Las Vegas. Lost Wages. The Lady. Disneyland for Adults. Sin City. Everyone who visits seems to have their own name for the gambling capital of the world. Depending on their luck, some simply call it Heaven (or Hell) on Earth.
I have been to Vegas a number of times since my first visit there as a young teenager on a family vacation in May of 1980. Too young to gamble or enter many of the famed establishments which the city had to offer at that time, I contented myself with wandering the streets and exploring the place from the outside, collecting match-books from all the hotels and restaurants and finding myself fascinated with the relics of the classic Rat Pack-era Vegas which was already fading fast into history at that point. It was a city clearly in transition, though It would still be a few more years before it really started to undergo its radical facelift and metamorphosis into its current playground of gleaming skyscrapers and casino motels encircled by roller coasters and designed like replicas of New York and the Eiffel Tower (thank goodness Circus Circus and the Flamingo still stand to retain a touch of old-school Vegas).
My most recent visit to Vegas was in March of 2016, my first time there in ten years, and I was surprised at how much the city had changed in the decade since. The baby boomers and kids of the 1960s, 70s and 80s are adults and well into middle-age now, so childhood obsessions from those eras are reflected in the range of flashing, incessantly beeping slot and gaming machines that fill most of the casino floors. Pop culture heroes and icons, everything from comic book heroes Batman and Wonder Woman to movie and television shows like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Friends and – most appropriately –The Godfather, are there to swallow your dollars and maybe spit out a few dimes as a reward.
The streets of Las Vegas are not paved with gold, but rather littered with cigarette butts, the stale odor of sticky, spilled alcohol and the depressing sight of young combat veterans sleeping on the pavement or pushing themselves around in a wheelchair while seemingly lost in a drunken or pharmacologically-induced stupor. Unfortunately, you can never be sure who is genuine or who is just playing you for an out-of-town sucker, and you never want to stop or even make eye contact with anyone on the street whom you do not know. Smile at a stranger and you find yourself getting a handful of business cards for local hookers thrust into your palm. Stop for a quick selfie with a guy dressed as Batman and get hit up for a $5 donation for their time. I stupidly stuck out my hand to accept a ‘free’ demo CD from a trio of black rap artists and found myself $20 lighter for the effort. They didn’t reach in and lift the bills right out of my wallet, but by the way they moved in and intimidated me like a pack of hungry sharks, they might as well have. I continued walking with the CD in my hand, the white label crudely marked in messy black marker, feeling like a complete pigeon but hopefully a bit wiser for the experience. On the streets of Vegas, keep your eyes straight, your wits about you, and your valuables secure.
However, I wasn’t in Vegas this time to wallow in its magnificent seediness. I was there with a much greater - and dare I say more wholesome? - purpose. One of the things that most fascinated me on my first visits to the city was the abundance of small wedding chapels which lined the strip, most of them open 24/7 and some even offering drive-up windows for those lovebirds who just don’t have time to get out of their car to tie the knot. While some had a colourful Mills & Boon gaudiness about them, others were decidedly nondescript. Apart from the heart shaped wrought-iron entrance, the exterior of the Hollywood Wedding Chapel (“Ceremonies from $99") looks about as inviting and romantic as a second-hand adult book shop.From the moment I first saw them, I told myself that if I ever got married, it would have to be in a Vegas wedding chapel. And now, here I was thirty-six years later after that first visit, finally getting to realize this admittedly rather strange desire. I had finally met my soul mate and love of my life, Los Angeles-based singer/composer/actress, Marneen Fields, when I interviewed her about her days as a pioneering Hollywood stunt lady in the 1970s and 80s. Before we knew it, we had slipped and fallen madly in love thanks to a chemistry and psychic compatibility that was undeniable and instant despite us being countries apart. These things often happen just like that, mostly in the movies, but occasionally in real life as well. I felt like I was caught somewhere in between. It was a whirlwind, alright, but what is the point of life if you can’t trust your heart and take a little leap of faith - not to mention a sixteen hour flight across the Pacific Ocean - from time to time to be in the arms of the one you love?
Entertainment in Vegas runs the gamut from the raunchy to the saccharine, though it all comes with a large dollop of cheese. The newly remodeled Flamingo Hotel, where we stayed (in the luxurious High Roller suite, ten floors up with a spectacular view) offered the extremes of X Burlesque in one showroom ("Sexy, Topless Revue!”) and the wholesome goodness of Donny and Marie Osmond in the other (“Voted #1 Three Years in a Row!”). While the idea of seeing squeaky clean former 70s teen idols Donny and Marie strutting their stuff onstage in Sin City had a strange allure to us, we decided instead to head for one of the smaller theaters situated inside Planet Hollywood to experience the more off-beat delights of Zombie Burlesque. We found it inventive, cheeky and a highly enjoyable show which paid tribute to the great old B-grade horror and science-fiction movies of the atomic fifties. With free zombie green vodka and jelly shots given out to the audience, it provided a rollicking way to spend the eve before our wedding, my bachelor party so to speak, sitting with a couple of hundred strangers watching half-naked zombie gals bumping and grinding and lusting for brains (and other male body parts).
The chapel we chose to exchange our vows in was the Little White Wedding Chapel at 1301 Las Vegas Blvd. It was an obvious and easy choice that appealed to our sense of adventure, romance and history. The chapel first opened its doors in 1951 and has played host to numerous celebrity couplings, including Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward in 1958, Frank Sinatra and Mia Farrow (1966), Joan Collins and Peter Holm (1985) and Bruce Willis and Demi Moore (1987). Not to mention the likes of wrestler ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin, former Married...with Children star David Faustino, Britney Spears and Pamela Anderson. How could you not want to bask in the atmosphere of such famous – and infamous - past marriages?
