A Magical Backyard Wedding

Natalie Simons & Thomas Dodge, Jr., June 8, 2019

At her father’s suggestion, Natalie and Tommy elected to have their wedding reception in the backyard of her childhood home. Afterwards, Natalie took her parents aside and thanked them for her “fairytale wedding.”

The sentimental factor that a backyard wedding provides can’t be replicated or surpassed by any other venue – after all, it feels like home and is filled with a lifetime of memories.

Father-of-the-bride, David Simons, is credited for suggesting that his daughter, Natalie, and her fiancé, Tommy Dodge, hold their wedding reception in the backyard of the family’s West Lampeter Township home. Dave says the idea was inspired by “all the memories that we have back there – the girls were babies when we moved here,” he says of his three daughters, Sammie, Natalie and Olivia. “They grew up in that backyard.”

Natalie and Tommy looked at several venues, but nothing clicked. Then, one night, she called her parents and said yes to the idea of a backyard reception. Dave was thrilled and envisioned “throwing up a tent” and having a party with friends and family.

“We knew we were in trouble when Natalie began sending us pictures from Town & Country magazine,” her mother, Carole, recalls. Fortunately, they had 18 months to plan the wedding.

When Tommy Met Natalie

Natalie, who is a forensic accountant, moved to New York after graduating from the University of Richmond. She met Tommy – who grew up in New York, is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and works as a data analyst – through mutual friends. “We quickly hit it off and started dating,” Natalie recalls.

Natalie’s beloved dog, Lola, served as a flower girl. Lola’s dress sparkled with Swarovski crystals.

Three years later, in November 2017, Tommy treated her to dinner at one of her favorite restaurants, Lilia, and when they returned to their apartment, he asked her to marry him. During the course of planning their wedding, the two relocated to Philadelphia.

Every Wedding Needs a Franck

If you’re at all familiar with the 1991 version of the movie, Father of the Bride, you know who Franck Eggelhoffer is. As played by Martin Short, Franck was the eccentric wedding planner who turned the lives of the Banks family upside down, as he ran roughshod over the budget and remodeled their house and backyard. The fact that he engaged the services of swans for the big day pointed to the fact that he was a stickler for detail. “We needed a Franck,” Carole says. “All too often the details get lost in the shuffle, and we didn’t want that to happen.”

The grounds of the Simons’ residence were furnished with white leather and velvet sofas and chairs.

Enter Jonnaysa Kirkman, who heads Planned Perfection, which began as a one-woman enterprise in 2006 and has grown into a staff of seven. Services range from day-of coordination to planning a wedding from start to finish. “The Simons-Dodge wedding was incredible,” she shares. “It was so fun to become fast friends with Carole and Natalie. I felt as though I had known them my whole life. I was so happy to present vendors to them that could make their wedding vision a reality. And, yes, I will always encourage my clients to use our local vendors first and foremost. We certainly do have the best.”

Tommy and his entourage prepared for the big day at the Marriott Penn Square and then made their way to St. James.

Carole agrees with that assessment, saying, “We used local vendors for every aspect of the wedding because we believe in supporting the businesses in our community. We had a team of seasoned professionals who were invested in making our day stress-free and exceptional.” Carole also adds that utilizing the services of Planned Perfection was “the best investment we made. I can’t stress enough that you have to have a planner. It allowed all of us to relax and enjoy the day.”

Natalie’s attendants included, left to right: Tommy’s sister, Laura Dodge Weaver, her sisters, Sammie and Olivia, his sister, Tara Dodge, and her cousin, Anabelle LaVan. The dogs are Lulu, Lola, and Sophie.

Let the Planning Begin

The vision for the wedding was rather simple – a celebration of love with “the people we love.” The guest list included 300 friends and family. “I’m one of eight kids, and Dave is one of four, so we knew the guest list would be large,” Carole says. Including the friends they’ve made in Lancaster since they arrived more than 30 years ago was also important.

Natalie made her way to the church in style.

Despite being an outdoor wedding, they deemed it black tie. “We love to get dressed up,” Carole says. Black tie ultimately provided the framework of the reception, the centerpiece of which was a fabulous silk-lined tent that held a monogrammed dance floor, a dazzling floral chandelier and tables topped with exquisite linens, sumptuous florals and menus made of acrylic. The color scheme – white, blush and gold – also set the tone for the late spring wedding.

