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Hollidaysburg couple plans to be virtually wed on the Web

Thursday, December 31, 1998

By Tom Gibb, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

HOLLIDAYSBURG, Pa. - As Dale Ficken remembers it, when he told his wife-to-be about the few extras he planned to bring to their wedding tonight, she was, well, a shade perplexed.

"Her first reaction was, 'What have you done?' " Ficken said. " 'What have you done to my intimate, candlelight wedding?'

"I told her, 'Nothing. I just brought four video cameras and some high-intensity lights.' "

Oh, and some computers, a few technicians, special telephone cable and assorted electronic gizmology.

You know. Your basic gear for a World Wide Web wedding of the late '90s.

So, tonight at 7 - if the Internet gods be willing - Ficken, 37, Lorrie Ann Scarangella, 35, and the cyberworld will be joined in marriage, in a ceremony broadcast from a little church in this Blair County town, across the globe, over the World Wide Web.

The minister - no less than the Rev. Jerry Falwell - will perform the service from a studio near his Lynchburg, Va., home, linked to the church by computer.

About 30 invitation-only guests are expected to use Ficken's secret password and watch on their home PCs across the country.

And after it's over - maybe within an hour, maybe in a day or two, if glitches crop up - the whole thing will be playing for anybody anywhere hankering to fire up their Web browser and go to a wedding. The Web address is:

"I'm pretty enthusiastic," said the Rev. Michael Childs, whose First Baptist Church voted to let nonmembers Ficken and Scarangella launch their wedding into cyberspace from the church. "The idea that something like this can be seen all over the world is exciting."

That's the idea, Ficken said.

Ficken friends and kin will be in places like South Dakota, California and Florida, watching a ceremony they otherwise wouldn't get to see.

But he wants anybody else who's interested to cozy up to a computer and see that a small ceremony - 70 guests expected - can be transmitted to Katmandu or anyplace interested viewers are waiting.

That's what Ficken does for a living.

Ficken is in sales with SRT Enterprises, a small Philipsburg, Centre County, company that grew up with the Internet and now develops

Web sites and sends radio and television programming out over the Internet. Ficken's territory is religious programming, handling such jobs as a broadcast in October by the Rev. Billy Graham and Christian rock concerts.

That's where he got his "in" with Falwell.

Three months back, he went to his boss and told him he was getting married.

"He was almost flippant and said, 'We ought to Webcast that,' " Ficken said. "And I was like, 'Yeah, OK, that sounds good.' But it was a little more calculated than that.

Ficken figured he could prove a point, and prove it with his own nuptials. And while he was sending out wedding invitations, he was also sending out press releases to the likes of CNN and The Washington Post.

"It's my wedding, and it shouldn't be used as a publicity stunt," he said. "I wanted people to take notice of the technology."

Sounded plausible, too, given this era when throngs of computer users line up for their 15 megabytes of fame.

Newlyweds are showing their wedding albums online. A mere 122 days into marriage, a Calgary, Alberta, couple have taken to the Web, offering advice and anecdotes to others pondering marriage.

And while Ficken figures he's the first person on the globe to import both crowd and clergyman over computer hookups, he's not the first to Webcast his wedding.

Last July, Charles and Stephanie Thiele of Fort Loudon, Franklin County, 63 miles southwest of Harrisburg, joined the pioneers when they paid $2,000 to Internet Global Communications, a Florida company, to transmit their wedding service.

In a Montana hospital, Stephanie Thiele's father was recuperating from pneumonia, unable to attend his daughter's wedding.

"So, in the hospital, Stephanie's parents dressed up in what they would have worn to the wedding and watched it on computer," Charles Thiele said.

Tonight, computer novice Debbie Bockman will be in her kitchen in Riverside, Calif., surrounded by family, watching on her PC as cousin Dale gets married.

"They won't be allowed to throw rice in the kitchen," she said.

Once Ficken sold the idea to his wife, a vascular technician at a local hospital, the rest of the family wasn't a tough sell, he said.

"That's the kind of thing you expect from Dale," Bockman said. "He's a smart kid. Innovative."

The next thing was to find a place to wed.

The local Scotch Valley Country Club proved too pricey - even though Ficken offered them free advertising on his Web page. So he made the rounds of local churches, trying to find one that would open up New Year's Eve to a wedding party and its computer gear.

"We put it to a vote, and there were a couple of dissenting votes, but we have a group that's on the Web a lot, and they were pretty excited," Childs said.

For church-related clients trying to reach viewers across the globe, Ficken figures a dive into Webcasting could save them "literally billions of dollars" compared to traditional television ministries.

For smaller clients, simply trying to put a wedding out on the Web, the economics are smaller-scale.

Ficken figures his company could Webcast a wedding for anywhere from "a thousand dollars to tens of

thousands of dollars," depending how elaborate customers want to get.

For now, that doesn't overcome a basic technological reality. Customers with basic equipment - RealPlayer 5.0 software and a 28.8 kbps modem - are likely to have a Webcast with good sound but a picture that's about the size of four postage stamps and moving in fits and starts.

"It's going to be a little jerky," said Omar Saleh, SRT president. For Ficken, bringing a wedding together via the Internet also raised another quandary - this one not quite technological.

Can a couple be legally married by a preacher two states away?

The answer: Nobody's sure.

Ficken said he was told it probably couldn't be contested by anybody other than the newlyweds.

Blair County Solicitor Merle K. Evey said it's a murky legal question, although he said state law pretty much allows common-law marriage between any two people who profess to be married.

And Helen Eicher, the county's second deputy prothonotary, said policy was to issue a marriage license and avoid those kinds of questions.

"We don't ask anybody else how they're getting married, so we didn't ask him how he's getting married," she said.

As for Eicher, her counsel was enough to win her a sort-of invitation to the wedding: the computer password viewers will need to watch it live.

"I'd be interested in seeing it," she said. "But I don't have a computer at home."

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