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Here comes the bride
Since the doors of Robert Carr Chapel opened in 1953, former Herndon Professor of Music Emmet Smith has played the organ for more than 2,000 weddings. With the bliss are a few sights he would rather have missed.
By Emmet Smith
The word "wedding" inspires fairyland visions of delicate flowers, ribbons, candles, exquisite finery, and angelic music in a beautiful edifice. Such scenes often materialize in TCU's elegant and stately Robert Carr Chapel.
Since 1953, thousands of wedding ceremonies have taken place within its walls, and if those walls could speak, they could relate to the listener many a tale that challenge belief, happenings that were not planned by the bride, her mother, the wedding consultant, the minister or any other mortal being.
I became the organ teacher and university organist on Jan. 1, 1951, and when the Carr Chapel was dedicated on that Sunday afternoon in May of 1953, I was asked to be in charge of the chapel music for all occasions. As fame of the chapel's beauty spread, it became a popular place for weddings. Available to all through the magnanimity of the university's administration, the chapel witnessed weddings of persons of myriad backgrounds.
Quite different from a parish church with a resident congregation, Carr Chapel weddings represent tastes and customs from all over the world. To avoid abuse of the facilities, and to control behavior of participants, strict rules have been necessary from the beginning:
A wedding rehearsal was about to begin when the bride's father strutted across the front of the chapel smoking a cigar, blowing clouds of smoke. The Minister to the University immediately took him aside and asked the man to take his cigar outside. Rules prohibit smoking, eating, or drinking in the chapel. The man belligerently stated that this was no church! Dr. Martin, the TCU minister, asked the man how he would react if Martin were to enter HIS church smoking. In the eyes of the believer, sacred ground is holy.
In the hundreds of Carr Chapel weddings, a surprising number of them have made me feel sorry for the young couple being married because of the behavior of their families. Stony silence, frosty glances, monosyllabic responses between them revealed a chasm that would make life for the new family difficult. One mother of the bride was not giving up the battle to prevent the wedding from taking place until the last minute.
The wedding was scheduled for 3 o'clock. I played the carillon at 2:30 for five minutes and then began the organ prelude of 25 minutes. At 2:30, the bride's mother decided that the flower girl had to have a better dress for the occasion, so she commanded her husband to drive her 30 miles home to select a different frock for the child. The wedding coordinator came to me at the organ and said that the wedding would be very late because it would take nearly an hour before she could return. I continued to play until 3, at which time the minister came to the chancel steps and invited the gathered guests to go for a walk or for refreshments down the street because the wedding would probably not start until around 4:30. To compound the problem, a second wedding was scheduled for 6 with guaranteed access to the chapel for decoration at 4:15! The first wedding finally began around 5 with only a few guests remaining, and with our chapel coordinator trying to pacify the irate family of the 6 o'clock wedding.
One wedding I remember with incredulity. The bride's parents had gone through a very acrimonious divorce, and to avoid conflict in the planning of the ceremony, the bride had evidently kept from her mother the fact that she expected her father to bring her down the aisle. The mother was a devout disciple of the bottle and was rather vague in her knowledge of what was going on, but when she saw her ex-husband coming down the aisle at the wedding rehearsal, she leaped to her unsteady feet, lunged at him, punched him in the nose and began to shout obscenities. Blood spurted from the poor man's nose. The chapel hostess at that time was a woman of amazing resourcefulness. She separated the two, the man never having retaliated in any way, and was able to arrange a compromise: The father could walk down the aisle with the bride, but would than have to leave the chapel and miss the wedding vows completely.
Not all incidents are cruel. Some are humorous, although at the time the wedding parties probably looked upon the events as anything but funny. On one occasion, the bride had been duped into having a flower girl (often the case) who was not only too young to take part in an adult situation, but was also a most unpleasant little harridan.
The rehearsal escapades should have warned them of what was to come, but brides are usually reticent about hurting the feelings of proud mothers of tiny tots who insist upon having them show off as flower girls. Five minutes into the actual ceremony the tension in the chapel was electric. The entire congregation of some 300 guests was oblivious to the vows because they were all glaring with intense dislike at the flower girl who was all over the chancel. She stood up in the choir pews and jumped up and down on the cushions. She fought with the little boy who was the ring bearer and who was trying to ignore her. When the groom finally caught hold of her and in a desperate stage whisper asked her to sit down she screamed, "NO!" With that, she flopped down upon the cushion of the kneeling bench and pretended to take a nap. The moment arrived when the priest asked the couple to kneel, and at the same time asked the little one to get up. Again she responded with a scream. The priest unceremoniously reached down and snatched her off the cushion and deposited her off to one side. Evidently, it was the first time in her short life that anyone had dared interfere with her desires, for she was in such a state of disbelief that not another sound or disturbance was forthcoming.
The ubiquitous "unity candle" that made its appearance some years ago invites disaster. If anything is going to go wrong in even the most carefully planned weddings, it will be that
johnny-come-lately part of the modern ceremony. In one wedding, the florist did not use common sense and provided the couple with spring-loaded side candles with which they were to light the center candle. As the nervous bride and groom gripped the tall metal tapers and released them from their sockets to lift the flames to the center wick, like two jack-in-the-boxes the candles shot into the air, extinguishing the flames and leaving each person holding a swaying spring with an empty metal socket wobbling around. The groom was a young doctor who was suddenly in command of the situation. With a big smile he said, "We didn't rehearse this! What do we do now?" It relieved the tension and everyone laughed and relaxed. Another candle experience was one in which the florist had used a butane candle for the large center one. Perhaps it was to make certain that the thing would burn. (Many is the wedding in which the unity candle refuses to stay lighted, thus serving as a symbol of failure.) In the case of the butane candle, when the couple touched their individual candles to its wick, it ignited like a blow torch, with a hissing flame that shot at least two feet into the air. It continued to burn with intensity until well after the guests departed.
In Carr Chapel, we have seen the decorations catch fire, the father of the bride have a heart attack, the bride faint, the groom faint, a groomsman faint, the mother of the bride fall flat on her back, the bride tear the front out of her dress as she walked up the steps, the ring bearer disgrace himself as a dark wet circle spread around his feet, the minister forget to come to the ceremony, the singer try to start his song and leave in disgust, the electricity fail and not come back on until days later, and other smaller disasters by the dozens. Of course, it is our responsibility to make the best of every situation, and we do try. In my position as the organist, my most frequent cross to bear is the inept, untrained singer who is a friend of the bride or groom, and has learned a song by singing along with some pop singer on a tape, cannot read notes, and has the nerve to perpetrate his or her vocal offering upon a trapped audience. Accompanying that kind of non-musician ages one.
We have experienced weddings in Spanish, Korean, Chinese, German, and Hebrew. Not only Christian (both Protestant and Catholic), but Jewish, Muslim, and weddings with no religion in evidence take place in the chapel. I remember one wedding in which a judge officiated, and at the rehearsal he stated that he wanted everyone to understand that there would be no praying, no scripture, no homily -- that the ceremony was to be strictly secular in every respect. It was. Weddings conducted in two languages take a long time. A recent Korean service lasted more than an hour-and-a-half after the 30 minutes of prelude music.
Having played for the university chapel for nearly five decades, I have actually had parents and grandparents of a bride or groom come up to the organ to say that they remember with fondness my music at their weddings many years ago, and such words of kindness remind me of the wonderful opportunities I have had to be a part of a ceremony upon which rests the future of the American family, and at the same time have enjoyed playing a splendid pipe organ that is often the first one ever heard by some brides and grooms.