This article was originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle on December 25, 2011.
The holidays are often called the season of love, and with good reason. According to the Brides magazine 2011 American Wedding Study, 18 percent of marriage proposals take place in December, making it the top month for engagements. Five golden rings, indeed.
Proposals have also become more grandiose in recent years, if YouTube is any indication. Searching for the phrase “best proposal ever” yields more than 2,000 video results, from grooms-to-be who orchestrate singing flash mobs at shopping centers or theme parks to those who film movie trailer proposals and show them at local theaters secretly packed with family and friends.
These elaborate proposals may sound like more than any mortal man could handle on his own, and, in many cases, they are. That’s why a new profession has emerged in the wedding industry: proposal coordinator.
Alyssa Zweibel started her San Francisco company, Proposal Perfect, in June after bouncing the idea off customers in the wine bar where she worked. Men, she said, were enthusiastic about the idea of having someone to help craft proposal ideas, coordinate logistics and keep them within budget (on average, $300).
Zweibel has worked with about half a dozen clients since launching her business and said she received more calls in the first week of December than in any other week.
Ema Drouillard, an engagement coach and wedding planner for another San Francisco company, Ceremony Way, said that engagement planning makes up only a small fraction of her business but that she is always struck by how big grooms are dreaming when they seek her services.
“They are incredibly excited,” Drouillard said. “They want to make the proposals special and perfect. Women don’t get how engaged men are in thinking about the ring and the proposal. They’re not even thinking about the wedding. If they could, they’d spend everything they have right then.”
The following stories chronicle four uniquely San Francisco marriage proposals that took place this year. The grooms designed the surprises themselves, with the help of friends, community members and even a few strangers.
A song in his heart
When James Holder, 29, invited his girlfriend, Jordan Lui, 27, to a romantic dinner at San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel in November, Lui suspected it might be the night Holder would propose. She was right, but she never imagined how he would do it.
Holder and Lui met in law school at Santa Clara University in 2006 and dated for three years before Holder popped the question. Wanting to “step up and do something we could tell our children about someday,” and vowing that “I’d never propose in jeans,” Holder put on a suit and reserved a suite on the Fairmont’s 23rd floor. He hired a photographer and videographer and invited the University of California Men’s Octet to serenade Lui, who had sung madrigals in high school.
After the a cappella group surprised Lui with the Bruno Mars hit “Just the Way You Are” – and just before room service delivered a personalized dinner to the suite – Holder dropped to one knee.
“I was so nervous,” Holder said. “It was such a momentous event. It doesn’t matter how long we’ve been together or that I knew she was going to say yes. I wanted it to be as perfect as it could be.”
“It was such a grand gesture,” Lui recalled, smiling. “All I could say was, ‘Yes.’ ”
The baseball diamond
On their first date in 2007, John Paul Vaal took Isabel Weygan to a San Francisco Giants game. They continued to attend games together until the summer of 2010.
Our relationship “hit a few bumps in the road,” Vaal, 30, said, referring to the couple’s three-month split. Vaal continued to watch the Giants, but Weygan, 28, did not. “Watching them reminded me of him,” she said.
One Sunday – the day the Giants would clinch a playoff berth – Vaal texted Weygan and asked if they could talk. They reconciled in person that afternoon. Vaal happily missed the game.
The Giants won the 2010 World Series, and by June 2011, the couple were back at AT&T Park. Weygan was “randomly” selected to play the shell game on the Jumbotron, which required her to identify which of three helmets had a baseball underneath. She found the ball, but the Giants’ mascot revealed a better prize under another helmet – a ring box.
Weygan said she couldn’t hear Vaal pop the question over the roar of the crowd, but she cried anyway and whispered in his ear, “You’re going to marry me?”
“It was a stadium of 40,000 people,” including many of the couples’ family and friends, Vaal said. “But the moment when I got down on one knee and looked into her eyes, I felt like we were the only ones there.”
Recipe for love
Their friends in medical school nicknamed Frank Tran and Margaret Malicay Frank and Beans because almost from the day they met in 2008, they were always together. This summer, the couple were exhausted after traveling from New York to California to take medical board exams, but Tran, 27, insisted that Malicay, 29, visit his Bay Area hometown.
“I really just wanted to lay on the couch for 12 hours,” Malicay said, “but I decided I could suck it up and do whatever he wanted to do.”
After touring San Francisco landmarks Tran knew his foodie girlfriend would love, he suggested one last stop: the cookbook mecca Omnivore Books.
After letting Malicay browse, Tran suggested she check out this “cool book he just found.”
Inside the front cover was a note he had written. He began to read it aloud but only got halfway through before Malicay began to cry. Turning the page revealed a ring box nestled inside the 350 pages Tran and his family had hollowed out by hand.
Omnivore Books owner Celia Sack was in on the surprise and live-tweeted photos of the proposal. She then offered a toast with shots of whiskey.
“It like was an out-of-body experience,” Malicay said. “It still feels that way when I think about it now.”
They visited the California Academy of Sciences, and she had hoped Swisshelm might go in for a kiss when they were alone in the eel garden, but it wasn’t until after they left and she playfully climbed atop a sphinx statue outside that Swisshelm granted her wish.
Two years later, Bernstein, 26, found herself back at the museum with two friends. Swisshelm, 29, had since moved to Los Angeles for work and wasn’t due in town until the next day. That’s when a stranger handed Bernstein an envelope with a clue leading her to one of the stops on their first date.
Bernstein was then “a woman on a mission.” She barely noticed the man in a hat and sunglasses watching her from afar.
Hidden clues led Bernstein through all the most important moments of the first date, including to the eel garden, where the clue said Swisshelm had wanted to kiss her but had been too shy. The last clue led to the sphinx statue.
“When she finally came and found me, we both had these stupid grins on our faces,” Swisshelm said. “I say, ‘Uhh …” and that was all I could get out before she started smooching me. I had to stop her so I could get down on one knee.”