Las Vegas wedding chapels


In Las Vegas you can get married at the top of the Wet ’N’ Wild Slide.

You can marry your croupier at dawn after a delirious night on the roulette wheel. Or you can get married on horseback in the middle of the night dressed as a member of Kiss. It’s all the same to them. All you need is the right woman. I knew I’d forgotten something…

I hadn’t gone to Vegas to get married but once you get there you start thinking ‘well, what the hell.’ You might as well live.

Maybe it’s the neon but the idea just starts to dazzle you. Looking at one man – the man who various Vegas chapels had married 28 times – it appears that it keeps dazzling you. The longest any of his 28 weddings had lasted was three months. The shortest, three days. Usually his divorce claims invariably involved complaints like his brides using his toothbrush (which admittedly can be annoying).

The man’s name (unsurprisingly) was Mr. Wolf: Scotty Wolf. He was 82 years old and his latest bride was a 16 year-old Filipino girl. The way I looked at it, if it was good enough for Scotty, or Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith, it was good enough for me. Last year 72,500 couples agreed.

In Vegas, you can be married by an Elvis Presley lookalike, by a fully- fledged wizard, or the woman who married Joan Collins and Peter Holm.

Any of these were fine for me. All I needed was the right woman. Or, failing that, just a woman.

There are moments when you feel your life is going to change, change in a way that you will never be able to change back. It might not even have much to do with you: one pull of the Million Dollar Baby slot machine or a mad minute on the Caesars Palace roulette wheel and life would change. And of course, one wrong glance across a crowded room in Las Vegas and before you knew it, ten minutes later you could be walking up the aisle. In Vegas these moments are not only more common than anywhere else, every moment is arguably that moment.

It starts when you arrive. Vegas dazzles its gamblers and its lovers: its victims in other words. Vegas just stuns the person the Vegas visitor or blinds and deafens them. The first time you step out of your hotel an avalanche of colour, chaos, noise, and pattern hits you like a mugging on a dark night. You dive into a cool, dark, casino for sanctuary and are happy to lose whatever it takes to stay there.

Arriving, you can see Vegas from miles away – sitting on the horizon like an explosion in a firework factory; like a spaceship, throbbing in the desert night. Driving into town, into the eye of the storm, there is no turning back. Real life has been suspended. (Due to lack of interest.)

Saturday night in Vegas after an hour or two forlornly looking for a room at places like The Thunderbird (which offers ‘rooms, food and chapels’) makes you realise you might have to marry someone just to get a bed for the night. The chapels and casinos will even feed you (’49 cent breakfasts’, ‘$3 buffets’, ‘all you can eat for 9 cents’).

Some people would say eating in Vegas was the biggest gamble of all: mad food for mad people. Even in the 7/11 there are more slot machines.

There are no shops, no restaurants, nothing normal: just neon. Neon falling, neon rising. Neon swimming to the left. Neon falling, spinning, to the right. Boxes, diamonds, circles, hearts, and stars of neon. Your head spins in an ocean of neon pink flamingos, neon cowboys, horseshoes, and dice.

And there in the core of the chaos, the electric chaos, an electric lady smiling and winking at me: Lady Luck.

The casinos are dark, cool, sacred places, like churches because the chapels are tinseltown, toytown, play-places. Funtime. Showbusiness. Whoever first associated marriages with fun might have been mad but he, or probably she, made a lot of money. Vegas punters gamble money they haven’t got, marry people they don’t know. They are all gambling on the hunch that you should test your luck, trust to luck, and if you do the chances are your luck might change, and with it your life.

The Excalibur seemed like my type of place: its 4,000 rooms were designed on ‘a composite of 20 Scottish castles.’ You gamble in ‘Excalibucks’, eat ‘Lancelotta Pizza’, and best of all for $24 the dinner banquets feature jousting. There’s a miniature golf course in the dungeon. The medieval security guards wear puffed green and white sleeves and doublets which, if nothing else, will make it difficult to take them seriously when they beat you up.

