More than 80,000 people get married in Las Vegas every year, many of them at the chapels on Las Vegas Boulevard. We meet the weird and wonderful people making love happen
(First published in Thomas Cook Travel magazine, February 2018. With photography by Myles Pritchard)
If you head north from the famous Strip on Las Vegas Boulevard, the famous casinos gradually give way to a quieter stretch on the way to Fremont St and the old Downtown. On this stretch you’ll find many of the chapels that make Las Vegas the wedding capital of the world, with around 80,000 couples tying the knot in the city every year.
From the Chapel of the Bells in the south to the Wee Kirk O’ The Heather in the north, which has operated since 1940, the 20 or so chapels on this stretch tend to be small, traditional places with a healthy dose of kitsch. While you can get traditional weddings at all of them, most offer Elvis Presley-themed weddings, and many have drive-thru options.
And, crucially, while the average American wedding costs US$25,000 and months of planning, Vegas weddings are easy to organise and can be yours for a few hundred dollars. Plus, you get to say you got married in the same place as Elvis, Frank Sinatra, Michael Jordan, Bruce Willis, Demi Moore and the rest of them.
Here, we meet some of the people that make the chapels tick, from Las Vegas Boulevard’s number one Elvis to the undisputed Queen of Vegas weddings. Just say “I do”, and read on…
Harry Shahoian, Graceland Chapel
The vow renewal of Alexandre and Sabrina Muniz, a couple from Rio di Janeiro, isn’t exactly traditional. “Repeat after me,” intones Elvis to Sabrina in his sonorous drawl. “I promise… To be your loving teddy bear… to never step on your blue suede shoes… I promise a little less conversation… And a lot more action… Baby.” After the vows, he bursts into an impressive version of ‘Always On My Mind’, encouraging the couple to waltz in the small, yellow-painted ceremony room as their young son and two friends look on.
This is how vow renewals and weddings go in the Graceland Chapel, a quaint little place that was built in 1927 and turned into a chapel after the War, when its Scottish owners called it the Gretna Green Wedding Chapel. But after Elvis himself visited in 1967, in 1981 it became the Graceland Chapel. Now owned by Dee Dee Duffy and her husband Brendan Paul, it hosts 9,000 weddings and vow renewals a year, with around half of the weddings and 90 per cent of the vow renewals featuring Elvis, sometimes in a pink Cadillac.
The Elvis at this ceremony is Harry Shahoian, one of five Elvises at Graceland (there’s a Spanish-speaking Elvis and a black Elvis) – and one of the top Elvises in a city that has hundreds of them. A full-time Elvis impersonator, he also has a gig at the Golden Nugget casino and performs at the Legends in Concert show at the Flamingo, the longest-running show in Vegas.
“I’ve been Elvis longer than Elvis,” he jokes – though his first gig wasn’t exactly promising. “It was 1993, in [LA suburb] Studio City, and my girlfriend and I were eating at a restaurant when this lady said she was looking for an Elvis for an artist’s reception. I just blurted out: I’ll do it! My girlfriend was like: What the hell are you doing? I knew I had the voice, but I had to paint on sideburns with mascara. At the party, the mascara melted all over my face and I forgot the words to all the songs. But they paid me in full, so I was like: Hell, I should get good at this.”
Now, he’s very good at it. He moved to Vegas in 2000 (“mecca for Elvis impersonators”), and has worked at Graceland since 2006. “There must be hundreds of Elvises in Vegas,” says Harry. “But a real, A-grade Elvis, who has the right look and sound. There aren’t many of them, and I like to think I’m the most diversified Elvis in town.”
There must be hundreds of Elvises in Vegas. But a real, A-grade Elvis, who has the right look and sound. There aren’t many of them.
