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Vows, Then Wows

Giant butterflies greet the guests arriving for the NeJame-Arizola wedding at the Ritz-Carlton Orlando on Saturday evening.

Actually, they're young women dressed in shimmery robes, with fuzzy white hoods, feathery antennae and outspread paper wings. But they're unmistakably butterflies.

They're also the first sign that this will be no ordinary wedding. There will be living statues, My Fair Lady look-alikes in huge picture hats and girls in silver bodysuits swinging in hoops from the ceiling.

But that comes later. For now, let's follow Madam Butterfly's directions and head through the double doors that open into the hotel ballroom.

A white-carpeted aisle leads to a stage at the far side of the room. It's lined with towering tree limbs wrapped in gold and silver cloth and festooned with flowers, and is flanked by arcing rows of chairs dressed in ivory chiffon skirts and shimmer-fabric bows.

The bridal couple is on stage, under a canopy of orchids, roses and glowing votive candles. The groom is Mark NeJame, the defense attorney known as the Johnnie Cochran of Orlando. The bride is Josie Arizola, a former law clerk.

The theme of their fairy-tale wedding is "A Midsummer Night's Dream." And, like its Shakespearean namesake, it's an elaborate production.

The theater is the Ritz ballroom, transformed for the occasion into an enchanted forest by Jonathan Panczuk, co-owner of Raining Roses, one of Orlando's most upscale florists. Josie plays the lead in a gossamer gown sparkling with crystals -- the first of two gowns she will wear before the evening is over.

A classic Spanish beauty, she's as lovely as any Tatiana, Shakespeare's Queen of the Fairies. Mark, a diminutive bundle of energy with lively black eyes and an exquisite Barney's New York tux, is a perfect Puck.

The supporting cast includes 10 bridesmaids, 10 groomsmen, three flower girls (complete with fairy wings) and a ring bearer. A gospel choir and 10-piece orchestra provide the music. Three aunts read passages by Maya Angelou, Kahlil Gibran and Rumi.

Susan Pelteson, owner of All About Events & Distinctive Weddings, is the stage manager. Five hundred guests make up the audience, including Orange County Chairman Rich Crotty, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer and boy-band guru Lou Pearlman.

"It's pure theater," comments Panczuk. "They ought to charge admission."

True to Shakespearean tradition, even the planets are auspiciously aligned for the occasion. They're in a pattern known as the Grand Sextile -- a six-pointed star believed by astrologers to pull masculine and feminine energy into perfect balance.

Outside, a full moon is rising in the balmy Florida night. In a couple of hours there will be a total lunar eclipse -- another literary portent of momentous things to come.

" I love you. I love you. From the moment that we met, it was there." Mark NeJame, holding his bride's hands and gazing steadily into her eyes, speaks his vows in a voice shaky with emotion.

"I promise you, Josie, that I will be difficult. . . . " That breaks the tension. Guests laugh appreciatively. ". . . But I promise you, I will always improve, and grow, and be there for you."

A pause. He sniffs back a sob. The excellent sound system broadcasts the sound loud and clear. Josie gives him a sweet smile and pulls his hands a little closer.

She begins her vows as he did: "I love you and I adore you. The moment I saw your face I knew you were the one." And finally: "I promise to love you and be by your side today, tomorrow and always."

The Rev. Jim Spencer pronounces a blessing, then introduces the new Mr. and Mrs. NeJame to their family and friends. Orlando's St. Mark AME Gospel Ensemble bursts into a hand-clapping rendition of "O Happy Day." Rose petals rain down on the couple as they dash down the aisle and into the wide foyer, where white-gloved servers stand ready to offer cocktails and hors d'oeuvres.

The My Fair Lady characters circulate, smile and guide guests to the bar, the guest book and the table where seat-assignment cards for dinner are anchored by little silver butterflies, the wedding's motif. Even the butter pats are butterfly-shaped.

Men and women in black tie and evening gowns perform the wedding rituals, complimenting the bride, kidding the groom. At the same time, behind closed doors, the ballroom is being transformed into a bigger, more elaborate enchanted forest.