I checked in. I checked in under my favourite name of the day – one I had heard on that morning’s edition of ‘Geraldo’: Cliff Dweller. Kent Shockneck was a close second, followed by Terry Blankets, Ted Goodluck Junior, and finally Bob Dippy the local Deputy Sheriff).

I gave my address as my favourite American place-name: Truth Or Consequences, Arizona.

You cannot be in Vegas and not gamble – unless you’re a local. But even some locals have fallen so far (into the machines) that they can’t help it. Gambling, like love, consumes you.

Leaping into the fray, I fell from one casino into another, losing money at everything available: not just games like roulette or video poker that I didn’t know how to play but keno and baccarat, that I didn’t even know what they were.

I made my debut at the fantastically complicated craps  relying on a kind of idiot savant technique, losing heavily before moving on to something called ‘crapless craps’ (‘impossible to lose’). I even lost at free bingo. (Think about that: free bingo. You can win money, but you don’t pay.)

I had free poker lessons at casinos such as Ballys, 4-Queens, Lady Luck, and Dunes but my luck didn’t change. All that happened was they taught me to understand how I was losing but (naturally) couldn’t do anything to stop it.

I then lost on La Mirage’s $25-a-hand blackjack tables and Caesars’ $100 slot machines. The Megabucks ‘double-plays-only’ running total was up to $3,351,407. It went up $20 every time you blinked.

At the Guardian Angel Cathedral, my prayers (for love, for luck) were unanswered. The collection plate was piled high with casino chips. I decided to cash mine in too. Back on the strip, the neon rain falling all around me, there was nothing left. Ignoring the prospect of legal brothels like Joel & Mabel’s Whorehouse and The Cherry Patch, 40 miles west of Vegas (where’s the gamble in legal prostitution?), I had run out of luck and was running out of money. There was nothing left but the chapels, weddings, marriage: the biggest gamble of all.

In Las Vegas people get married not for love nor money but because they can. For the risk. For the hell or the sake of it. After all ‘unlucky at cards, lucky in love’: this was Vegas thinking.

Down at the courthouse on South 3rd Street, with my $35 in hand I had come for my wedding licence. Marriage might be difficult but weddings in Las Vegas are the easiest thing on earth. The courthouse is open 8am to midnight on Monday to Thursday and 24-hours on Friday to Sunday, and as you don’t need any ID to get a licence you can get married under any alias you like (I had several contenders). If you’re 18-21, they can ask for proof of age but invariably don’t. For anyone between the ages of 16-18 parental consent should be given, in theory anyway. It transpires they often just ask if it has been given. Under 16 and you need a court order from one of the parents. Any brides or bridegrooms younger than this require one of the parents be there in person. The theory is that if you look Under-18, they might ask you for your ID but from the way they filled in my form you’d probably have to look about 18 months old before that ever happened. In any case I didn’t have any ID on me anyway. In particular, I didn’t have any ID for the names Ridge Reckless or Berthold Brecht. There are no blood tests (required by every other state in America) so it’s incredibly easy to get a licence. Once you’ve been given your licence, the chapels invariably don’t ask any questions about age or intentions. The ceremonies that take place in Vegas are legal in every state of America and the world.

For some reason (no reason), there were people hanging round the office like strays, as if it were a bus-station, as if Mr. Right or The Ideal Woman might turn up there. These people were a bizarre mix, a busy traffic of happy couples-to-be, mixed with the more frantic activity of erstwhile criminals visiting the courthouse for less felicitous reasons.

Looking like a subpoena or an injunction, the licence comes attached to the wedding certificate. They just rip it in half at the chapel which, of course, you are free to choose, depending on what sort of ceremony you want. (Anyone who’s really perverse can have a completely straight/normal wedding.)

Back in the small brown office that was the licence bureau, behind the counter sat three female clerics, bored and sour as only council office workers can be. Stacked on the counter were dull piles of blank forms and yellow pencils sawn in two: all about as glamorous and romantic as an application to build an extension.

‘Next !’

She looked like one of the women who work as shop assistants in department stores. She peered disinterestedly at me through the glasses that hung around her neck and typed up the form.