While many weddings at Graceland are of the traditional variety, 90 per cent of renewals are with Elvis. Jon Bon Jovi, Billy Ray Cyrus and members of KISS, Def Leppard and Deep Purple have tied the knot here, and Bon Jovi even held a concert in the parking lot. Shahoian has walked Meat Loaf down the aisle (“he got a real kick out of it”) and flew to LA for Seal and Heidi Klum’s wedding. “I’ve had porn stars, Portuguese royalty, you name it,” he says.
Having just spent US$2,000 on a new suit, 45-year-old Shahoian says he loves the job and wants to keep going as long as possible. “I die my hair, and I work out – I don’t want to be old, fat Elvis, though there are guys here being the King long into their 60s. I love this, and I want to be Elvis as long as I can be.”
The Wedding Queen
Charolette Richards, Little White Chapel
Charolette Richards, or Miss Charolette to everyone round here, greets us in typical fashion – with a huge hug, a bunch of red roses and a song about love. Her two poodles, Lily and Francuis, trot into the picket fence-pretty Little White Chapel shortly after, with their pink painted nails, and proceed to be very tricky subjects in our photo shoot.
Miss Charolette, 82, is the undisputed queen of the Vegas wedding scene, having worked in the wedding industry since the late 1950s. After buying the Little White Chapel in the 1960s, with a loan from a casino boss, she has officiated at more than 100,000 weddings – marrying everyone from Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland to Britney Spears, Michael Jordan, Bruce Willis and Demi Moore.
But while Bruce and Demi reportedly cried with happiness during their whole ceremony, Richards’ own story has its share of heartbreak. Born in Minnesota, she was married at 18, and had three children by 23. Having moved to Kentucky to be closer to her husband’s family, she received a letter from her absent husband asking her to come to Las Vegas, where he’d meet her at the famous Stardust Hotel. “So I drove across the country in a battered old car, with three young children,” she recalls. “When I got to the Stardust, he wasn’t there. I parked up at a motel opposite the Stardust, with by car out front so that he’d see it, and I spent weeks walking up and down the sidewalk, just looking.”
She had four cents in her hand when she was stopped on the sidewalk one day by a man who asked what she was looking for. “When I told him I was looking for my husband, he replied that he didn’t think my husband was looking for me. He told me that if my husband wasn’t back tomorrow, he’d give me a place to stay.” That man would become Richards’ second husband, before dying ten years later.
Through it all, Miss Charolette was still “a romantic little girl in my heart”, but developed a certain resolve as she grew her business, initially because she was so eager to repay her debt to Bert Grober. At the Little White Chapel, she invented the drive-thru wedding when she saw a handicapped couple in the car outside her chapel; and was the first to do hot-air balloon and helicopter weddings. Today, the pretty chapel hosts 200 weddings a week, with some at the drive-thru kiosk out the front.
But interviewing her, she rarely wants to talk about her own achievements. She wants to talk about the power of love, and about making the Little White Chapel a sanctuary. “I want people to come here and feel the safety and love it’s always made me feel. We have call girls come here just to talk – I just put my arms round them, and pray for them. We’ve had three girls from the street come and work here, and they’ve gone on to marry ministers.”
We’ve had three girls from the street come and work here, and they’ve gone on to marry ministers.
The Little White Chapel does have a special warmth about it. “God makes it fluffy here,” says Richards by way of explanation. “So many people could marry in mansions, but they choose here. It makes me cry.”
And, after half a century, her first husband contacted her out of the blue. He was a pro gambler, and had no idea that he had grandchildren. “In the last week of his life, he called every day at 9am,” she recalls. “He kept saying sorry, crying and saying he wished he could live his life all over again. But I told him: Willie, I forgave you a long time ago. On the last day before he died, I told him to ask for God’s forgiveness too. My sons all jumped in their pickup trucks and went to his funeral. The truth is that I never stopped loving him – and I never stopped believing in love.”
Ron Decar, Viva Las Vegas Weddings
What does Batman have in common with Austin Powers, the Grim Reaper, Elvis and Frank N. Further from The Rocky Horror Picture Show? The answer is that Ron DeCar has played them, along with many more, to officiate weddings and vow renewals.
