July 26, 1993 12:00 PM

“Marriage is a big step…even for a horse,” observed Wilbur on television’s Mr. Ed. As a Hollywood celebrity, he knew what he was talking about. When the rich, the famous and the royal get hitched, it’s usually a real kick, as much for those of us watching as for the wedding party. Whether the stars like it or not (and they often don’t), their ceremonies have become as enthralling as their screen efforts. In fact, a good nuptial can be a smart career move. Celebrity wedding bells, if you can hear them above the racket of the helicopters, portend good box office and Nielsen numbers, at least for a while. Says veteran Hollywood entertainment reporter Rona Barrett: “It’s a fast 15 seconds of getting your name in the paper as having done something positive.”

How did one of the most common rites of ordinary life become such a major occasion for the notable? The British invented the modern celebrity wedding in 1840. When 20-year-old Queen Victoria exchanged vows with her beloved Prince Albert, she shunned the crowned-head penchant for lavishly hued gowns in favor of a relatively simple white frock, which has become traditional bridal style. The young Queen also moved the ceremony to afternoon (her forebears preferred to marry at night to avoid the common crowds), so her subjects could celebrate too. And did they ever. “Our reception was most enthusiastic,” Victoria wrote in her diary, “the people quite deafening us.” By the 1981 marriage of Charles and Diana, the crowds, thanks to TV, had swelled to an estimated 500 million worldwide.

On this side of the Atlantic, our stars are not wearing crowns, and they’d prefer it if you didn’t look on while they twined. In maintaining the secrecy surrounding their last-minute marriage in Marion, Ind., last month, Julia Roberts and Lyle Lovett stunned even their own wedding guests by giving them just a day’s notice to board the tour buses bound for St. James’s Lutheran Church. Of course, Roberts had been burned by the publicity surrounding her other wedding—the one that never took place. Three days prior to their much ballyhooed June 14, 1991, nuptials on a 20th Century Fox soundstage, Roberts and Kiefer Sutherland told the 500 invited guests—and the nation—that they were calling the whole thing off.

But when the news gets out and the show goes on, stars go to lavish lengths to prevent you from getting a peek. Still, the 100-plus ex-Israeli secret service agents guarding the 1991 Elizabeth Taylor-Larry Fortensky rites were helpless to fend off the dozen or so helicopters that hovered above the 160 guests on Michael Jackson’s ranch. Says Colin Cowie, a leading Hollywood wedding coordinator: “These weddings become like mini soap operas.” But, hey if you’re a celeb, you’re probably going to do this only four or five times in your life, so why hold back?

However they do it, stars mostly hook up with other stars. If your job involves doing love scenes with the most physically desirable people of the opposite sex, well, nature takes its course. Says actress Arlene Dahl, a star in the crowded constellation of the ’50s, who married both Lex (Tarzan) Barker and Fernando Lamas, as well as four nonactors: “It’s hard to separate real life from reel life.”

So it would seem. The studios in their heyday were rumored to encourage—and sometimes forbid—marriages among their contract players. MGM’s L.B. Mayer reportedly longed to get Fred Astaire and Judy Garland before a minister (they wouldn’t), and Columbia’s Harry Cohn tried to prevent his star Rita Hayworth from marrying Orson Welles (she did). One calculated coupling was that of Rock Hudson and Phyllis Gates, the devoted secretary of Hudson’s agent Henry Willson, in 1955. Willson apparently arranged the marriage to quell rumors of his top client’s homosexuality (the couple parted in ’58).

Why, though, do so many celebrity marriages seem to unravel like sweaters bought on sale? Bob and Dolores Hope jokingly attribute their 59 years of wedded wealth to Bob’s incessant traveling. Dolores sees him so seldom that, for their 50th anniversary, she gave Hope a gold paperweight inscribed “Don’t think these two weeks haven’t been fun!”

The 35-year marriage of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, speculates Dahl, lasts because “Joanne was not as active in her career after winning an Oscar [Three Faces of Eve].” Sadly, it seems, things are the same now as in the ’50s. Hubby has to be a bigger star.

“As long as you both shall live” has a different resonance in Hollywood. Katharine Hepburn reached a platonic arrangement in 1928 with socialite husband Ludlow Ogden Smith just three weeks after their wedding (they divorced in 1934). After about a month of connubial fireworks, Ernest Borgnine and Ethel Merman parted company (the marriage ended in November 1964). But Latin lover Rudolph Valentino holds the brevity record: six hours. His 1919 bride, actress Jean Acker, locked Rudy out on their wedding night. Says Julia Phillips, author of the tell-all You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again: “Why do we expect these trashy people with hideous personal histories from dysfunctional families to have any better sense than they do? Do we really expect them to be well-bred and clear in their choice of a life partner?”

Now, now, Julia—stars have as much right as the rest of us to get, well, starry-eyed. And ever hopeful celebrities continually return to the altar. After his third divorce (from Joanna Holland) in 1985, Johnny Carson quipped, “If I ever get hit in the face again with rice, it will be because I insulted a Chinese person.” Okay, but in 1987 he wed fourth wife Alexis Maas.

So PEOPLE extends an invitation to join this 60-page wedding celebration. Feel free to sit on either side of the aisle. Whispering is allowed. So is gossip. And don’t forget the reception. See you in the buffet line.

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