A mutual love of water led sailboat racer Debby McElwain and motor boater John Rapp to fall for each other, so getting married on a schooner at sunset was a natural thing to do.
The bride and groom, both marrying for the second time, opted for a wedding on the Spirit of Buffalo, the sailing ship based in Erie Basin Marina. The boat held only 40 people, so they had friends in five sailboats trailing behind, complete with radios set to tune into vows broadcast on a radio channel for sailors.
As the Spirit of Buffalo sailed along the breakwall of the Outer Harbor, the wedding song mix on the stereo played Louis Armstrong's gravelly and exuberant "What a Wonderful World." Guests philosophized.
Why is a nonchurch wedding like this a thrill?
"It's so freeing, because you can come casual and be who you are," said Dawn Risner. She is planning a wedding in July at her Eden home with her partner Gloria Lucker, friends, rabbits and rooster Hopscotch. "Get married where it makes you happy."
Being a nontraditional couple, said Lucker, helps inspire ideas for nontraditional places. Local options are limited only by imagination (and, sometimes helped by insider info) – the top of a Holiday Valley ski run, the roof of a Niagara Falls office building, or in a helicopter, a barn, on the Maid of the Mist and at the Pierce-Arrow car museum in downtown Buffalo.
People who have taken the out-of-the-ordinary approach say making a lifetime love commitment in a place that fits their personalities made the experience more intimate and left room for happy moments of serendipity.
"We just don't feel like weddings should be with 300 people watching you," said Kristi Gennuso. "We looked at beaches and Italy. When we saw Niagara Falls, it just felt right."
Gennuso, 29, and her husband, Leigh Carrier, 33, flew in from their home in Lafayette, La., and brought along their 6-year-old daughter and parents for a Memorial Day weekend wedding. They already had celebrated with a big party at home.
"We're a weird couple. We're an odd couple. We like unusual things," Gennuso said. "We had a panoramic view of Niagara Falls. Who gets that?"
She misspelled something on a Google search and got to the Heavenleeweddings.com site – "Extraordinary weddings just don't happen. They're planned." – of Lockport planner Tammy Papia.
Together they coordinated by Skype. Gennuso was willing to marry in the park by the falls, but wondered if there was a way things could be more private. A rooftop?
"I scoured the entire city," said Papia. People worried about liability. But the new owners of One Niagara, the former Occidental building, were game. They have been working to get into the wedding business and are renovating a ninth floor banquet hall.
For the wedding afternoon, Papia tried to add some atmosphere to the barren black roof with tall vases of white roses, columns, an "aisle" made of white fabric she taped down and white table skirting she fashioned over the vents that made a border around the roof edge.
"It's not really pretty up there," she said.
But to Gennuso, the setting was so fitting that everyone around them seemed to vanish.
"It was a very surreal feeling when we were in there doing our vows," she said. "It fit our personality to a ‘T.' "
Papia opened her business eight years ago after planning weddings for her church and now is coordinating 22 weddings this year, which is about average.
While most couples want to be married in church, she has a list of unique weddings with a range of prices and settings: From a small, $2,600 wedding in the park by the falls to the Maid of the Mist, the Central Terminal, the Singer Castle mansion on its own island near Watertown and a $150,000 extravaganza at the Glendorn Lodge and estate in Pennsylvania.
"For me as a planner, I love to see them pick something that expresses exactly who they are," Papia said. "It's not the same old, same old, with the same banquet hall and the same food that they've seen a hundred times."
Unusual weddings are sometimes inspired by Western New York natives who come home to marry after spending time elsewhere. "Sometimes people are just so used to living here that they forget to really look around," said Papia. "They forget to get creative."
>Top of the world
When Jim Mulvenna and his wife, Amy, exchanged vows at the top of a ski run at Holiday Valley in July seven years ago, it was his second marriage and her first. He had already been married once at a traditional big to-do.
"It was such a stressful experience. I had wanted something where it was just us and pure and beautiful," said Mulvenna, who owns Phoenix hair salon in Williamsville. "It was just more about it being us and being in the elements and not in a church and not in an enclosed space. We just started talking about it and it kind of evolved."
They are both outdoorsy types. Marrying with a view, the sun, the wind and the smells would feel like them. A hike up the Ellicottville ski resort's trails led to a view and an idea that it would be a good spot to marry.
Holiday Valley, which hosts some 15 mountaintop weddings a year, said it would cost a few hundred dollars to rent the chair lift for an hour for their small wedding party – their parents. (The price is now about $1,000.)
They hired two trumpeters to play a wedding march as the chair arrived at the top, where Mulvenna had made a kind of altar with a semicircle of bouquets made with his bride's favorite Shasta daisies.
