By Arnold Wayne Jones

How a savvy photographer, a charming seaside villa and the Internet made for the perfect south-of-the-border nuptials

I TAKE THIS MAN: Scott Collen, above left, and David Bartsch smile broadly moments before tying the knot from the top of a villa overlooking Puerto Vallarta and the Pacific Ocean; below, the two kiss and toast each other, having just taken their vows.- PHOTOS COURTESY OF AUDREY AVERA

As any bride can tell you — Britney Spears being the exception that proves the rule — planning and preparing for a wedding can be an arduous task. That’s probably truer still when both partner are men, most of whom weren’t raised since childhood fantasizing about such things.

So when Scott Collen and David Bartsch decided to exchange vows — out of the country, no less — they went into it blindly. But six months later, everything came together, and almost without hitch. Here’s how they did it.

Last summer, while lounging around a friend’s swimming pool, Collen and Bartsch decided it was time to tie the knot. But the idea for Dallas wedding quickly went out the window. If they were going to get married, they should make it a "destination wedding" — a ceremony in an exotic locale for themselves and their guests.

"We considered Hawaii and Napa Valley," says Collen. "Then David mentioned Puerto Vallarta."

Bartsch had heard from friends that the Mexican seaside resort was a great destination for gay travelers, "and so we just sort of latched onto the idea."

Same-sex marriages have no legal status in Mexico, so the ceremony was purely a symbolic one where they could express their love for one another. Initially, the plan was for a small ceremony — just the bridegrooms and two close friends. But as often happens with weddings, the guest list began to expand — first to their mothers, then to a lengthy list of other friends and relatives.

"As word spread, we began to see that there might be a dozen or so of us," recall Bartsch, "so Scott began frantically looking around to find a place for us to all stay."

After their guests returned to the United States, Bartsch and Collen remained in Mexico, honeymooning along the beaches of Puerto Vallarta.

They consulted with several wedding planners based in Puerto Vallarta, but quickly went into "sticker shock." The couple decided they could plot out the entire service on their own from Dallas — despite the fact neither of them had ever visited Puerto Vallarta before nor did they speak any Spanish.

Relying solely on advice from friends and information they picked up searching the Internet, they soon determined that if you’re gay and traveling to the Mexican Riviera, "you really wanted to stay near the Zona Romantica," says Collen. They ended up renting out the Villa Las Palmeras for the wedding party and all the guests. "We told people that if they wanted to buy their airplane ticket, we would have a place for them to stay. By late August, we had over 22 people attending —well beyond our wildest imagination," says Collen.

There was still the matter of the ceremony. "We both decided that we really wanted to spend our money on the villa, not on elaborate items for the ceremony," Collen says.

Collen, who had been married before, knew a few things about a wedding: You need a location; a photographer; an officiant; flowers; and food. They methodically went about lining them all up.

They talked about holding it on a sailboat at sunset, but quickly realized that was logistically complicated and rife with risks. The villa rooftop, it turned out, offered breathtaking views of the ocean and was available. They still rented the sailboat, only as an adventure party for all the guests before the wedding.

One thing they didn’t want to scrimp on was the photographer — pictures would be the most enduring memento of the entire event. Joseph Kandoll, the shutterbug they hired, ended up being the wisest investment they made. He came recommended by the most famous gay photographer in PV, and "was more than worth his weight in gold," Collen says — not so much because of his photographic skills, but because of his savvy advice.

Collen and Bartsch had already asked a Dallas friend, Audrey Avera, to take care of the flowers. Avera is a florist who specializes in weddings, but getting fresh blooms in Mexico was tricky. That’s when Kandoll stepped in, referring Avera to a local flower supplier who could deliver exactly what she wanted. He went on to track down Edwin Teitler, an American non-denominational minister living in PV, to officiate; and a bakery that could offer a cake-tasting several days before the ceremony and get the one they chose delivered days later. He even arranged for AV equipment so that a family friend could sing during the ceremony.

Everything proceeded like clockwork. Even when Collen was diagnosed with the flu three days before they were set to leave for Puerto Vallarta, some antibiotics fought it off sufficiently that they could travel.

Bartsch and Collen say the entire experience was as wonderful as they could ever have hoped for. All the meals, prepared by the villa’s chef, were excellent. The Friday before the service, the villa staff arranged for all the guests to enjoy free 30-minute massages.

"We enjoyed them so much, they returned again on Saturday evening for some more facials and massages," Collen says.

They chartered the catamaran for a four-hour tour around Banderas Bay, and even came upon several pods of humpback whales. "The first of each year, mother humpbacks come to Banderas Bay to have their babies and then actually train them how to swim. What an amazing experience to see them!" gushes Collen.

Puerto Vallarta’s reputation for gay-friendliness, they learned, was well-deserved — everyone from the villa staff to the cabbies were welcoming and offered their best wishes to the couple. The city boasts nearly a dozen gay bars and dance clubs, and the wedding party hit several after the boating trip.

"We started with martinis at La Noche — a great, small bar. Then most of us continued the evening by going to the main dance place in PV, Manana," Collen says. "This place was awesome; David and I found ourselves back here two more times during the honeymoon."

The following day, 15 minutes before sunset, the ceremony took place. It was magical, Collen says. Family friends sang the songs each had selected for the other: "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" was Bartsch’s to Collen, who in turn selected Michael Buble’s "Everything." Their siblings choked up offering toasts and both men and a few guests became misty-eyed during the ceremony.

"The setting was to die for; the flowers and cake were amazing," Collen says. "But best of all, we were so fortunate to have all our friends and family right there to help us celebrate."

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 9, 2008.
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