Julie and Stephanie’s San Francisco Zoo wedding
From June 16, 2008 to November 5, 2008, marriage equality was a reality in California. During this brief lapse in discrimination, more than 18,000 gay and lesbian couples got marriage certificates. Julie Hajarr and Stephanie Rainaldi were one of the lucky duos, a Berkeley couple who had a City Hall ceremony less than two weeks before Proposition 8 went into effect. With their marriage secured, the couple planned a wedding for the following May so that friends and family could celebrate with them. “Most everyone knew we had already gotten married at City Hall, but doing it with them all there was important for us and them,” says Stephanie.
The seven-month gap was a brief interlude for the happy couple, who had already shared 10 years together before their wedding. Both psychology majors, they crossed paths (or hallways) in the same building at Long Beach State for two semesters before they landed in the same class and were officially introduced. “For the next two years, we were best friends. She had a girlfriend during that time—I had … several, and then she finally came around and realized I was the one for her,” Julie says with a chuckle.
It was Julie who eventually popped the question, after devising a scheme to make sure the proposal was a surprise. Having picked out a Tiffany & Co. ring she knew Stephanie liked, the pair went to visit their families in Southern California, giving Julie a chance to ask permission from Stephanie’s mom and dad. “Old school, yes, but I thought it was important to do,” Julie says. “Her parents have a beautiful backyard, so I set up a bunch of outdoor lights by the pool and decided I would ask her there. I made up this huge story about my shopping trip with my friend, and tried to make it sound like I had bought something from Tiffany for my two-year-old niece. It was supposed to go as planned…” Stephanie continue the story, “So we were hanging out by the pool and Julie picks up her sweatshirt and a black fuzzy ring box falls out onto the ground.” Julie picked up the box hoping Stephanie hadn’t seen it, and Stephanie tried to pretend she hadn’t.
“Smooth, I know,” says Julie. “The box so wasn’t supposed to fall out! But since it did, I got down on one knee and told her I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her. She said—screamed—‘yes’, and then ran full speed back into the house to show her parents the ring.”
The same loving family structure that cheered on their engagement was there for them when they tied the knot. “I think the overwhelming family/friend support and love we felt was indescribable,” Julie says. The minister presiding was their brother-in-law, Dietrich. Also, it was vital to the brides that their fathers walk them down the aisle and share the traditional first dance. Since our culture doesn’t provide many guidelines for lesbian weddings, this called for a little creativity. “We weren’t sure how to do the ‘walk down the aisle’ bit, so we created our own walk-in and each had our dads escort us up opposite side aisles so we met in the front. When the ceremony was finished, we walked down the center aisle together,” says Julie. “Actually walking down the aisle was surreal. I kept looking around to see my friends and family—some who I hadn’t seen in a very long time—while also trying to keep myself in ‘the moment’ and wanting to take in the whole experience.”
After getting engaged in late April, the two gave themselves more than a year to make wedding plans, but were still surprised by how long the process took. “I feel like we did tons of planning at first, and then, truth be told, we kind of slacked off until it got to the point of frenzied planning, and then we spent four months where every spare moment was spent on wedding coordinating,” says Julie. No decisions were made without the other being involved, although Julie’s job as a sales account executive gave her more time to do online research.
One of the most important decisions for any wedding is always the venue. “We wanted to capture how important it was that we were getting married, but also wanted to provide a really fun and unique atmosphere,” Julie says. It’s hard to come up with a wedding venue more fun and unique than the San Francisco Zoo, but the couple amped it up even more with an energetic DJ, a photo booth and cocktail hour in the giraffe barn.
“My favorite part about the ceremony is where we had it—outdoors on the African Savannah at the Zoo, so there were a bunch of animals walking around as our backdrop,” says Julie. Even though planning itself got a little crazy, the easiest part was picking the location. “When we realized that the Zoo was an option and completely fit our budget, it was a perfect fit,” Julie says. Another perk of choosing the venue was a buffet by Carol Mann from Taste of the Wild, a catering service exclusively for zoo functions.