I told her the city/town of my birth (Jackpot, Arizona), followed by my father’s (Valmont, New Mexico) and mother’s (Snowflake, Arizona.

I had to tell her the ‘number of previous marriages’ and when and where my previous spouse was deceased, which I did.

I had made one mistake. I had over-estimated the ease of the Vegas wedding.

She had a trick question that I hadn’t accounted for: ‘Name of the bride?’ she asked. ‘Er… I don’t know yet,’ I said.

Needless to say, she didn’t bat an eyelid.

I had exhausted the possibilities in close proximity: the Cuban chambermaid had a fetching way of puffing my pillows (as it were) but when I asked her if she was married, she started screaming Spanish abuse at me. Then in the lobby of The Excalibur, one of the waitresses caught my eye but I had vowed never to marry anyone wearing a wimple.

I started to look for my bride in the casinos. I was torn between the high-rollers (the big players at Caesar’s, La Mirage, or Ballys) and the two-bit low-lifers at low-key, seedy, casinos like El Cortez where there was no neon and you could bet in cents.

You could stay gambling at El Cortez losing for hours and go home only $20 down. I scoured the lines for free buffets and two-for-one dinners but everyone was over 80. The stain of desperation – of losers – hung over them. Watching one dead soul wearing only her dressing gown and slippers playing the slots I realised some of them would probably marry me for the money or, failing that, the shirt on my back. Something I didn’t really want. (Where was the romance in that ?)

At the Pink Flamingo, the first time I won at blackjack I offered to marry the croupier, but like a fool he declined. A humdrum-looking lady was scooping up $4,500 from a nearby slot but she was already on her honeymoon.

At Aladdin’s, the waitresses were all dressed as genies but I was blinded by the  choice and couldn’t work out how to discriminate between them.

The girls who weren’t gambling – the Vegas girls – mostly worked in the shows, or waited at the casinos. They all seemed to have thickly painted fingernails, encrusted with the Queen of Hearts or a full house. The Joker. The older ones were blonde and shapely, with bouffant hairdos and the kind of faded glamour that you see in Seventies films about diners. Lovely. Very Terri Garr. Sadly, none of them would marry me.

On the baccarat tables, a woman dressed as Lauren Bacall was winning every hand, which rather appealed to me. In a row of slot zombies, her friend was playing two slot machines at a time, pumping in the $1 coins as fast as she could. Lauren Bacall explained her friend’s mania by lamenting there were ‘no slots in Iowa.’ The lady was literally racing against time, against Iowa-time, before she returned to the Land Without Slots.

Beyond caring, she didn’t smile, barely blinked, even when she won – just pulled (which was more than I had). They agreed to let me take them for Martinis but I got drunk and they didn’t. I lost them to the machines, to the slots.

Ralph and Dorothy were second-honeymooning pensioners from Baltimore and married 26 years, so I asked them for some marrying advice.

Dorothy didn’t gamble, she mentioned, because she’d taken a gamble when she married Ralph. I wanted to marry her for saying that. I asked Ralph what he’d been playing. ‘Everything.’ he sighed softly.

I wanted advice, advice on how to win. He gave me some: ‘stay out of the casinos.’

I took his advice.

Out of the casinos and into the chapels – from money to marriage, it made no difference. It was the same madness: Vegas madness. Once you’ve paid for your licence, you pay $49 for a basic ceremony in any one of the countless chapels in Vegas.

Selecting your chapel is as important as picking the casino to play in. You want to find the one best suited to you. In the Yellow Pages there were 39 pages of ads. A typical chapel is one like the Silver Bell: kitsch, cute, mad. Beyond the pink lattice gate, there were plastic candlelights and plastic bouquets adorning the lime and pink decor, with glitter on the ceiling and blue ribbons on absolutely everything.

The Silver Bell had enough mini benches to seat about eight people at a push, like tiny church leftovers, like a doll’s house scenario. It was fake and glitzy, like the marriages. All very Barbara Windsor, very Bet Lynch.

The Silver Bell made Tammy Bakker look like Giorgio Armani.

