law in New York State,” recalls Reverend Joshua Ellis, a religious leader whose life’s work has taught him more than a thing or two about showmanship, as well. “My first same-sex couple, Colin and Bruce, had about 70 people at the Parker Meridien Hotel. The staff was totally into it. The ceremony was highly emotional. I had to pause a few times because people were crying.” Skipping a beat, he adds, “Okay, I was crying, too.” The chance to preside over one of the first same-sex weddings in New York was “great,” allows Ellis, who is an Interspiritual Minister ordained by the One Spirit Interfaith Seminary in New York. “We knew it was history-making. Everything was different, but still very much the same.” The same as the many straight weddings he had performed prior to 2011? Yes. “I tell all couples who come to me — gay or straight — that the State of New York requires me to say only 29 words: ‘Do you come here of your own free will?’ and ‘By the powers vested in me I now pronounce you...’ Anything else is up for grabs. There is nothing required about the vows or the ceremony or the rings. The couple fills out a document for the state, and that’s it.” Ellis was happily surprised to see the marriage certificate revised when his first legally wed gay couple signed it. “The thrilling thing was that the form had been changed so quickly,” he recalls, smiling. “It didn’t say ‘Bride’ and ‘Groom.’ It said, ‘Bride/Groom/ Spouse A’ and ‘Bride/Groom/ Spouse B.’ Other than that it was the same certificate.” Ellis performs ceremonies as wildly different as the couples themselves. He is uniquely qualified to do that, having been a theatrical press agent on Broadway for 30 years — handling more than 100 shows including “42nd Street,” “Into The Woods,” and “Fences” — before being ordained. “The Parker Meridien is where we had the opening night party for ‘Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music,’ so I considered it a heavenly sign that I performed my first gay ceremony there,” he smiles. “I know what makes good theater. A wedding needs to blend laughter and tears like a show. I want people to leave saying that was the most moving, entertaining — whatever goal we have — wedding they have ever seen.” To that end, Ellis even got the lyrics to the most famous song from “Fiddler on the Roof” rewritten by its original lyricist so the song would honor gay couples, too. “I noticed that ‘Sunrise, Sunset,’ which I had heard at every wedding since 1964, was not being sung at same-sex weddings. So I got Sheldon Harnick’s email address and asked him if he would consider writing new lyrics for gay weddings. Two days later he got back to me — he had to check with the lawyer for [the song’s composer] Jerry Bock, who had died. The lawyer gave total blessings to it.” Ellis used the new version of “Sunrise, Sunset” for two men at his next wedding, then got another idea. “I wrote him again, asking, ‘Would it be pushing my luck if I asked you to do a set of lyrics for two women getting married?’ He sent them a day later.” Asked why he didn’t just rewrite the song himself, Ellis recoils. “Sheldon Harnick is a Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winner. I would never tamper with his work.” That’s the sort of creative dedication to all the details that Ellis applies to customizing every wedding he performs. “I tell the couple we can do anything we want and say anything we want. That makes it fun for them — and fun for me.” Ellis — who says that a good guideline for how much to spend on an officiant is “at least as much as you spend on your makeup and hair person or your shrimp cocktail buffet” — usually starts the ceremony by talking about how the couple met. He recalls, though, one time when he stepped back from that role after realizing “the couple’s version was much better than I could have told it. David would say something and Peter would contradict him, like a Nichols and May sketch.” So the grooms introduced themselves, did their shtick, and then announced, “We’ve set a goal for tonight from the musical ‘The Drowsy Chaperone’ — ‘Please God: let it be funny, and let it be short. Now, we are pleased to introduce our new friend, Reverend Joshua Ellis.’ I said, ‘After meeting these two men, I knew I would be master of ceremonies as well as officiant.’” Comedy, says Ellis, is one way to approach — and remember — a ceremony. “At the wedding of Harry and Charles, Harry started his vows to Charles with, ‘You do something that has always annoyed me, and I want to say it in front of everyone: You walk in front of me on the street.’ He then went on to give the Top 10 reasons why he wanted to marry Charles. Harry did comedy; Charles did charming. The material blended, and it was lovely.” Of all the weddings Ellis has performed, gay or straight, one stands out. “I wed two men who were both 90,” he relates proudly. “They have been together for 60 years. On their first date, they went to see ‘New Faces of 1952,’ starring Paul Lynde, Eartha Kitt, and Alice Ghostley. They wanted a small, private wedding in their backyard on Long Island. That was a very moving day.” For more info, visit www.revjosh. com. ... and now for an important historical message Reverend Josh Ellis tailors each wedding ceremony to the couple, but he likes to include the following passage in all same-sex ceremonies to drive home the significance of what guests are witnessing: “Just before midnight on June 24, 2011, the governor of New York signed a document that changed history and directly led to us being here today. Please allow me to briefly read from that document: “This act shall be known and may be cited as the Marriage Equality Act. Marriage is a fundamental human right. Samesex couples should the same access as others to the protections, responsibilities, rights, obligations, and benefits of civil marriage. It is the intent of the Legislature that the marriages of same-sex and different-sex couples be treated equally in all respects under the law. “Signed, Andrew M. Cuomo, Governor, State of New York.” Vital tips from Reverend Josh If you’re not yet sure how you want your wedding to be, Reverend Josh offers a checklist: 1. Nail down the big picture early We discuss tone, how religious or not, do we mention God? Will humor be a part of it, or do they want serious? Is there a certain length? Will friends participate, singers or poets who might perform? Are they recording the ceremony? Do we need microphones? Is it outdoors? What’s the weather contingency? You have to think of everything. Like the theater, a wedding must be stage-managed. 2. Keep your vows to yourself until the wedding I try to persuade couples to write their own vows and not share them with each other before the ceremony. I will work with them in terms of tone and length so that one isn’t three minutes and the other 15 seconds, but the vows should be a surprise. I want the couple to experience that moment as something happening to them in front of their friends and family, not something they have rehearsed together. How are you going to have an honest emotion to something you’ve already heard? 3. Communicate as a couple It’s really important that the couple work through their issues, because the wedding is a little version of what it’s going to be like when they’re married. It’s a joint project. Decisions have to be made by both. 4. Be creative and be genuine Give yourself permission to let your imagination go where it wants to go. Create the kind of wedding ceremony that is absolutely right for you. For example, some people don’t like being in front of an audience so it may be a stretch to read their vows in front of everyone. It’s easier for me to say “Do you take so-and-so to be your spouse?” There is no set way to have a wedding! For anyone still nervous about how to create their very own wedding service, Ellis offers one last bit of advice with a smile, “Choose me as your officiant, and I’ll hold your hands through the whole thing.”
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