LAS VEGAS — On Las Vegas Boulevard, nestled between a motel and tattoo parlor, sits what may be the most famous marriage site in the world: A Little White Wedding Chapel.
Charolette Richards, the chapel’s owner and an originator of the 10-minute wedding ceremony, said she has had a hand in more than 50,000 weddings, in the drive-through window alone, since 1991. The weddings of Frank Sinatra, Judy Collins, Bruce Willis, Michael Jordan, and Britney Spears rank among her more notable ceremonies.
She is 86, and, after almost seven decades as the queen of the Las Vegas wedding chapel business, Richards has put her world-famous site up for sale. Her asking price is $12 million. “I’m retiring soon,” she said, with equal parts sadness and relief.
The chapel, though, has been on the market since April. And the Las Vegas wedding industry is not the business it used to be. Although Las Vegas wedding tourism generated an estimated $2.5 billion in economic activity last year, according to Lynn Goya, the clerk of Clark County, Nevada, that number is at least a billion dollars down from the revenue generated at the industry’s height.
“We’re at about half of what we were at our peak,” Goya said. “We can’t afford to take our number-one status for granted.”
Goya rounds up the numbers when discussing the toll on Las Vegas’s wedding tourism industry at large, which employs more than 10,000 people. There were 74,534 marriages performed in Clark County in 2018, down 42 percent from the record in 2004: 128,238 marriages.
The sale of the most iconic chapel in Las Vegas, that pinnacle of shameless kitsch and amour Americana, accompanied by fewer people marrying in Las Vegas, presents an obvious question: Can an industry whose hook is being stuck in the past flourish in the future?
All you need to get married at the chapel, or anywhere in Las Vegas, is $77, a photo ID, and proof that you’re at least 18 years old. Great Depression-era legislation allowed for hasty lovers to bypass the usual blood tests and waiting periods, and marry within hours.
For 68 years, 365 days a year, Richards has been the gatekeeper of an industry built on easing elopement. It was her entrepreneurial ingenuity that led to the creation of the famed one-stop-shop business model, which became the standard on the Strip.
But it’s no secret that marriage rates in the United States have dwindled significantly in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, and that shifting social values coupled with the burdens of student debt have made tying the knot for millennials unfeasible or unappealing, and sometimes both.
“I don’t know what the longevity of the wedding industry is,” said Ron Decar, 61, the owner of the Viva Las Vegas wedding chapel, a three-minute walk down the boulevard. Although he was wearing his full Elvis get-up, complete with a bedazzled jumpsuit and black pompadour, his tone was gravely serious.
“March was the 20th anniversary of our being in business here in this location, doing the exact same thing we did 20 years ago,” Decar said. The chapel’s numbers and revenue, he said, have been decreasing each year for more than a decade.
At Viva Las Vegas, bells chime as you enter. A smiling face will soon inquire about your theme preference. Egyptian? Hawaiian? Harley? Camelot? Intergalactic?
Peek in on an average day and you are likely to witness Decar emerge from a vertical coffin to officiate a ceremony in a chapel flooded with fog and tombstones. Gothic is one of the most popular themes.
“How many chapels do you know that fly vampires from the ceiling?” he asked triumphantly. Viva Las Vegas performs up to 25,000 weddings a year, depending on the year, and Decar has performed half of those as Elvis, James Bond, the Grim Reaper, the Godfather, “or whatever else the customer wants,” he said.
His 40,000-square-foot building is the largest free-standing chapel on the Strip. The flamboyant site, once a hotel, has been converted into a wedding complex, complete with a wig-filled costume shop, a 1950s diner for doo-wop ceremonies, and a prop room filled with artificial flowers and all the spray paints used to color them.
Viva Las Vegas is capitalizing on the current saving grace of the industry: vow-renewal ceremonies, which make up half its business.
The tourism industry markets renewal ceremonies aggressively, as yet another fun Vegas activity, and they are proving to be a sustainable way to maintain numbers at the wedding chapels. If millennials aren’t getting married, the reasoning goes, why not persuade Gen Xers and their elders to simply wed again?
“People want to do something fun the second time around,” Decar said. “You know, people worry what their mom will think, but when you’re renewing, the pressure’s off. It’s all about fun.”
Back at a Little White chapel, Charolette Richards inched her way across her expansive property, pointing to the many facets of her chapel: a flower shop (once, she said, the biggest in Las Vegas), a tux and gown rental department, a limousine fleet, and multiple marriage sites in addition to the main altar.
Employees buzz around, juggling a constantly ringing phone with a stream of walk-ins, and solving problems as they arise — the flowers are wrong, the dresses don’t fit, the limo driver’s car broke down.
Unaffected by the chaos, Richards draws attention to her favorite touches: a mural that depicts frogs kissing, corkscrew-shaped topiaries, and a plastic life-size, horse-drawn carriage. “Everything I love is love,” she said.
Her waiting room is filled with a diverse array of couples. A pair in cowboy hats sits beside a man with one leg and his wife-to-be. Across from them stands a same-sex couple next to a pair speaking Mandarin.
Richards makes her grand entrance and begins distributing her complimentary “Recipe for a Happy Marriage,” which includes “2 heaping cups of kindness,” “4 armfuls of gentleness” and “1 lifetime of togetherness.”
The tour ends at a glowing sign commemorating Blackjack Day, July 7, 2007 — that’s 7/7/07, a record-breaking day in which A Little White Chapel performed 547 wedding ceremonies.
Richards pointed to it with elation, and then sat beside her assistant, who rattled off a number of challenges to address: the sudden death of a bride, a renewal ceremony for six couples at once, the hazards of putting pearl pins in bouquets. Richards paused business matters to explain that Joe Jonas and Sophie Turner were married in this building earlier this year.
Dee Dee Duffy, 55, is the owner of Graceland Wedding Chapel, a two-minute drive down the road. She assured a visitor: “We do not do zombie weddings here.”
Rod Musum, 52, the chapel’s vice president, said his chapel is the originator of the Elvis-themed wedding. “We have one of the more quaint, picturesque chapels on the strip,” he said. “We know what our niche is and what we’re good at.”
Their chapel is marked by blue and white gates, exact replicas of the ones outside Graceland. They too are navigating through a lull in the business, but their numbers remain steady.
The bread and butter of the company is a seven-minute Elvis-themed ceremony, which may seem dated. But Duffy and Musum attribute their survival of the wedding drought to a personalized approach.
“We never treat couples like numbers,” Duffy said.
Witness a wedding or 10 there on any given day and you may be surprised to the point of tears by the sincerity of the quickie ceremonies, even in this most saccharine environment.
Members of the Graceland team said that overcoming the quickie stereotype is their greatest challenge. Industry professionals agree that widening global perceptions of Vegas weddings will prove essential in the quest to capture younger markets.
Duffy and Musum would like you to know that their weddings are sincere, and that impulsivity contributes to only a fraction of the business.
“Every single day, someone walks in and asks if ‘The Hangover’ was filmed here,” Musum said. “It’s just not realistic. The business isn’t 24 hours anymore. The graveyard shift ended in 2006, so we rarely get people stumbling in intoxicated, asking to get married.”
“Frankly, it’s illegal to issue a license or marry someone if they’re drunk, otherwise it would be void in a court of law,” said Goya, the county clerk. “It’s our job to ensure both parties are capable of signing what will likely be the most important legal contract of their lifetime.”