A wall has been slid aside, doubling the size of the room. Fifty round tables, each set with linens, tableware and tall floral centerpieces, are revealed. Crews move in to distribute the tables throughout the ballroom -- and to arrange the 500 chairs from the ceremony around the tables.

At the same time, a dance floor is laid down, wine bars and four buffet stations are set up, the orchestra and DJ move in with their instruments and equipment, and vacuum cleaners inhale rose petals from the carpet.

Positioned opposite the bridal couple's table is the piece de resistance: a 10-tiered wedding cake designed by New York's fabled baker, Sylvia Weinstock, and inspired by the masterpiece she created for the Michael Douglas-Catherine Zeta-Jones wedding.

A video crew from TV's Inside Edition is filming the cake from all angles. Weinstock, a tiny woman with sparse gray hair and huge, round, black-framed glasses, is describing how each of the sugar-paste roses, lilies and tulips -- hundreds in all -- are shaped by hand.

"These TV people wanted to do a story on a wonderful cake, so they came to a wonderful baker," she says.

Adds Inside Edition producer Bill Barrett: "We're shooting the entire process, from the cracking of the first egg to the cutting of the first slice."

On Wednesday, the 15 cakes that make up the final concoction were baked -- chocolate, yellow and banana. On Thursday, they were filled -- three flavors per cake, including hazelnut, apricot and coconut crème. Then they were iced, decorated and chilled. On Friday, they were packed ever so carefully into nine boxes, and driven by limo to JFK airport -- accompanied by Weinstock.

"The minute I got on that plane, I went up to the pilot and told him, 'There's a very special cake in the hold. No sudden stops and no rough landings.' "

The boxes were hauled in a refrigerated truck from Orlando International to the Ritz, assembled and chilled once more. The entire process, including scenes of Mark and Josie sampling the first slice, will be aired on Inside Edition on WKMG-Channel 6 at 4 p.m. Friday. A program featuring bridegrooms totally involved in their wedding plans, and including a segment on Mark NeJame, will air on the show Thursday.

"It's the most extravagant cake I've ever seen. The flowers look real," says Lauren Fucci, an Orlando guest snapping photos of the creation moments before it is cut.

After the event, guests waiting for valets to fetch their cars are clutching souvenir sugar roses. "I'm taking them to show my son and daughter-in-law," says Linda Sutherland of Orlando. "I've never seen anything like it."

The couple met five years ago in the Orange County Court-house. "I was in the elevator, going up to the third floor," recalls Josie, 24. "I'd just seen Sliding Doors, a movie about serendipity. It ends with Gwyneth Paltrow in an elevator, the doors sliding closed. I remember thinking, 'I wonder who I'll meet when the doors slide open?' " She met Mark NeJame, and it was love at first sight -- for both of them. He courted her with bouquets of white flowers, fancy dinners, flights to South Seas islands. "I wanted to be married real soon," says Josie, over a dinner of Italian takeout in the kitchen of their lakefront home in Bay Hill, three weeks before the wedding.

"She was too young. She hadn't had many life experiences, and I've had a lot," says Mark, 48, who was divorced nine years ago from Channel 2 news anchor Wendy Chioji. "It was best to let some time pass first."

Meantime, he bought a diamond ring set with almost seven carats of diamonds. He finally popped the question, on bended knee, in a hotel room in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, about 14 months ago.

"Planning the wedding has been our social life since then. It's saved us a couple hundred dollars at the movies," he jokes.

Ah, but what has it cost? The invitations alone, decorated with a total of more than 45,000 paper petals and wrapped in 900 yards of silver and gold ribbon, were $35 apiece, including $2.21 for postage.

And then there are Josie's two gowns. (A girl couldn't be expected to take her vows and later dance the night away in the same ol' gown, could she?)

The first, with a low, scooped neckline, fitted bodice and flaring hem, is a $10,000 creation by Lebanese-born designer Reem Acra, who opened a boutique in New York in February, and already is being hailed by Hollywood celebrities, including Halle Berry and Courteney Cox, as "the new Vera Wang."