It was a hot day, the wind was blowing and the hilltop was nice and cool. Mulvenna went up first. As his bride rode up behind him in a shimmery cream sundress, the trumpeters played a wedding march and Mulvenna, who says he is not an emotional guy, got a little teary.
A judge performed the ceremony. As the newlyweds rode down the hill together, a bagpiper played in greeting below and two friends on the golf course clapped to see them.
"It was absolutely perfect," Mulvenna said. "It was little or no stress."
With Rainbow Air, a couple can marry even higher up, in a helicopter as it flies over Niagara Falls for $255: the price of three $85 seats, for the bride, groom and minister.
General manager Pat Proctor estimates that his company has done 150 to 200 midair weddings since 1995. He makes a point of chatting with people when they come back wide-eyed, smiling and married.
"They're in such awe. It's like a two thumbs-up pretty much. It seems like more of a thrill-seeking experience," Proctor said. "It's not just, ‘We got married over the falls.' It's, ‘We got married at the honeymoon capital of the world inside a helicopter.' How many people can say that?"
Jim Sandoro had brides in mind when he built his Pierce-Arrow Museum with a staircase in the Frank Lloyd Wright gas station now under construction at Michigan Avenue and Seneca Street. "It will be the most famous gas station ever, in the world," Sandoro said.
The station, originally designed for the Cherry-Michigan street intersection, will have a living room with built-in furniture and fireplace, and space around it for tables for a reception. The museum, unavailable for weddings during this summer's construction, will next year host and cater weddings with its private chef and kitchen for about $150 a guest with optional model cars as centerpieces.
Sandoro's car collection contains Buffalo-made Pierce Arrows and even a little Playboy roadster. Next year, he can arrange to park a model with special significance close by for the celebration. Born in the 1960s? How about a black 1965 Cadillac El Dorado convertible? Or, a red 1963 Chevy with a 409 engine, the car that inspired the Beach Boys' "She's Real Fine My 409."
"Keep in mind that the 409 was made here in Buffalo at the Tonawanda Chevrolet plant," Sandoro said. "It's going to be a beautiful place to have a party."
McElwain and Rapp were the 10th couple to be wed on the deck of the Spirit of Buffalo, now in its fourth summer of professional sails along the city's long, calm breakwall. Use of the ship is about $900 for two hours on a Saturday.
For the couple, who met online about 10 months ago via seniorpeoplemeet.com, the schooner wedding vows were a sublime fit with the notion that moving through the water with push from the wind was a metaphor for their life ahead.
As the boat sailed to some open water, it started to sprinkle. Then, just before the ceremony, the rain stopped and a rainbow appeared. McElwain took it for a sign that all the people she loved who couldn't be there, like her parents, had made an appearance.
Spirit of Buffalo paused in the water and McElwain's Presbyterian minister (and sister) Katherine Evans, who said, "I've never done a wedding like this," started the ceremony.
Friends in sailboats surrounded both sides of the boat, and watched. On board, it was quiet.
Guest Nancy Chinelli said she was paying closer attention than she would have in church. The couple exchanged vows about sharing their spiritual journey, and Chinelli was feeling more connected to her husband sitting next to her. "It kind of rekindled my love," she said.
When the ceremony ended, one of the crew fired a blank from the cannon, the stereo song mix played David Grey crooning "sail away with me honey," the beaming couple danced, and McElwain mouthed the lyrics "what will be, will be."
It had been an out-of-body experience, she said, as they headed back to the dock where a party awaited. As she promised to spend the rest of her life with her kind, blue-eyed adventurer husband, she felt like she was flying with the sails.
Check Out These Places
Marty Biniasz, marketing chairman for the Central Terminal, said the old train station is now focusing on big events, not weddings, but pointed out some intriguing wedding site options:
*Silo City, (849-4780) a collection of abandoned grain elevators by the Buffalo River.
*The LodgeAuctionHouse on Cazenovia Street (thelodgeauction.com), a former Masonic temple with marble floors and a large light globe with a world map.
*The art deco rooms of the echo Club in Niagara Falls (historicecho.com). "For $1,500, we'll marry you, loan you a new wedding dress and give you a CD of your pictures," said Deborah Sirianni, the owner of what was once a Polish club.
*The TonawandaCastle (tonawandacastle.com), a converted 1890s armory on Delaware Street.
*Any one of the ethnic clubs, a mix of elegance and nostalgia, listed at forgottenbuffalo.com/privateethnicclubs.html. "These are all really cool, creative, off-the-beaten track places," said Biniasz. "It doesn't matter if it's the back of a gin mill or a private club, any wedding can be fun if the crowd is into it."
— Michelle Kearns