As long as there has been a Portland Story Theater, there has been a Valentine’s Day show. The very first one we did was called “All The Wrong Places,” at the Miracle Theater in 2005. We’ve never missed a year since, and every Valentine’s show we’ve done has been unique and memorable in some way, but the one that really stands out in my mind is the 2015 show, called “Kiss & Tell,” at the Alberta Abbey just last month. And what made it so unique and wonderful and amazing was that Aaron Hartling, our long-time videographer, brought the house down when he took to the stage and asked his girlfriend, Paige Byrom, to marry him.
It was the best kept secret of the century. Paige had no idea this was coming. Aaron’s mother and Paige’s mother were both in the audience that night; neither of them had a clue. In fact, the only ones who knew about it beforehand were Aaron and Portland Story Theater founder, Lynne Duddy, who planned it all out in secret. Of course, they had to let emcee Eric Stern in on it, but only a day or two before the event.
The way it worked was this: Eric drew Aaron’s note out of the love-note lottery basket. If you don’t know, the love-note lottery is a thing we do at the Valentine’s show: anyone attending the show can write a little love note to his or her sweetheart and then we choose a few to read out loud from the stage. So when Eric reached into the basket and pulled out a love note to read, the fix was in. He pretended to read it to himself and then he said “This is just too sweet and too personal for me to read, I’m going to call these people to the stage.” He read their names out, and Paige came up, and then Aaron did, too. Everyone knew something special was going on, but we still didn’t quite grasp what was about to happen.
They faced each other on the stage and Aaron began to speak, but he was too far away from the microphone and no one could hear what he was saying. People began to call out, “We can’t hear you!” “Okay, fine!” Aaron said, as he took a step closer to the mic. And then he started into the most heartfelt declaration of love you could ever imagine.
On some level, Paige must have known what was coming, but when Aaron pulled out the ring box and dropped down on one knee, she seemed more surprised than anyone, and her hand flew up to her mouth as if to contain the shout of shock and surprise and joy and disbelief and deep emotion that otherwise would have jumped out.
She was so deeply moved she could hardly speak, but she nodded her head to signify that, yes, she would marry him! The whole audience gasped and then let out a collective sigh as Aaron rose and put the ring on her finger. I’m pretty sure I was not the only one with a lump in his throat and a tear or two in his eye at this point.
When they embraced and kissed, the audience began to applaud, and then, all at once, we all rose to our feet and gave them the genuine, heartfelt, spontaneous standing ovation they deserved. It was the real deal.
And then they left the stage and went to the back of the house, where the video camera was set up, and Aaron went back to work, filming the rest of the show. And Paige stood behind him, with her arms wrapped tight around him and her head resting on his shoulder, for the rest of the evening. It was just about the sweetest and most touching thing I’ve ever seen.
I have no idea how we’re going to follow that at next year’s Valentine’s show. But we’ll come up with something.