On Valentine's Day in Las Vegas, Cupid works the graveyard shift.
At midnight on February 14, the line at the Clark County Marriage License Bureau extends a block down Third Street. Prospective couples ― some in formal wear, most in sweats ― fill out their forms and pay their $55 and begin their journey toward married bliss.
"It's the busiest day of the year," says Greg Smith, proprietor of the Little Church of the West. "I'll be going 8 a.m. to midnight."
Some numbers. In 2003, the last year for which complete statistics have been compiled, 119,221 marriage licenses were issued in Clark County, making it the top wedding county in the nation.
Valentine's Day is, as Smith notes, generally considered the busiest day of the year. From the dozen commercial wedding venues in town, couples can choose the Little White Wedding Chapel on the Strip, where Britney Spears embarked on her two-day-long life partnership, or arrange Elvis-themed nuptials at the Viva Las Vegas Wedding Chapel.
Still, if you're seeking tradition, Smith's Little Church of the West is the place to go. Opened in 1943, the redwood chapel was the first to capitalize on the fact that Nevada requires no blood test or waiting period for brides and grooms. "We were here before Bugsy Siegel," says Smith. "There was literally nothing else around."
Smith shows me his scrapbook of famous Little Church couples. Cindy Crawford and Richard Gere. Angelina Jolie and Billy Bob Thornton. I note that the success rate of his marriages seems low. "People stop here almost every day," Smith objects. "They tell me, 'We got married here 40 years ago.' I always say that Little Church of the West weddings last longer."
If the Little Church is as Old Vegas as Sinatra at the Sands, the wedding chapels at Bellagio are as New Vegas as Celine Dion ― extravagant, baroque. "Yes, we are the most expensive in town," says wedding chapel manager Aida Bouaoun. "But brides look around and always come back here."
To study Bellagio's wedding brochure is to enter a world thrilling to brides and terrifying to the parents who will pay for it all. There is Bellagio's Millennium Wedding Package: 1 1/2 hours of chapel time, six traditional pew markers with one candle each, and floral sprays. Or make the leap to the Cosa Bella Wedding Package: two hours of chapel time, six premiere pew markers with three candles each, and extravagant floral sprays. The latter costs $15,000, not including reception or catering.
Despite the expense, Bellagio's two sedately opulent chapels are booked solid on Valentine's Day. "It's a very physically demanding, mentally demanding day," says Bouaoun. There are the flowers to consider: "Mothers of the bride tend to be particular about flowers," says Bouaoun. And the music: "We offer 300 CDs," says assistant chapel manager Cindy Hockenberg. " 'The Wedding March.' 'Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring.' Enya. We get a lot of Enya." And touchier matters: "You have to be diplomatic," says Bouaoun. "You ask the couple, 'Are your parents still married?' We've had weddings where the parents had to sit miles apart."
Yet, in the end, it all works. Bride and groom kiss, there is applause, tears, wishes of good luck. Which is why Las Vegas, the city built on luck, may be the perfect place for a wedding. Isn't a successful marriage the biggest jackpot of all?
"It's difficult to tell what will make a marriage last," says Bouaoun. "People you think will last 100 years won't. People you think won't last do.
"But sometimes you see it in their faces. We watch on the video monitor. Sometimes you can see how much in love they are. You look in their eyes, and you just know."