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World & Nation

Valentine vows in Vegas: Wedding chapels add renewal ceremonies and more as marriages decline

LAS VEGAS, NV - FEBRUARY 13, 2019: Stephan Maybroda, left, and his husband Michael Maybroda pose fo
Stephan Maybroda, left, and Michael Maybroda of Delaware pose for photos after renewing their wedding vows for their 10th anniversary at the Elvis Wedding Chapel in Las Vegas on Wednesday.
(Isaac Brekken / For The Times)

The Elvis impersonator is ready, donning dark sunglasses and doing a quick pelvic thrust as a warmup to the proceedings in the chapel.

At the end of the altar, Stephan Maybroda and Michael Maybroda smile. The music is cued and “Can’t Help Falling in Love” emerges from a small amp. The couple, dressed in polo shirts and each with a red rose on his chest, make their way to the small podium.

A photographer moves quietly around the small room. Elvis sings, loudly. This is the young thin version of the king, moving with confidence and swagger. His jet black pompadour defies the laws of inertia by staying solidly in place.

The couple got married 10 years ago in Boston, “where it was legal,” Michael Maybroda, 41, said Wednesday after the renewal ceremony. They live in Delaware now.

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The men decided they wanted a unique way to renew their vows, so they headed to Las Vegas, where special Elvis packages for weddings and renewals start at $100 — though Michael Maybroda admits it was mostly his idea.

Sebastian Salas, who owns the Elvis Wedding Chapel in Las Vegas, is glad they did. As marriages have declined in Las Vegas — the “Marriage Capital of the World” — the roughly 100 chapels made famous in movies and television have begun to broaden their offerings to help offset the drooping numbers, Salas said.

According to numbers from the Clark County clerk’s office, marriage licenses have declined steadily in the area over the past decade. In 2007, there were 122,292 marriages in Clark County. By 2018, that number had fallen to 87,256 — a 29% drop.

But the numbers for those younger than 35 showed an even more precipitous decline, with marriage totals plunging by 44% over that same period.

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The wedding industry in Las Vegas has had to adapt to the economic force known as millennials.

Broadly, Las Vegas has been trying to woo that generation for several years now by emphasizing more food, entertainment and esports offerings rather than focusing on old-school casino lures that took losses on food and drinks while making large profits on gambling.

Weddings in Las Vegas are no small thing, either. The county clerk’s office estimates that the wedding industry contributed $2 billion to economic activity in Las Vegas in 2016 from people who came to attend or participate in a wedding spending on lodging, entertainment and dining.

County Clerk Lynn Goya said that the declining number of marriages have been caused by several factors, one of which includes some millennials’ reticence to marry. Millennials are generally considered to have been born between 1981 and 1996 — putting the oldest edge of that group nearing 40 now.

“We can’t change demographics,” Goya said. But she believes it’s not necessarily an opposition to marriage that has stopped millennials from saying “I do” at the altar. The recession of 2008 put their lives behind as they struggled to find work while saddled with student debt — both delaying marriage and family, she said.

Goya said she’s seen it first-hand: Her three children — all of the millennial generation — are unmarried.

“It’s just taking them longer to get to marriage,” she said.

Salas, who’s run the chapel for eight years, suggested another cause for the decline is the lack of war. When troop deployments for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were at their peaks, military personnel from bases in California and Arizona would make the quick trip to Vegas to get married before shipping out. Since the troop drawdowns in both countries, he hasn’t seen as many of those types of customers.

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And some are going elsewhere, Goya said. The marriage industry in Las Vegas faces increased competition from cities like New York and San Diego that market to couples.

“We used to have a monopoly,” she said. “There is no monopoly anymore.”

Goya hosts quarterly meetings at her office for chapel owners to discuss strategies and suggestions. One idea, which was rolled out in January, was the issuing of vow renewals.

That vow certificate — which isn’t a legal document — costs $21. Marriage licenses are $77.

The clerk’s office also last year opened a pop-up marriage license office near baggage claim in McCarran International Airport as a way to streamline the process for couples looking to get hitched. This year, vow renewal certificates can also be picked up at the airport site through Saturday.

While Valentine’s Day is one of the biggest wedding days of the year in Las Vegas, many chapels are finding close to a third of their business are ceremonies other than marriages.

Valentine’s Day is L.A.’s hottest wedding day. What about the rest of the year? »

Olivia Alfonso, manager at Viva Las Vegas Wedding Chapel, said that, in addition to weddings and renewals, her business offers commitment ceremonies and friendship ceremonies.

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“Some people don’t want the legal commitment, so we cater to that,” Alfonso said. “It’s a growing part of the business.”

Most of the packages still offer some of the over-the-top flair that have marked Vegas weddings. For Valentine’s Day, Alfonso had scheduled a vow renewal featuring a Frank Sinatra impersonator and an Elvis impersonator. The day before, there was a James Bond-themed wedding that included a bevy of Bond girls. Martinis — shaken, not stirred — are not part of the package.

Some of the chapels haven’t joined in on the proliferation of different ceremonial offerings, however.

Charolette Richards, owner of A Little White Wedding Chapel, has been a fixture in the industry for about 50 years and said she’s not on board with diversifying into friendship and commitment ceremonies. Vow exchanges? Absolutely. But she said she believes marriages will always be the backbone of the industry.

But she’s not skimping on the ways people can marry.

There’s the drive-through option, which she said is popular in the summer when temperatures are in triple digits and couples with a baby don’t want to get out of their air-conditioned car. And couples can get married in a room honoring Michael Jordan.

Her site can do seven weddings simultaneously, and she said she had more than 100 marriages and vow renewals scheduled for Valentine’s Day.

Richards said the renewals, now with the licensees offered by the county clerk’s office, are sometimes as emotional or more emotional than weddings.

That was true for Michael and Stephan Maybroda — even after the Elvis impersonator made them laugh by crafting vows that included half a dozen lyrics from the King (“So, please don’t be cruel,” he had Stephan Maybroda repeat to his spouse at one point).

But then the ceremony turned serious as Michael read vows from his phone and Stephan read his from a piece of paper. They told each other how much they loved each other. How the journey for the last 10 years has made them stronger and their marriage deeper. Stephan Maybroda teared up.

“I believe destiny brought you to me,” he said.

Then they kissed. Elvis began singing “Viva Las Vegas.” They danced with Elvis. They said it was the moment they’d imagined and planned — fun, quirky and serious. And, at one point, the Elvis impersonator perhaps spoke for the entire wedding industry when he looked at the couple who had chosen to renew their vows in Las Vegas.

“Thank you,” he said. “Thank you very much.”

david.montero@latimes.com | Twitter: @davemontero


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