Saying I Do

Natalie and Tommy were married at St. James Episcopal, the church in which she was baptized and grew up. Guests were greeted by large arrangements of roses, peonies and chrysanthemums in hues of soft pink, white and blush set atop tall lucite pedestals. The pews were draped with the same selection of blooms.

A very special flower girl preceded Natalie down the aisle – her beloved long-haired Chihuahua, Lola, who was decked out in a platinum dress adorned with Aurora Borealis Swarovski crystals. The dress was a custom design by Susan Lanci of Beverly Hills.

Natalie was admittedly nervous and emotional as she began her walk down the aisle with her father. She credits Sammie, who was one of her attendants, for lightening the mood. “When my sister, who has special needs, answered ‘no’ when the priest asked if I take Thomas Owen Dodge to be my husband, the entire church broke out in laughter. It lightened the mood and allowed me to relax and enjoy the service.”

Dancing the Night Away

When guests arrived at the Simons’ residence for cocktail hour, a valet greeted them at the end of the tree-lined driveway. Sparkling globes and spheres twinkled in the trees. A gilded mirror that was suspended from the trees held flutes of Champagne. They then passed by a wisteria flower wall that served as a backdrop for commemorative photos.

Then, it was on to the backyard, where cocktail hour was held on the patio and around the pool. Plush furnishings, including white leather and velvet sofas, provided conversation areas throughout the backyard. Yet another flower wall provided a backdrop for video interviews with guests. Food stations held hors d’ oeuvres such as lobster rolls and sushi push-pops.

Guests were oblivious to what was inside the tent until, at the appointed hour, the sides were unfurled to reveal an incredible party space.

Three bars dispensed Champagne, wine and spirits that had been selected with the help of Dave Murray of Good Spirits Lancaster. “That was another good choice,” Carole says. “Dave was able to help us make quality, cost-efficient choices, plus provide elevated service.”

Guests had no idea what awaited them inside the 60-by-110-foot, high-peak, silk-lined pole tent. The sides were purposely kept in place in order to provide an element of surprise. At the appointed hour, staff were put into position to simultaneously unfurl the sides of the tent. “They practiced that for days,” Carole recalls.

To access the tent, guests walked along a path that was carpeted with rose petals. The entrance to the tent was framed with fresh flowers and surrounded by tiers of gold shelves filled with candles.

Inside, guests marveled at the details. Petals With Style and STRAY Production Services had collaborated to design and construct a chandelier-like floral installation over the white dance floor that was emblazoned with a custom monogram of Natalie and Tommy’s initials.

Guests received their table assignments from an ornate mirror that held their names, all of which were hand-painted by a calligrapher.

Guests took their places at oversized rectangular tables that were topped with 12-inch wide floral runners that cascaded to the floor. Thin tapers with crystal sleeves accented the runners. Others took their places at round tables that were topped with oversized crystal candelabras surrounded by small floral arrangements and votives set into a variety of gold, silver and neutral containers. “The tent smelled amazing!” Carole says of the fragrance the flowers provided.

Wedding pictures, which hung from the branches of a tree, relayed the history of the Simons and Dodge families.

Meanwhile, the staff from JDK was busy preparing dinner in another tent that out of necessity was air-conditioned. The three-course dinner included Strawberry Fields Salad, Citrus Rhubarb Gazpacho, Grilled Wagyu Strip Steak and Pan-Seared Black Cod. At the end of the evening, guests were treated to a selection of grilled cheese, French fries and sliders, which were butlered on the dance floor and around the property.

As guests arrived, they were welcomed with glasses of Champagne, which sat atop a gilded mirror that was suspended from a tree.

The cake – pink Champagne with vanilla and pink Champagne frosting covered in sparkling fondant – was accompanied by an assortment of petit fours, macarons and cake pops that also echoed the color scheme.

Floral runners traveled the length of the rectangular tables and cascaded to the floor. Crystal sleeves surrounded each taper on the table.

As for dancing the night away, the band played nonstop from 4-11 p.m. In fact, Natalie names the band, Around Town, as her favorite part of the reception. “They were amazing!” she says. She also loved the heartfelt speeches made by her father and Tommy’s best man, who shared that it was his first time visiting a “Chihuahua preserve,” referencing the family’s love of the breed.

Tables surrounded the monogrammed dance floor, which was topped by a floral installation.