Having paid for your licence you can pay only $30 if you just walk in, get married, and walk out. The basic package in most chapels ($49) includes the ceremony and a limousine which collects you from and returns you to your hotel. Everything else is extra.

On average, at chapels like L’Amour, the Wee Kirk o’ The Heather, The Chapel of the West, The Candlelight or The Little White Chapel, most offered ‘floral designers on duty’ ($10 for a rose) and music (an organist $25, a violinist $50).

The chapel will dress you (men’s tux $50, ladies’ garters $10, veils $15) and even sort you out a ring ($30 or $50). A recording of the ceremony will set you back $10 and a video a mere $75.

Most chapels keep all negatives so that any re-prints can be (exorbitantly) re-ordered – ‘so that you don’t lose them’ being one chapel’s rather touching explanation. Tips are suggested for the limo-drivers and ministers. Packages on offer include the $429 special with ‘carnation and rose cascade’ and a ‘custom-made marriage licence holder.’ The $149 French Lace Package included… French Lace. For $499 you got the video, the leather-bound photo album, a wedding cake, a limo, and a French lace handkerchief. And for a colossal $949 the Eiffel Tower Special Package had ‘extra’ photo albums, champagne glasses, and a bigger wedding cake. The Michael Jordan package cost $389 and the Joan Collins $499.

Meanwhile, I was still looking for the right girl. In the meantime I decided to find the right chapel. There were weddings going on everywhere.

At the L’Amour Chapelle, the bride emerged dressed in white clutching a bottle of beer in one hand and a burger (still warm) in the other.

A stunning Australian couple (Tim and Trish) also in full traditional costume (apparently three out of every ten couples get married in white) had left Melbourne secretly, sending invites to their friends and family to a party in their absence.

Tim’s one regret was that on the way to the ceremony he had seen a couple getting married in beach shorts and surfboard outfits. My one regret was that I couldn’t marry Trish.

The day before a couple walking down the aisle had argued so furiously that eventually the bridegroom turned round and punched his bride to the floor. Clutching her (bleeding) nose, she fled. Only to come back the following day and marry him. Sweet.

Vegas ministers may be mad, but they are still legitimate ministers. Anyone without a criminal record can be a minister. They are required to have studied under and been ordained by a recognised church and worked on the pastoral staff of a church in the city of Las Vegas. They are strictly approved and licensed by the State of Nevada. As freelancers, they work for whichever chapel hires them (the fee being split 50/50 between the minister and chapel).

They are required to conduct a religious service at least once a week and are hired and fired by the chapels as they please.

‘The chapels use them like prostitutes. Most of them are marry-ers, not ministers,’ one growled.

With 75.000 weddings a year at about $100+ a time it all means a lot of money. One chapel man who wanted a slice of the wedding cake was the owner of a small chapel which shall remain nameless.

The owner looked like a Vegas pimp, a two-bit hustler. He dressed like a cheap comedian with tight leather trousers, a bright flowery shirt, gold rings, and a Gene Wilder perm.

When he’d bought the chapel thirty years ago for $5 (after the owner had to leave town in a hurry) he was dealing speed or to be precise, as he recalled fondly, ‘Black Beauties.’

The owner had weighed up his ethical interests in doing the holy work of marriage years ago. As ethical dilemmas go, it must hare been one of history’s shorter ethical debates.

‘I said ‘hey Lord, what the fuck is a Polish boy from Toledo, Ohio doing owning a wedding chapel. I don’t really give a shit. Am I serving you ? Am I doing the Lord’s work here ? Nah !’ he shrugged. ‘Thought not.’

The sleazebag had realized he couldn’t out-gimmick the woman who married Joan Collins or the Elvis Presley impersonator but calculated that the serious weddings market was wide open. So he had a serious minister (a sinister minister): a straight-as-a-dye real pulpit-thumper, a no-nonsense, old- fashioned, God-fearing preacher. No drunks, no under-age ceremonies, no vague regulations.

His was not the chapel for me. As I left, the owner hustled me for a contribution (to the chapel) anyway.

