Day Seventeen: Treasure Island ($59.95)
"So be sweet and kind to mother,
Now and then have a chat.
Buy her candy or some flowers or a brand new hat.
But maybe you had better let it go at that"
- Tom Lehrer, Oedipus Rex
"One guy called to ask how distant two relatives have to be to get married."
Brian Mills -- dressed as Elvis -- is sharing one of the stranger questions he's been asked as general manager of the Viva Las Vegas wedding chapel.
"I feel like if you have to ask the question, you're probably not distant enough," I reply.
"Yeah, he wanted to marry his mother."
"Right. I asked him -- 'why would you want to marry your mother?' And he said 'I figured I should if we're going to carry on having sex'."
Brian is brilliant. A former star of Les Folies Bergere at the Tropicana, Brian's acting career took a knock when his next gig was canceled after September 11th. "A lot of people stopped coming to Vegas; shows closed; things were pretty bad. But then Ron DeCar -- the owner of this place, who also used to be in Les Folies Bergere -- asked me to cover for him as Elvis while he was away in London. And now here I am."
In fact, many of the 20+ staff at the Viva Las Vegas chapel have a show-business background. And that's lucky, because some days the chapel hosts as many as 150 differently themed weddings, each of which requires a complete set and costume change. If I thought Cirque's KÀ show had an impressive turnaround, it has nothing on Viva Las Vegas.
Brian opens his calendar to a random day. "On this day we have a vampire wedding, then a Blue Hawaii wedding, then a Pink Cadillac -- that's where Elvis drives the bride down the aisle in an actual Cadillac, then a traditional wedding, then another couple of Elvises..." He carries on down the list - Blues Brothers weddings, pirate weddings, Egyptian weddings -- before turning to the wall behind him, covered in photographs of happy couples: "this one was a superhero theme for a couple from Sweden; that's me dressed as Captain America -- man, that costume was warm. That's our Rocky Horror wedding -- we're lucky that the people who work here happen to look a lot like the original cast -- that's our grim reaper wedding..."
"Isn't a grim reaper wedding a little morbid?" I ask.
"Maybe," says Brian, "but Halloween is actually one of our busiest days. For our 'When Vampires Fly' weddings, we can bring in performers from the Stratosphere's "Bite" show, and they fly above the bride and groom." Sure enough, bolted to the ceiling of the main chapel is a wire and pulley system. "We also have smoke machines and lights and every prop and costume you can imagine."
As our tour moves on to the costume store -- where the bride and groom, and their guests, can rent any costume for $50 -- I decide to test Brian's claim that Viva Las Vegas can cater to any nuptial whim. "The Royal Wedding is coming up. As a Brit, if I met someone nice in Vegas, could I come here and do a William and Kate themed wedding?"
As the video below shows, he doesn't skip a beat.
"You could. In fact three weeks ago we did exactly that. I went out and got an Archbishop of Canterbury costume and performed the ceremony for a couple from Florida... we pulled the bride through the chapel on a fairytale coach, escorted by two knights." Brian is justifiably proud of his creativity: his latest creation is a Princess Bride theme, based on William Goldman's book, and every girl's favourite movie. "Anyone can do an Elvis wedding, but we're Las Vegas' only genuine theme wedding chapel" he says.
"What kind of person has a theme wedding in Vegas?" I ask, partly because I can't imagine, and partly because I can. "We get all kinds of people," he says, "lots of Europeans and people from Asia. A lot of our business is vow renewals; people who are already married but want to do something fun while they're here. We also have a lot of commitment ceremonies. We're the only gay-owned wedding chapel is Las Vegas so we get a lot of that business."
In fact, as Joni Moss from the Nevada Wedding Association later explains, many chapels in Vegas refuse to carry out same-sex commitment ceremonies (gay marriage is illegal in the state of Nevada). Apparently in the town which boasts that "anything goes" some things are beyond the pale. Much like the banning of full nudity from strip clubs that offer liquor, a sanctimonious attitude towards recognizing homosexual couples is one of those weird things that reminds you of how curiously religious Sin City is.
For heterosexual couples, though, there are few states more welcoming than Nevada. All a prospective bride and groom have to do is show up at the marriage license bureau with one form of government-issued ID (from any country in the world) and $60 in cash to get a marriage license. There are almost no restrictions on who is eligible for a license, except that the applicants can't be too intoxicated, and, to answer the question posed by Brian's creepy mother-fucker, they can't be "nearer of kin than second cousins or cousins of half blood". The whole process takes about twenty minutes, and is available daily from 8am until midnight. "People think you can get married in the middle of the night," says Brian, "but the marriage bureau is no longer open 24 hours..."
