Slip-Sliding Down The Aisle

Vegas Weddings

Michael Jordan tied the knot here. So did Demi Moore and Bruce Willis. Mickey Rooney has gone down the aisle eight times, telling eight successive brides "I do." (And telling seven, "Adieu.")

Revered by thousands as America's niftiest niches for nuptials, they are eschewed by thousands more in terms that sound like a Bulgarian law firm - Ersatz, Kitschy, and Schmaltz.

They are the 50-plus wedding chapels that dot the Las Vegas Strip, hawking matrimony in just minutes - 15 is plenty - and ceremonies at low cost - $40 to $140 cash down, plus a minister's fee, usually an additional $40.

Born in the wartime 1940s, when Nevada's Wild West laws were more lax than elsewhere (no blood test, no waiting), they have blossomed into both a multimillion-dollar business and an American institution, hitching and splicing about 110,000 couples per year.

Like Las Vegas itself - the West's fastest-growing metropolis - everything about the Vegas wedding chapels is booming: Their numbers are growing, there are more options for couples, and many are getting away from the "kitschy and schmaltz" tag line so often pinned on them. And Saturday, the chapels are gearing up for their single biggest business day of the year: Valentine's Day.

In a city that boasts about one ceremony every five minutes, most chapels are gearing up to put the wedding lock on about twice that many from midnight Saturday to 12:01 a.m. Sunday.

"The phones are ringing off the wall ... it's going to be an absolute crazy day," says Charolette Richards, owner of The Little White Chapel, where 10 stretch limos keep their engines idling 24 hours a day to pick up wedding parties all over town. Arguably the leading espouser of espousal Las Vegas style, Ms. Richards counts Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, and Joan Collins among her clients over 38 years (not including presiding personally over four of Mr. Rooney's weddings).

Richards operates five venues for quickie weddings. Besides her neon-framed white steeple here with garlanded gazebos inside and out, they include a chapel in a nearby hotel, a hot-air balloon, helicopter, drive-up window and - new this Saturday - a tunnel of love with digital light show.

Valentine's Day rush

On a normal day, she may perform about 15 weddings herself and divvy up about 50 more between seven itinerant ministers who work up and down the strip - on call to several chapels via cell phone. Valentine's Day, says Richards, will bring 250 to 300 couples through her front door.

Each will present a wedding license, obtained for $35 from the Clark County Marriage License Bureau - open 24 hours on weekends and holidays. Each will fill out a form, take an optional corsage or boutonniere out of the lobby refrigerator, and duck into a restroom for quick change to wedding dress or tux.

Next, the nervous couple will stand arm-in-arm at the entrance to one of two small, indoor chapels, seating maybe 15 each. Richards will scurry to a front altar, flanked by windows painted with doves and cupids, press two buttons - one on video camera, one on a portable music boom box, and the wedding will begin, usually to the couple's favorite tune.

Richards will greet each couple, switch off the music, and speak about commitment, caring, and communication.

"Commit to each other, commit your life to God, care for each other, and communicate," she says to James and Varnaz Miller, a recent wedding couple from Ohio. After her 7-1/2-minute ceremony, Richards hands them a heart-shaped card with her own love recipe (two hearts full of love, two cups of friendship, four armfuls of gentleness, etc.) and the couple is on its way, usually with another couple waiting outside for its own nuptials.

Kitsch critics

Some religious and other critics have disparaged the chapels for trivializing what they feel should be a serious occasion. And many locals seem merely tolerant. ("Hey, if that's what floats your boat, go for it," says one local official who asked not to be named.)

But some authorities say the judgments of others are beside the point. "The important thing about weddings is that they are always about a ceremony which bonds two people into a new role," says Marcia Seligson, author of a social satire on the wedding industry, "The Eternal Bliss Machine." "It doesn't matter if the actual ritual ranges from tacky at one end to overly excessive at the other, as long as it is romantic and meaningful to the couple."

Besides romance and the purity of spontaneity, participants themselves stress the benefits of a quick in-and-out that includes less stress, cost, and hassle than bigger weddings.

"We just thought we could put the money towards a gift and open house [reception]," says Nancy Carter, whose daughter married in Wee Kirk O' the Heather Wedding Chapel on Dec. 27 - the same chapel where she and husband David Theobald were wed 22 years ago. Ms. Carter's own parents eloped and were married at Wee Kirk, the oldest, continuously operating chapel in Vegas, 25 years before that.

In the days since then, creativity has soared. Besides balloon and helicopter weddings, one couple repeated vows on a 171-foot bungee-jumping platform before jumping off. Many couples use the Wet n' Wild theme park for a liquid aisle, or don medieval clothing for an Excalibur-style ceremony. And, of course, many chapels offer nuptials performed by Elvis look-alikes. In fact, one chapel is named Graceland.

Suggest to any of the owners that seriousness and solemnity might be more appropriate for a once-in-a-lifetime ritual, and you are likely to get a blank stare. Ask the participants who come from 50 states and other countries, and you'll get more of the same.

"Our weddings are anything but kitschy," says Ken Davies, co-owner of Wee Kirk. "They are romantic, fun, and lovely ... people love them."

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