Carole and Dave’s favorite memory of the wedding came at the end, when Natalie took them aside and thanked them for providing her with a “fairytale wedding.”

As night fell, chandliers that hung from the trees helped to illuminate the grounds.

Acrylic menus and keepsake coasters comprised each place setting.

In addition to cake, the dessert table featured cake pops, macarons and petit fours.

The cake flavor was pink Champagne.

Gold-hued sugar dusted the rims of the Champagne flutes.

Floral walls provided the backdrops for commemorative photos and videos.

Dave and Carole Simons take a moment to relax.

Details, Details, Details

The invitations set the tone: The design included watercolor images of the Simons’ home, the church and backyard. A watercolor of Lola provided the inspiration for a wax seal on the invitation envelope. A custom postage stamp depicting a gold chandelier was affixed to custom envelopes that appeared to be covered in confetti.

Being neighborly: The Simons called upon their neighbors a year in advance to let them know what would be taking place on June 8. A week in advance of the wedding, all were given thank-you gifts.

Disaster averted: The owner of a nearby field gave the go-ahead to use it for parking. Just to cover all the bases, Carole placed a call to the farmer who leases it. Her timing was impeccable – he was planning to fertilize it on June 7, but agreed to postpone it. “That would have been a disaster!” she says with a shudder.

The Comfort Factor: Guests were welcome to help themselves to white flip-flops and hand-held/battery-operated fans that were displayed in large baskets.

Candlelight: In order to keep the grounds and tent aglow, all the candles were replaced with new ones halfway through the reception.

Fly Away All: A few days prior to the wedding, the property was sprayed for insects. “There wasn’t a bug to be found,” says Carole, who opines that swarming gnats “could have been just as bad as rain.”

Rain, Rain, Stay Away: Jonnaysa and the team devised a rain plan that would have required the addition of more tents. Because the plan called for the elimination of several trees, they needed to make the call by June 5. “There was a 30% chance of rain forecasted for June 8, so we decided to take a chance and go with Plan A,” Carole explains.

“If we would have needed to go with Plan B, you would still be looking at an incredible event, but quite different as everything for the cocktail hour would have been tented and no longer around the pool,” Jonnaysa explains.


Ring bearer, Will LaVan, couldn’t resist a dip in the pool.


Photographer: Alison Conklin, Allentown

Wedding Planner: Jonnaysa Kirkman, Planned Perfection, Lancaster

Ceremony Location: St. James Episcopal Church, Lancaster

Reception Venue: Simons Residence

Bridal Gown/Veil: Mira Zwillinger/Elizabeth Johns Bridal Boutique, Ardmore

After Party Dress: Irina’s Tailor Shop & Alterations, York

Engagement/Weddings Rings: Finch Jewelers, Lancaster

Hair: Michelle Smoker, Bristle & Prim, Lancaster

Makeup: Allie, Bristle & Prim

Groom’s Tux: Irina’s Tailor Shop & Alterations

Bridesmaid Dresses: Jenny Yoo Bridal, New York

Groomsmen Tuxes: BLACK by Vera Wang, Men’s Wearhouse

Flower Dog’s Dress: Susan Lanci Designs, Beverly Hills/Bonez, King of Prussia

Tenting: Hess Tent Rental, Manheim

Floral Design: Stacia McClune-McComsey, Petals With Style, Lancaster

Reception Catering: Weddings by JDK, Lancaster

Drink Menu: Dave Murray, Good Spirits Lancaster

Sunday Brunch: Joe Hess, Cracked Pepper Catering, Lancaster

Cake/Desserts: House of Clarendon, Lancaster

Invitation Suite: Persnickety Invitation Studio, York

Calligraphy: Melissa Weiler, Persnickety Invitation Studio

Rentals: White Glove Rentals, Forest Hill, MD

Rentals: Treasured Events, Lancaster

Rentals: Nicol Floral Design, Paoli

Linens: Special Occasions & Queen Street Linens, Lancaster

Lighting: STRAY Production Services, Lititz

Entertainment: Vivace Strings (ceremony), Lancaster

Entertainment: Around Town Band by Around Town Entertainment (reception), New York

Videographer: Lavon Films, Lancaster

Favors: Hexagon marble coasters by Persnickity Invitation Studio

Getaway Car: Michael’s Motor Cars, Lancaster

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