He rolls his eyes.
"Thank you Britney Spears".
Actually the county maintains that the night-time closing of the marriage bureau is due to lack of demand, and a need to cut budgets, rather than an attempt to reverse stereotypes -- but, still, Brian's joke reflects the Vegas wedding industry's very real image problem.
Indeed, when Moss suggested I visit Viva Las Vegas and meet Brian, I knew what to expect. I'd seen Elvis-themed chapels on TV and I knew they weren't for People Like Me. Even the prices suggest a -- let's say -- lower-end clientele: a basic wedding at Viva Las Vegas starts at just $260 -- plus $60 for the minister (Brian isn't a certified minister, and Nevada law mandates that a religiously-affiliated minister preside over every wedding). Theme weddings are tacky, the people who run them are money-grabbing hucksters preying on ignorant poor people who think that being married by Elvis is the epitome of class.
And yet, and yet -- less than an hour in Brian's company and I'm completely turned around. Well, almost completely (maybe 178 degrees). For a start, Brian is definitely no huckster. He loves -- loves, loves -- what he does, and puts his heart and soul into every character he's asked to play. "Later this week I'm doing a Spanish-speaking Darth Vader," he beams. The pride on his face when he shows me the photos of his previous hits -- including the faux William and Kate wedding -- is palpable too. "Look, I even wore glasses for the Archbishop." Sure, he readily admits that some of his roles are ridiculous -- like putting on the right voice for his Princess Bride character -- but for Brian the actor, that's all part of the fun.
As for the customers, yeah... I mean... many of them are straight out of central casting too, and when I ask Brian for more funny stories, he has no shortage...
"We had a guy who called up and said he wanted to marry a blonde, American woman with large breasts. I had to explain to him that we don't arrange the bride." And... "There was another guy who called a week later and begged us not to record his wedding, which we have to by law. He'd married a hooker and now she was demanding half of his boat. Apparently his girlfriend was really mad." As well she might be.
"Have you ever turned someone away?" I ask.
"We've never actually turned anyone away, but we have sat a few couples down and asked if they're absolutely sure they want to go through with a wedding. We also get people calling us the next day to ask if they can undo their marriage, but after we've pronounced them husband and wife, that's it."
...but for every freak with a quite complex complex, or remorseful boat-owner with an angry girlfriend, there are dozens more perfectly balanced couples who just want to renew their vows in a fun setting, or to recognize their love in a way that the state of Nevada discourages. For $260, plus minister, costume rental fee and a tip for the limo driver, Brian and Viva Las Vegas allows them to do that.
A half mile down the street from Viva Las Vegas lies Vegas Weddings a church-shaped wedding chapel that boasts of being "the only two-story wedding chapel in Las Vegas." It also boasts of being across the street from the marriage license bureau, which makes it the first port of call for many of the couples who arrive in Vegas looking for a quickie wedding.
And when Vegas Weddings says quick, it means quick: the chapel offers a walk-up window ("would you like fries with that?") and even a drive through-lane for couples whose commitment to each other doesn't extend to getting out of the damn car. As if that weren't freaky enough, the chapel also employs "passers" to stand near the license bureau, looking for the telltale pink sheet of a marriage license in the hope of snaring a new customer. "On any day, we might get 40% of our business from walk-ins," explained one of the chapel's managers.
It was roughly at that point that all my feelings of cynicism of the Vegas wedding industry -- and Vegas in general -- started to return. I mean, seriously? A drive through window? Handing out fliers outside the marriage bureau? Ugh.
But then I noticed the framed portraits of Vegas Weddings' previous clients, lining a long hallway next to the main chapel. In maybe 75% of the portraits at least one partner was dressed in military uniform. Explained Moss: "Nevada's marriage laws mean that military personnel about to ship out can come to Vegas and marry their partner the same day, so they can benefit from benefits due to military spouses."
The walk up window is perfect for that kind of wedding; no frills, no ceremony, just two people in love who want to make sure everything is in order, just in case one of them doesn't come home.
Try being cynical about that.
Brian "Elvis" Mills shows Paul around the Viva Las Vegas costume store...