Chauffeured there in a white stretch limousine with the chapel’s logo emblazoned boldly on the side - everything in Vegas is about the sell - the ambience inside the Little White Wedding Chapel is very strange and surreal (let’s face it, it would have been a bitter disappointment had it felt normal). As my fiancee and I sat around in the small waiting area, trembling hands clasped tightly together and decked out in all our marital finery (Marneen in a beautiful ivory dress with billowing silk sleeves and silver, pearl-encrusted tiara, me in paisley shirt with black vest and faux snakeskin shoes), it gave us a good chance to savor the moment and drink in our surroundings. In many ways, it wasn’t unlike walking into a bank or a post office. Inside there was a row of uniformed staff standing behind glass cabinets, trying their best to put on a smile and sell us an array of extras, everything from $150-plus bouquets of flowers to cheesy tuxedo t-shirts (I guess this is the Vegas wedding chapel equivalent of a Happy Meal upgrade at McDonalds). We did, however, receive a complimentary copy of Charolotte’s Love Recipe, delightful words of wisdom from Charolotte Richards, a petite little blonde lady with a touch of Tammy Faye Baker about her, who has been in the Vegas wedding biz for over 50 years. And in love-struck Las Vegas, the marriage business is always booming.
My lovely bride to be and I came armed with a matching pair of emerald, sapphire, and opal wedding bands (laced in beveled silver) which we held on tightly too as we waited, terrified we were going to lose them before we had a chance to slide them onto each other’s finger. Although we didn’t choose to exchange our vows in the Elvis Chapel (otherwise known as the Little White Wedding Chapel from which the establishment takes its name), we did watch as a young couple (who looked like they had come straight from a trailer park in Nebraska) were greeted by a rather short and quite fittingly rotund Elvis impersonator. The makeshift King led the couple and their small party through a set of ornate doors, from behind which the muffled strains of “Fools Rush In” could soon be heard floating through into the waiting room. I couldn’t help but smile to myself and feel somewhat lost within the cool strangeness of it all. It wasn’t hard to tell when the nuptials had been pronounced man and wife, as a brief period of quiet was followed by the rousing brass blare of "C.C. Rider,” the King’s legendary entrance and exit music.
Other chapels available include the Tunnel of Love (a romantic name for what is essentially a drive-through wedding that takes place under a pastel blue carport ceiling that is adorned with paintings of Cupids and angels), the Chapel of Promises (for slightly larger wedding parties) and the outdoor gazebo. Since we decided to elope and embark on a road trip across the Nevada desert like young a couple of love-struck teenagers in some John Hughes movie, our ceremony was rather intimate and private (i.e. – just the two of us), so we decided the small but cosy Crystal Chapel would be perfect for us. Taking up a small corner of an upstairs floor, its entrance adorned with two big stone columns, the Crystal Chapel is draped in deep red velvet with a large chandelier dangling from the ceiling. It has a nice simple elegance to it, which is somewhat spoiled by the large deck of antiquated audio visual equipment set up beside the minister’s pulpit, which the elderly photographer fumbled around with awkwardly in order to set up the video camera to automatically record our ceremony for an unfortunately rather static and visually flat DVD souvenir (an optional trimming that adds an extra $99 to the wedding fee). The minister assigned to us tried to pass the time by giving us a quick rundown of the formal Christian vows he would be reciting, and showing Marneen how to cradle her bouquet of three red roses in her arm like a newborn baby.
After a wait that only served to fuel our nerves and the butterflies going haywire in our stomachs, the video camera was finally fixed and the recorded organ strains of "Here Comes the Bride” signaled our moment to start walking down the very short aisle. Our photographer clicked away and the minister was all wide happy smiles, though he saved the biggest grin of all for the end of the ceremony, when he presented us with an empty envelope with his preferred tipping amounts clearly indicated on the front of it. Like a strange fever dream, the whole thing seemed to last forever but was in reality over so quickly. I looked deep into the eyes of my beautiful bride, we exchanged our vows and slid our wedding bands onto each other’s finger with trembling hands, embraced and exchanged a long and heated kiss that made us feel like Bogie and Bacall, and before I knew it we were husband and wife. My dream of a Vegas wedding to my American princess had finally been made real. We had a few quick photos snapped out on the balcony (with Elvis looking on approvingly from the roadside sign in front of the chapel), before we were whisked into our waiting limo (one of the chapel employees clearly not happy that we were behind schedule). The passion continued in the back seat of the limo on the ride back to the motel, but that is a story that is best kept to ourselves (or at least saved for a more salubrious publication).
Reality set in rather quickly as we returned to our suite at sunset to discover room service had not yet been in to clean up our room and make our bed. We spent the next morning enjoying a complimentary steak breakfast the Flamingo treated us to for the inconvenience, then headed downtown to explore and photograph the old motels that are still standing (some of them only just) from the glory days of the 1950s and 60s. With the sun in the sky, my beautiful wife on my arm and the smell of vintage Vegas in the air, it couldn’t have been a better day.
Las Vegas. So much of the dream and wonder of it is as much an illusion as a Siegfried and Roy stage show. Fortunately, the love and the marriage I found there was completely real. To paraphrase a popular saying, what happens in Vegas doesn’t always have to stay there.
Copyright John Harrison 2016
Charolette's Love Recipe
2 Hearts Full of Love
1 Heaping Cup of Kindness
2 Armfuls of Gentleness
6 Cups of Friendship
1000 Cups of Joy
2 Big Hearts Full of Forgiveness
1 Lifetime of Togetherness
2 Lives Full of Tenderness
Stir daily with Happiness, Humor and Patience.
Serve with Warmth and Compassion, Respect and Loyalty.