Someone is pounding on the door. It is the insistent pounding of someone who wants to get married, and wants to get married now.
It’s 2 a.m. and Jerry Warrell, wedding coordinator at the Little White Wedding Chapel in Las Vegas, has spent the evening at the reception desk greeting couples as they arrived and answering a constantly ringing phone.
Jerry works the closing shift five times a week. This means explaining, patiently, to caller after caller, walk-in after walk-in that, yes, you do need a license to be legally married. Yes, your marriage will indeed be legal in Canada. No, the chapel won’t marry you if you’ve been drinking, even if you’re already engaged.
Now he strides across the chapel’s worn, eggplant-colored carpet, unlocks the front door to reveal two tipsy couples, and begins a conversation he has nearly every night:
“We want to get married!” declares one of the would-be grooms, a young Marine in dress blues.
“We’re closed, guys,” Jerry says.
Here come the panicked protests: “But the sign says ’24 hours!’ Isn’t there anywhere in Vegas we can get married tonight?”
Jerry explains that it would cost a lot to change the sign, though it’s been seven years since the Marriage License Bureau prohibited 24-hour service. He explains that, nowadays, all the chapels in Vegas officially close at midnight, though you can certainly get married later than that if you arrange it in advance.
“Come back tomorrow morning, 8 a.m., with a marriage license, and we’ll get you married,” Jerry says.
“The movies aren’t true!” the young Marine wails, and they move to the street to hail a cab.
A Little White Wedding Chapel opened in 1951, just north of the Strip on South Las Vegas Boulevard. Now owned by Charolette Richards, the chapel has garnered fame for its drive-thru-wedding window and for performing quickie celebrity weddings for, among others, Judy Garland, Michael Jordan, and Britney Spears.
I’ll admit now that I have long thought the worst of Las Vegas wedding chapels, assuming they were just another scheme for taking advantage of drunk tourists high on the fantasy of the city. This view isn’t entirely false. The romanticized image of running away and getting married on a whim in Vegas amid all the neon flash continues to draw people to Sin City. Perhaps that’s why they’re still showing up to knock on the chapel’s locked doors in the dead of night.
But I was surprised to learn that the chapels are not in the business of marrying people when they’ve been drinking. That, I’m told, is pure Hollywood. “This is a legal contract they’re entering into,” Jerry says, fixing me with a green-eyed stare through black-rimmed reading glasses. “This is the rest of their life.”
I went to visit the chapel because, while the wedding industry is a huge part of Vegas culture, it is, I found out very quickly, often misrepresented and misunderstood.
When I arrive, a car waits at the drive-thru while the minister finishes up a wedding inside. Soon I see him lean out the window, resting his torso on his forearms, to pronounce Josue and Margarita husband and wife. Outside, below the chapel name in neon, a larger-than-life figure that looks vaguely like Elvis holds a guitar. His legs swing from side to side, a human pendulum, at least from the waist down.
All night, couples stream in holding bright white envelopes issued by the Marriage License Bureau less than a mile down the road. The employees at Little White’s, as they call it, don’t like to talk numbers. Weddings aren’t numbers, I’m told; they’re people.
They never do give me numbers (though you can find estimates online pretty easily), instead conceding that more people have been married at A Little White Wedding Chapel than at any other venue in the world. They are also quick to point out July 7, 2007 — 7/7/7, in a city that really believes in luck — as the busiest time in recent memory. The date happened to fall on a Saturday, already the chapel’s busiest day, so it was all hands on deck, with at least eight ministers on duty.
During the three nights I spent at the chapel, I can safely say that I saw, without exaggeration, more weddings than I have witnessed in my entire life. I served as the official witness for two weddings and photographed a ceremony officiated by “Elvis” alongside a cab driver who had met the couple the night before (when they tried to renew their vows at the chapel at 3 a.m.) and volunteered, on his day off, to come out and record the event.
I saw weddings between locals and between people from far, far away; weddings with guests — scores or just a few close friends — and those without. I saw brides in short black dresses and spiked heels and others in full-fledged traditional get ups. One bride walked down the aisle in a white shirt and veil clutching a bouquet of red roses, a garter slipped around a denim-clad thigh.
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In the Little White’s lobby hangs a painting of the chapel when it was first built, gleaming in the sun, a tiny house with a steeple surrounded by grass. In the past 62 years the chapel has grown into more of a wedding village, as one employee put it, including a gown-and-tuxedo store, a hairdresser, a floral shop, and several satellite chapels in an adjacent complex.
The original chapel, however, has remained virtually unchanged — simple and dated. It really is little, with room only for a few rows of white pews padded with worn velvet cushions, garlands of dusty cloth flowers, and a simple pulpit.
After leading me into the main chapel, one of the chapel photographers, Paolo, remarked reverentially, “This is the place,” and we stood quiet for a moment. I know this sounds cheesy, but, standing inside the empty chapel, I felt it — that there was something special about this spot. I wasn’t wrong. Even though the chapel is something of a fantasy, that doesn’t mean it’s a lie. It’s more of a hope, an ideal.
Many couples I met had decided to get married the day before they came in to the chapel. But that didn’t mean they’d just met on vacation and made a hasty decision to get hitched on the quick and cheap in Vegas. Most had been together for years. Some already shared homes, even families.
Others had big weddings planned already, months away, with long guest lists and caterers and invitations — the whole shebang. They told me they were still going to have these weddings, but wanted to get the part that mattered out of the way.
Weddings are hard enough, and they didn’t want the stress of the big day to overshadow the big moment. They just wanted it to be the two of them alone with their love, late at night in a little white chapel.
In addition to documenting what Americans do when most everyone else is asleep, National Geographic Young Explorer Annie Agnone is pursuing an MFA in creative writing at the University of Alabama. Follow her story on Instagram @annieagnone.