The minister at Love-Joy Ministries, however, had a certain appeal. Joe Cunningham was from Dallas, Texas. He was 6ft 4ins, 2401bs (17 stone), and heavily bearded. Before he had been a minister, Joe had been a debt collector for the mob. Eight years ago he was driving to a job when he saw the light. He had been, he said rather sheepishly, the smallest member of his particular gang. The biggest was 6ft 5ins and 3401bs (25 stone) and an expert at dealing with locked doors: “Take it down Pappy !” Joe would tell him. They would take payment ‘in drugs or money, money or hide. No TVs or VCRs.’

He once had 300 rounds fired at him he told me, recalling: “I took three in the leg.”

We sat in his chapel. He rolled up his trouser-leg and showed me the bullet wounds. Joe was the only minister to ask me about my faith, or my own concept of God.

He had refused the couple dressed as members of Kiss but accepted that once in a while Vegas weddings were a necessity.

For example he had, he admitted sheepishly, married a 14 year-old (“she was just a little bit pregnant”) out of the wish to give the child a name. He also pointed out that in Biblical days they got married at 12 or 13.

Joe had also married a boy of 19 to a woman of 64.

“Was she rich ?” I asked him.

“She didn’t look it,” he said without missing a beat.

“Was she good-looking ?”

“Well, he was a mighty fine-looking young boy,” he reflected. “An’ she was double ugly.”

Charlotte was without doubt the mistress of the ministers, the Queen of the scene, the lady of the chapels.

Drawing up in a brand new Cadillac (number-plate I WED U), Charlotte was a Minister of All Faiths and she was a star. She was funny and charming and mad as a hatter and looked like Shirley Maclaine would have looked had she been in ‘The Witches of Eastwick.’

Almost immediately I wanted Charlotte to do the service, or even be the bride.

Charlotte had famously ‘organised’ weddings for Sinatra, Garland, and Elvis (attending as a witness) and had married Scotty Wolf seven times (not personally). She thought it was wonderful.

In 1985 she married Joan Collins and Peter Holm and had the sign to prove it – visible from the roadside, a large bright white neon on the (astroturf) lawn proclaiming proudly JOAN COLLINS WAS MARRIED HERE.

Now for $499 her chapels offer ‘The Joan Collins Package’, enabling us to have everything Joan had.

Charlotte swiftly filled me in on the details.

Holm, she said, drank apple juice and looked terrified (“the jerk”).

As for Joan, she drank champagne “and giggled” – before, after, and duringthe ceremony.

Afterwards, Charlotte drove them to “a secret location.”

Telling me this suddenly she seemed quite overcome with emotion for Joan and soon it became clear why.

“I thank God for Joan,” Charlotte said. And she did, right there and then in the parking lot. Hands clasped, eyes closed, she said the words: “Thank you God for Joan”, as if her life and livelihood depended on it, which basically it did.

Charlotte estimated that 60% of her ceremonies were serious but she also, one suspected, would do anything if it was wild or wacky enough.

She had done zero gravity weddings, weddings in helicopters and hot-air balloons, and wedding at the top of a Wet ’n’ Wild Slide where, having pronounced them man and wife, Charlotte followed the happy couple hurtling down the slide (pretty wet and wild herself).

Like all ministers, Charlotte was freelance – the only difference being that Charlotte owned her four ministries taking nearly $4 million a year with an extra $250,000 earnings for her work as a minister.

‘The Chapel By The Courthouse’ is right by the courthouse where you receive your licence thereby giving you only precious seconds to change your mind or escape the immediate vicinity still single.

She also owns the Love Begins At The Plaza (in Union Plaza), the L’Amour, and The Little White Chapel (where Joan married Peter Holm).

Yes, love had made her rich.

“Business is booming,” I mentioned.

“Yes,” she smiled. ‘And lucrative” in case I hadn’t equated the two.

Perhaps surprisingly she herself was not married – “I’m looking for Mr. Right !” she beamed, raising her eyebrows, giggling.

Charlotte was so high-profile, she was (inevitably) distrusted, even hated.