The exotic background gave them a great excuse to add unusual flair to the decorations, with assorted zoo animal place card holders at guest tables and zoo animal cookies from Elenis as favors. “I guess the zoo ended up being the overarching motif,” Julie says, “Not overkill zoo theme, but it was definitely present.” Animal care runs in the family for Julie, a senior boarding manager at a doggie daycare. Her great-uncle George Bistany was the zoo’s first director in 1929, then called the Fleishhacker Zoo.
“It was awesome; there was something for everyone,” says Stephanie, “When people weren’t dancing, they were in the booth.” Music was a personal highlight for both brides and the guests. Vitamin String Quartet versions of their favorite songs played during the procession, and their reinvented walk down the aisle was set to an instrumental of The Pixies’ “Here Comes Your Man.” The vows were completely personalized, and they incorporated the poem “I Like You” by Sandol Stoddard Warburg into the reading. “I think it 100 percent captures who we are and how we feel about each other,” Julie says.
Although the pair didn’t bother hiring a videographer, they do have copies of all the booth photos, and hear rumors that wedding videos are indeed floating around. The booth also provided guests with a fun bit of memorabilia, each labeled “Julie & Steph, May 30, 2009.”
More conventional wedding photography was provided by “the best photographers EVER,” as Julie puts it in describing Lilia and Ray Ahner. Having worked with the Ahners before in an engagement photo session shot at The Bulin Albany, they knew the two were right for their wedding, too (http://www.liliaphoto.com/.)
For the ceremony arch and boutonnieres, they chose Not Just Flowers with perfect results. But in a gambit to stay on budget, Julie and Stephanie decided to make their own table centerpieces, ordering vases from an online wholesaler and picking up flowers at the San Francisco Flower Mart. Putting three vases of different heights on each table, they filled them with river stones and water, then submerged the flowers. “Unfortunately, when we went to the Flower Mart the day before the wedding to get the flowers, we couldn’t find what we had practiced with—and we discovered that the ones we did get floated instead of staying submerged!” says Stephanie. But with the help of family, they were able to improvise with good results. Julie says, “Combined with several small candle votives per table, they looked awesome.”
So did the brides. Decked out in black suits for the ceremony, Stephanie wore Calvin Klein with a Ben Sherman tie and white creepers. Julie claims that, in typical fashion, she doesn’t remember the brand of anything she wore, but did find a fantastic pair of white cufflinks. “No wedding dresses in sight,” says Stephanie.
The wedding’s finishing touch, the cake, was made by Cheryl Lew at Montclair Baking, who incorporated the design from their invitations onto the cake.
“We wanted people to come away from the wedding saying ‘that was so them,’” Julie says, “I think we totally achieved that.” Although they nixed the bridesmaid/groomsmen tradition, there was no shortage of friends and relations. “I kept thinking how amazing it was that all these people were here for us, and how happy they were for us! It was just a really overwhelming feeling. It was more than what we had hoped for,” says Stephanie. “Seeing friends and family that had never met at all having such a great time together.”
Although they had a good turnout of 85 guests, they did discover that it’s best to trust your own instincts when compiling the invite list. “Send invitations to everyone in your family that YOU think should be there,” Stephanie advises. “In our case, we relied on input from parents, etc., who felt that some people would never attend our big gay wedding—only to discover after the fact that people’s feelings were hurt because they weren’t invited.”
Looking back on the special day, Julie offers some survival tips. “I learned two big things. No. 1: Delegate when you need to! Moms, sisters, friends—people want to help where they can—shout out to both of our moms and sisters who pitched in!,” she says, “No. 2: If you plan on any DIY projects, plan ahead!” The two not only made their own centerpieces, but wrote their vows and ceremony wording, plus planned all of the music. “It definitely took more time and energy than we anticipated!” says Julie. Both brides also stress the importance of making your wedding reflect who you are together, a challenge since many weddings are very cookie cutter (and not in fun zoo animal shapes). “And try to keep a sense of humor!” Julie adds. “Planning a wedding will bring insane stress to the very best of relationships. Know this going into it and try to keep the bigger picture in mind.”
Story by L.A. Jones