Standing in the corner of the courtyard behind the Little Church of the West, a man is prepping to tie the knot. Literally. He is trying to put on a tie before his wedding, but he’s struggling. A few feet away, the man’s bride-to-be is fixing her hair, eschewing the notion that her groom shouldn’t see her before the wedding. They’ve been a couple nine years already; together, they own nine horses, nine dogs and a bevvy of birds. They aren’t worried about a silly superstition.
Eventually, the minister fixes the groom’s tie and leads the couple to a gazebo. A few minutes later, the wedding is over.
It happens so quickly the half dozen or so people milling about a few feet away don’t even notice the memorable moment, or maybe they do but simply don’t care. After all, they are here for a different wedding—one that includes a bride in a spunky knee-length wedding dress, a groom donning a cowboy hat and a guest wearing Elvis sunglasses.
Welcome to the spouse factory.
For 24 hours last week, Las Vegas’ largest export appeared to be married people. The novelty date of 11/11/11 brought Clark County more than three times the typical number of marriage applicants for one day. The Las Vegas Sun reported that 4 percent of the 75,000 weddings scheduled nationwide on 11/11 were to occur right here in the Valley.
At the Little Church of the West, accommodating increased demand meant hosting extended hours, hiring extra employees and weeks of planning to become a well-oiled wedding machine. It also meant stockpiling Pringles, cookies and coffee to help keep staff nourished during the matrimonial marathon.
Outside the chapel, a man directs incoming cars to annex parking and picks up the littered flower petals thrown after blushing brides. The church’s house photographer spots two newlyweds eying owner Greg Smith’s classic ’42 Ford in the parking lot and shouts, “Go ahead! Get inside! Take photos!”
Smith declined to say how many weddings were booked for the day, explaining that chapel owners love to exaggerate about such things, especially on high-traffic holidays. Still, today is a moneymaker. The chapel’s property has three different locations for weddings, and at many times during the course of the day all three are holding ceremonies simultaneously, with more waiting in the well-hidden wings for their turn to step up and say “I do.”
“We try and keep the ceremonies between two and four minutes,” explains Minister Tim Rowland. “People understand that on a day like this you have to go quick.”
11/11/11 aside, fewer people are coming to Las Vegas for these types of high-speed weddings. In June, Bloomberg Businessweek reported that the number of marriage licenses issued by Clark County last year was down 16 percent from 2007. Tough financial times mean people are traveling less in general, as well as for special occasions like weddings, and some couples are postponing marriage altogether.
In response, some chapels are marketing renewal ceremonies and trying to tap into the demographic of visitors already traveling to Las Vegas. Even today, Smith notes that a good percentage of his bookings are for renewal ceremonies and that many involved veterans, who also celebrate November 11 as Veterans Day.
Regardless of what kind of festivities are held, how short they are, where the people come from or how cheesy the date may be, Rowland says the thing to focus on—and the reason he likes working at a chapel—is that the people here are happy.
“I have been doing this 12 years,” he says. “Only two times have I seen someone unhappy at their ceremony.”
At the Welcome to Las Vegas sign, a block down the Boulevard from the Little Church of the West, groups of typical tourists mingle with wedding parties as everyone waits their turn for photographs. Minus the fancy outfits, it seems like just another day at the famous attraction.
That is, until someone shouts, “It’s time! Get the groom!”
That’s when a man wielding the good book shows up. A group of groomsmen lead their blindfolded groom to the sign. They join a jittery bride and a quintet of brightly dressed bridesmaids. When the blindfold is removed, the bride immediately starts crying, and yet another wedding begins.
The guerrilla ceremony lasts only a few minutes, with most of the exchanged words drowned out by the roaring of airplanes from McCarran and celebratory honks from trucks and cars passing by. Still, when the couple kisses, everyone knows it’s time to cheer. Even the other brides, waiting for their turn to wed on this most elevenest of days, join in the applause.