‘Some of these ministers don’t even know how to cross themselves,” mumbled one.

“Charlotte don’t know her Genesis from her Revelation,” growled another rather harshly.

Charlotte had in fact studied for three years to become a minister. She believed in God and seemed concerned at my absolute lack of morals. On the other hand she admitted she would marry a 14 year-old – “but not if they were drunk” (a crucial proviso).

Every couple she married she gave a copy of her love recipe. The ingredients to Charlotte’s love recipe included: ‘Two hearts full of love, two heaping cups of kindness, four arms full of gentleness, and two minds full of tenderness.’ Method: ‘Stir daily with happiness, humour, and patience. Serve with warmth and compassion, respect, and loyalty.’

Even Lonnie and Heidi, who looked as if they had just rolled in from Cali for a wedding in a scene out of ‘Wayne’s World’, received a love recipe. Lonnie and Heidi were dumb high-school sweethearts. They looked 16 but seemed to have a combined mental age of about half that.

Lonnie’s best mate, Joey, was best man. The two of them were clearly drunk (the beer bottle in Joey’s pocket was a giveaway).

He and Joey were jostling each other as they stood at the back of the aisle, laughing at the muffled cassette of ‘Here Comes The Bride’ and pinching each other.

“How much is the divorce ?!” joked Lonnie to Heidi as they moved down the aisle, grabbing her butt and goosing her. “Just kidding babe.”

Joey had a ‘Bring Your Daughter To The Slaughter’ Iron Maiden t-shirt on and the words ‘I KNOW JACK SHIT’ emblazoned on his baseball cap. To be fair to him though (out of deference to the occasion) he took it off halfway through the ceremony. (Lonnie left his on.)

Heidi just looked startled or mildly terrified, with a look on her face that suggested she didn’t actually think they were going to go through with it.

“Okay kids,” Charlotte announced. “Let’s get the show on the road !”

For a moment I thought she was going to slap her thigh.

Lonnie let out a wild groan and at that same moment I thought he was going to hurl. Instead he saluted the Minister with the words “alright dude !”

“Do you promise to love and honour her, respect, and cherish her in sickness and health ?” asked Charlotte earnestly.

“Yeah,” said Lonnie, sounding more and more like Nicholas Cage. He mouthed the words silently when she asked him to repeat the vows after her, but it obviously didn’t bother her enough to do anything about it.

Lonnie kissed his young bride, hugged his buddy, and headed to the back of the chapel for a beer. Five minutes later, Lonnie and Heidi stepped out onto the Vegas streets as man and wife, laughing at what they had done, already thinking how funny it would be when they told their school friends and piss off their parents.

Charlotte was already greeting the next couple.

“I managed to sell them a video,” her assistant whispered.

I could probably have married the girl who spun the Wheel of Fortune at Caesars.

Her name was Storei and she was from Afghanistan. Her English vocabulary consisted mainly of the numbers 1 to 88 but she was pretty and I was pretty sure I could get the licence without her understanding what was going on. There were several ministers who would have married us and made allowances for her silence along the grounds of shyness.

In the end though it was the Puerto Rican shoeshine girl at Ballys whom I met when I asked her what her tattoo was and she said it meant ‘crazy girl.’

Charlotte’s speech was her best: about love and luck.

“Love is patient, love never fails,” she said glowing.

She advised us to a) put God first, b) be kind and gentle to each other, c) forgive each other – “as Our Father in Heaven forgives you.”

She ended saying: “By the power invested in me by the State of Nevada, in the Little White Wedding Chapel, at 10.35 in the evening on October the 21st, I pronounce you man and wife.”

As we climbed into the limo to go on to the honeymoon suite at Caesars, Charlotte came down and leaned into the car, waving excitedly, with her last words ringing out as we glided away.

“If you see Joan, say Hi. Say: “hi Joan, I love you !”’

I woke up the next day with a headache, wondering about my wife, wondering where she was, and realised that apart from the TV set playing in the other room, I was alone.

All that was left of my marriage was a wobbly video and a muffled cassette.