Decar runs the Viva Las Vegas chapel, which is flashier and has more possible wedding themes than any other chapel on the strip. On the day we visit, there’s a Beetlejuice wedding, a drag queen wedding, an Elvis-and-showgirls wedding, two Elvis-and-pink-Cadillac weddings, a Star Trek wedding and a Star Wars wedding (more of that later).
“I always thought: why should weddings be some mundane formula?” says DeCar, a very youthful 60, who came to Vegas from Kansas City as a 23-year-old singer and has sung in shows at the Flamingo, the Hilton and the Folie Bergere, the latter for 14 years. He was also a wedding singer who was asked to do Elvis impersonations – which became half of his business, and led to him launching Viva Las Vegas 19 years ago.
“You name it, we can do it,” says DeCar, whose chapel has an events centre (currently hosting the Black Magic male stripper show) and a doo wop diner for 50s-themed weddings, as well as a main chapel, whose doors open to allow Elvis to drive in a pink Cadillac. If none of his 25 staff can play the right character, which is rare, DeCar will call in one of his roster of showgirls, Hula girls and “this guy who does a great Liberace.”
“I just like to have fun,” says DeCar, who is proud of doing LGBT ceremonies since 1999. “I like characters where I can get away with murder. We don’t think weddings should be sombre, serious affairs.”
I like characters where I can get away with murder. We don’t think weddings should be sombre, serious affairs.
As evidence, that afternoon we see a Star Wars wedding, officiated by Darth Vader, played with bone-dry humour by Kalin Ivanov, a 35-year-old Bulgarian who started working at the chapel as a photographer in 2002 and got his break as a celebrant for a Blue Brothers wedding in 2008. Between lots of deep breathing, and with plenty of dry ice, he tells Alberto and Christina Avelar from California to “never show each other their dark side.” When they kiss in front of around 40 friends, most of them in impressive Star Wars costumes, he says “May the Force be with you” as the Star Wars theme music blares. It’s strangely moving.
Like DeCar, Ivanov has played his share of characters. He’s been Dracula, the Grim Reaper, the Joker, Merlin, Jon Bon Jovi and Spanish-speaking Elvis. “They tend to give me the darker characters,” he deadpans. Getting hitched can rarely be this flamboyant, or fun.
Carlos Vellesillas, Chapel of Love
In Las Vegas, even the supposedly conventional ministers aren’t exactly straightforward. Carlos Valesillas, 60, has been doing wedding ceremonies at the Chapel of Love, a mid-century chapel on Las Vegas Boulevard, for the past 11 years – and has some serious stories to tell.
“I’ve done around 20,000 weddings, so I’ve seen a lot,” says Valesillas, who has worked in the ministry for most of his life and has done marriage counselling for most of that time.
“I’ve had a DJ from New York who got married in a bikini, a pole-dancing bride, a woman who has walked down the aisle by her pet dog, who barked when he was asked to give her away. It’s very rarely just normal around here.”
I’ve had a DJ from New York who got married in a bikini, a pole-dancing bride, a woman who has walked down the aisle by her pet dog…
While the Chapel of Love does a lot of traditional weddings, they can also put on everything from Elvis ceremonies to Grand Canyon helicopter weddings, ceremonies on the High Roller ferris wheel and even “shotgun” weddings at a local shooting range.
But while Valesillas says that people come to Vegas to have fun, he’s serious when it comes to marriage. “I like it when couples are getting married for the right reasons – because they really want to commit to a life together, and often start a family. But you do get people who just get swept up in the romance and the fun of it all. There are definitely marriages that happen in Vegas that will struggle to last the distance.”
Happily married with kids himself, Valesillas says his ceremonies are largely about “how wonderful it is to be in love” – a mission that gives him a sense of accomplishment. “It’s good for the soul to be projecting a message about love,” he says. “It’s something people will always need.”