Las Vegas hopes to lose its wedding bell blues

Las Vegas hopes to lose its wedding bell blues
Katy Garrett and her husband, Stuart, strike a pose for photographer Bobby Jameidar on their wedding day in 2012. Las Vegas has seen a drop in weddings since 2004, and is planning a marketing campaign to lure couples back. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

The King did it with his Priscilla.

So did Mia Farrow and Ol' Blue Eyes; Richard Gere and Cindy Crawford; Demi Moore and Bruce Willis. Mickey Rooney did it twice, with two women.

They all got married in Las Vegas, an indulgence that has long been considered the epitome of reckless romance for both celebrities and average lovers alike. At its peak, Sin City was home to 1 out of every 20 weddings nationwide; quickie nuptials with an Elvis impersonator officiating and in helicopters hovering above the Strip.

No more. In recent years, weddings have been leaving Las Vegas.


In the last decade, the number of "I do's" has fallen like the water levels at nearby Lake Mead: About 47,000 fewer couples tied the knot in the glittery hotels and walk-in chapels that line Las Vegas Boulevard in 2014 compared with 2004. That's a 37% drop and a loss of $1 billion annually.

But officials vow to reverse the trend.

The Clark County Commission voted Tuesday to increase the marriage license fee from $60 to $77. The $1-million annual windfall will create a new Vegas spin: as the world's hippest hitching post.

"I'd like us to increase our presence on social media," said Clark County Clerk Lynn Goya, who oversees the county's Marriage License Bureau. "How about a Twitter account where everyone posts pictures of their wedding — wouldn't that be cool?"

While Vegas weddings hit only 81,000 last year after a 128,000 peak in 2004, the city still holds the highest nuptial numbers of any U.S. county. Los Angeles County hosted 60,000 weddings in 2014 and San Diego County 27,000, Goya said.

Experts are at a loss to explain the decline. Some point to the 2008 recession, while others cite the country's overall drop in marriage rates, which fell from 2.3 million in 2004 to 2.1 million last year. Still others blame increased competition from wedding destinations such as Mexico, Hawaii and Dubai.

The downturn has forced more chapels to throw away their rice and close their doors. Those left are excited to have a concerted plan to handle advertising that they once did on their own.

"The top three things people associated with Las Vegas are gambling, shows and weddings. Normal people get married here too, not just stars and party people," said Ann Parsons, marketing director for Vegas Weddings. "That whole hangover image of 'Let's get married tonight and annul it in the morning' is just a stereotype. For one, it's illegal to get married when you're drunk. The movies have hurt the image of real people getting married."

Still, Vegas has been home to countless serial wedding artists, tying knots that soon unraveled. Witness Elvis Presley's marriage to Priscilla, which ended in divorce. Cher's union to rocker Gregg Allman in 1975 lasted nine days. And Britney Spears has even that record beat: Her 2004 marriage to Jason Allen Alexander lasted a mere 55 hours.

Goya brought the Vegas wedding decline to light when she took office this year. "This is an elected office and all during my campaign I heard from wedding people who were pulling their hair out over the low numbers. They said nobody would listen."

She pored over three decades' worth of records to find that the first 20 years saw a 3,000-wedding increase each year. Then a steady decline began in 2004. "People had told me but I didn't expect the drop to be so dramatic," she said. "It was costing the county a lot of money, maybe $1 billion a year."

She's not sure the 2008 recession is totally to blame. "Since then, the tourists have returned to Las Vegas," Goya said. "The weddings haven't followed."

Parsons hopes a new marketing campaign will lure couples back to a city where a ceremony, flowers and a photographer can run just a few hundred dollars at venues named Graceland Wedding Chapel, Viva Las Vegas Weddings and Chapel of the Bells.

In the past, couples here have been joined in a Kiss-themed ceremony with a Gene Simmons look-alike as officiator. They've gotten married atop the city's faux Eiffel Tower at the Paris casino; on a gondola at the Venetian; and even underwater, inside a 117,000-gallon aquarium at the Silverton casino.

"One couple got married on a zip-line ride in Boulder City," Parsons said. "The minister was right there with them to offer the vows, saying, 'Do youuuuuuu.'"

Another wedding joined two airline workers who had been told by their landlord in Dubai that they couldn't share an apartment while unmarried. They flew to Las Vegas for their wedding and flew right home — problem solved.

Parsons wants the city to attract same-sex couples and people renewing their vows. "Some 78% of people who come to Las Vegas are already married," she said. "We want to be known as this romantic place for people to get married all over again. That market has not been tapped."

Even the grand old dame of weddings remains hopeful for the future.

For six decades, Charolette Richards has run A Little White Wedding Chapel near downtown. In that time, the woman whose email address is "wedqueen777" estimates she's been responsible for nearly 1 million weddings. "Perhaps not personally, but in our chapels," she said.

She also coined a Vegas-themed ceremony: the drive-through wedding. The first one was held in 2001 when Richards spotted an elderly couple outside her chapel exiting their car on crutches.

"I thought 'Oh, my goodness!' and hurried outside," she recalled. "I said, 'Would you folks like to get married in your car?'"

"Would that be legal?" they asked.

"Of course," Richards answered. "This is Las Vegas."

She hopped into the back seat and read them their vows as they faced each other up front. And then she cried as the graying groom gave his new bride a big kiss.

She soon installed a wedding drive-through window. That Valentine's Day, the line at the window led outside the parking lot.

Richards is still smiling — and performing weddings.

"My husband died 35 years ago, so I've been by myself," she said. "But other people have kept me young with all those kisses."