The second, which debuts much later in the evening, is another $10,000 number -- a frothy chiffon creation by Dior, featuring a diagonal ruffle and swath of silk roses flowing from left shoulder to right ankle. And with each, a pair of silver Jimmy Choo shoes, each in the $700 range.

"It's costing less than people imagine, but more than I expected," says Mark. And to anyone who thinks the extravaganza is a little over the top, he has just this to say: "I didn't come from money. I work hard for what I have. I'll spend it how I want. They can stay out of my wedding, and I'll stay out of theirs."

Josie, the romantic, dreamed of a small, intimate wedding, he admits. But as a hometown boy, and a man with fingers in many pies -- law, real estate, the Tabu nightclub and a jewelry store (which Josie was managing until wedding plans became a full-time job) -- he wanted a blow-out. "I love a celebration."

There have been plenty of those over the past few weeks, including a roast for Mark at Enzo's, a tea party for Josie at the Ritz and a themed shower for both of them: Sex and the City meets The Sopranos, a toast to their favorite TV shows. The cake for the shower, a wedding gift from Sylvia Weinstock, was shaped like a shoe box and decorated with a sugar replica of a Jimmy Choo shoe.

And speaking of gifts, what does one give a couple who have everything? The wedding invitation included a card that solved the problem: It asked that guests make charitable donations in lieu of gifts.

"Mark's been extraordinarily involved in the planning," says Pelteson, their wedding coordinator. "He's having the time of his life. And Josie's been working night and day." Pelteson figures she has spent 150 hours on the event, compared with her usual 100 hours.

"It's upscale and elaborate," she says. There were the usual deliberations about flowers, food and photographers. The usual arguments about the guest list. And of course, the bride and groom had to get themselves camera-ready for their big night.

Mark spent time at the dentist, getting his familiar overbite corrected. Josie flew to New York to have her hair colored by Rita Hazan, colorist to Jennifer Lopez and Celine Dion, at Adir Salon -- described on its Web site as "a modern Zen retreat." And to have her eyebrows plucked by Eliza Petrescu, "Queen of the Arch," at Eliza's Eyes -- "a boutique dedicated to the art of eyebrow shaping" at the Avon Salon & Spa.

They both flew to California to have their engagement pictures taken on the beach by Yitzhak Dalal, wedding photographer to Hollywood stars. Josie had spotted his pictures of the John Stamos-Rebecca Romijn nuptials in In Style, her favorite magazine. No other photographer would do. They would fly him to Orlando for the wedding.

There also was a plane ticket for Josie's hairstylist, Angel Torres, from the trendy Miano-Viel Salon in New York. Her makeup artist, Susan O'Neill, who has created looks for Britney Spears, is from Longwood.

So much planning, so much stress. To help the couple maintain their sanity, yoga instructor Laura Daniel visited them at home three times a week.

"When she leaves," says Josie, "we feel serene."

The cocktail hour has ended. The ballroom is ready for dinner and dancing. Two lyras -- performers on elevated rings and cloth streamers -- are twirling and contorting in the glare of spotlights. "It's very Vegas," a woman is overheard commenting to her entranced husband.

The guests load up on Mediterranean and Mexican fare, including lobster tacos, paella and barbecued pork tenderloin -- a nod to Mark's Lebanese heritage and Josie's Mexican-Indian lineage. On the tables are tiny gauze bags, each containing a semiprecious stone lettered with the words faith, hope, love in Arabic and Spanish. And when guests depart, they are given a copy of Gibran's The Prophet, each autographed, "With Faith, Hope & Love. Mark & Josie."

The cake is cut. The champagne toasts are drunk. DJ Scotty B is spinning "Come On and Ride It (The Train)," Mark's favorite get-the-party-started tune. The NeJame-Arizola fairy-tale wedding is almost over.

For its happily-ever-after ending, Mark has one more treat for his bride. The happy couple will honeymoon at Wakaya Club, one of the world's most luxurious and exclusive hideaways, on a private paradise island in Fiji.

Copyright © 2003, Orlando Sentinel
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