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Celebrations envelop Cambridge City Hall

CAMBRIDGE — It was a happy chaos of glow sticks, balloons, and TV cameras passing by as they sat on the park bench last night, midway up the steps of City Hall: two men, two women, two couples from Boston’s South End, both planning to get married this week.

Though they live in Boston, Laurie Campbell and Amy Musto, and their friends Robert Quayle and Mark Little, knew they wanted to get married as soon as they possibly could. And if that meant Cambridge at 12:01 a.m., that’s where they would go.

Dozens of eager couples had the same idea, and this city came out to embrace them.

Hundreds gathered around City Hall by early evening, some gay people planning to get married, some straight people showing support. Children played tag on the sloping lawn, dogs were everywhere, and every few seconds, it seemed, a car would pass by on Massachusetts Avenue and a horn would sound.

“I’m proud to be a resident of Massachusetts and of Cambridge, and play a path-breaking role in this," said Larry Kolodny, 40, a lawyer who brought his 15-month-old daughter to witness the scene.

At times the scene seemed part summer picnic, part Opening Day: Well-wishers delivered barbecue ribs and Chinese food.

"If people can do this for Red Sox tickets, we certainly can do this for our lives," said Marcia Hams, 56, who with her partner, Susan Shepherd, were the first couple in line.

At 8:20 p.m., the protest area cordoned off across Massachusetts Avenue was empty.

Coffee shops in Central Square were alerted that the streets would be far busier than usual on a late spring Sunday night. Portable toilets were erected, and a special line for supporters created. Television news stations, from local affiliates to the BBC, clogged nearby streets, their satellite towers sprouting like skinny white weeds.

Thom McClenaghan, a member of the Freedom to Marry Coalition, wrote an unofficial list of the order in which couples appeared. "Everyone's been very pleasant -- just food, flowers, and well-wishers," McClenaghan, 42, said. "I haven't seen anyone being rude or obscene."

City officials set rules: no political leafletting, no soliciting, no vendors -- except for a woman who in the afternoon handed out pink fliers advertising a personal trainer service and shouted, "Get buff before your big day!" The city planned to allow couples to enter City Hall from 12:01 a.m to 2 a.m. and fill out applications stating their intention to marry -- the first step toward getting a marriage license. Those still waiting in line would be given numbers, and City Hall would be reopened at 8 a.m. for more applications to be filed.

Inside City Hall awaited a three-tiered wedding cake, sparkling cider, coffee, and pastries prepared by the Hyatt Regency Cambridge. Speakers planned to address the couples before midnight, and the ceremony would feature the Cambridge Community Chorus, the Greater Boston Lesbian Chorus, and a chorus of children from some Cambridge elementary schools, along with some of their parents.

Clerks and lawmakers across the state have wrestled for months with how to approach gay marriage, weighing mixed feelings, divided constituencies, and questions about the law. But Cambridge officialdom has shown no such ambivalence. After briefly considering whether to issue marriage licenses even before the May 17 start date in the Supreme Judicial Court's landmark November decision, the City Council voted instead to start the licensing process the moment the calendar turned, and to commemorate the day with a grand celebration.

The idea was not to be the first, insisted Arthur Lipkin, 57, a lifelong Cambridge resident and co-chair of a gay political action group called the Cambridge Lavender Alliance. It was "to just do it as soon as possible, because it has been a long wait for many of us."

Unlike some communities including Provincetown, Cambridge is discouraging out-of-state couples from getting married in this city. But there are plenty of in-staters who chose to come to Cambridge.

Lipkin was scheduled to give a speech last night to the assembled gathering of couples and supporters; the other speaker would be Mary Bonauto, the legal director of Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, who argued the court case that led to the Supreme Judicial Court's ruling.

Meanwhile, Lipkin's partner of nearly 20 years, Robert Ellsworth, 43, planned to stand in line with other would-be brides and grooms, waiting for a number that determined when he and Lipkin would sign their application for the marriage license they can receive after a three-day waiting period.

They plan to marry in their home on Friday, in a small ceremony officated by state Representative Alice K. Wolf of Cambridge.

David Abel of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

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