The moment she saw him, Sheila Johnson was taken back…about 30 years. She recognized William Newman as a fellow cast member from the Negro Ensemble Touring Production of Ceremonies in Dark Old Men, which they had performed together over three decades before. Since losing touch, Sheila had gone on to develop and subsequently sell Black Entertainment Television with her soon-to-be ex, and William had excelled through the ranks to become Chief Judge in Arlington, Virginia’s County Circuit Court. As fate would ironically have it, on the day they re-met, the Honorable William T. Newman was presiding over Sheila Johnson’s final divorce hearing.
Sheila was instantly reacquainted with William’s “confidence, smile and inner strength,” and her “warmth, sincerity and energy” brought back many a fond memory for William of the woman he once admired. There’s still some debate over who asked whom out first (William claims Sheila invited him; she insists it was the other way around), but the two entered coupledom effortlessly. Three years after their remarkable reunion, William asked Sheila to marry him while in the living room of his home, and plans for a wedding unlike any other immediately sprang into motion.
There was no question that the wedding would be held at Sheila’s beloved Salamander Farm and that the atmosphere would be inspired by the rich color palette of autumn, the couple’s favorite time of year. How this vision would come to fruition, however, was an undertaking wisely left to some of the best in the wedding industry. Event designer Preston Bailey, assisted by Nadine Jervis, and coordinator Alvin Harrison devised a grand plan to convert the property’s two equestrian rings into an enchanting experience for 700 astonished attendees.
A three-dimensional chapel façade, complete with Shaker-style shingle roof and tongue-and-grove wood floors, was constructed to house the ceremony in the indoor arena. Beyond its doors, a fall forest populated by hand-made trees and an altar set against an illuminated wooded mural set a sophisticated fairy-tale scene. Escorted by her son, Brett Johnson, Sheila beamed as she walked down the aisle wearing a honey-colored silk beaded gown with a magnificent hooded train designed by Bob Mackie. The 30-piece Salamander Strings orchestra, a quintet of off-duty musicians from “The President’s Own” U.S. Marine Band and an organ all accompanied the way.
Before the ceremony took place, however, guests enjoyed a cocktail hour amidst the natural beauty and bounty of the farm. They congregated near a bar that encircled an immense four-tiered fabric wedding cake decorated with what proved to be the beginnings of an unimaginable display of flowers. Two oversized pineapples, made purely of sunflowers, extended a symbolic “Aloha” to the outdoor arena that was magically transformed into the reception ballroom. Draped entirely in fabric and covered with a dance floor painted to look like a pond, the interior of the tent bore no resemblance to its outside appearance.
Tables of various shapes and sizes were swathed in amber silks and topped with grouped centerpieces in fall’s glorious shades. Table numbers and individual place cards were fashioned out of wood (reminiscent of the artistic save-the-date cards), and similarly designed menus foretold the evening’s meal overseen by celebrated chef Todd Gray of D.C.’s Equinox restaurant and Salamander Market, a working chefs market Sheila owns in Middleburg.
Lounge areas with sofas and rattan ottomans were arranged along the scrim- wrapped walls, which were works of art in their own right. They were silkscreened with urns that “held” actual live arrangements bursting with a seasonal cornucopia of multi-colored roses, orchids, artichokes and pomegranates. Massive floral chandeliers hung from the ceiling and over guests as they danced to the tunes of Patti Austin and her band. The Sylvia Weinstock wedding cake was a tribute to the harvest, and every inch of the cascading baskets of fruit and flowers was an edible masterpiece.
Though it was difficult to say goodbye, Sheila and William thanked each guest with a wooden box of leather coasters, emblazoned with Salamander Farm’s signature motif. To each of her dear bridesmaids, Sheila gifted the signed sketch of the one-of-a-kind dress also designed for them by Bob Mackie. In addition, they each received sachets custom-made from vintage linen handkerchiefs.
And while the supreme details elevated the festive environment, they could not overshadow the true inspiration behind the event: Sheila and William’s blessed union. As best described by the note that accompanied each out-of-town guest’s box of amenities, the wedding was an exceptional celebration of “serenity, warmth, grace…and most of all, love.”