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A Cultural History of the Vegas ‘Quickie’ Wedding

I was in Vegas over the summer, boozing and chain-smoking down Fremont Street just because I could, when I spotted a never-ending flow of couples sporting their corny post-wedding regalia — customized T-shirts, hats and bodycon dresses with slogans like “The new Mrs. Michaels,” “It’s not a hangover, it’s the wedding flu” and my personal favorite, “Sold! To the gorgeous woman in the white dress.”

I mean, I knew Vegas was the quickie wedding capital of the world. I’d even attended one in 2011. I’d also spent a lot of time researching the Ferris wheel carriage at Caesars where you can get married for anywhere from $1,300 to $4,275. Still, none of it ever seemed real. Instead, it played more like fictional Vegas kitsch or set dressing — tiny white chapels where one-night stands could joke about getting married before morning dawned and they realized theirs was always meant to be a temporary union.

Yet I found all of those tank tops deeply affecting. People actually did get married in Vegas with City-Hall like efficiency and speed. And they had the shirts to prove it.

But like, why?

Marriage isn’t a vice… right? And from what I’ve heard, it hardly constitutes entertainment.

So why did Sin City, our national playground for adults, become such a popular destination for tying the knot?

Did so many people indulge in marriage there just because there were so many opportunities to do so? Sort of like how I bought a pack of cigarettes for the first time in a year upon arrival, just because I could smoke them everywhere — even when walking atop carpet?

As a lover of all things Vegas, from Old Vegas to fancy Vegas to the Real World Suite at the Palms — especially the Real World Suite at the Palms — I had to know.

This is everything I’ve figured out about Vegas and weddings so far, without actually getting married in Vegas. Yet.

1. It started, of course, as a Wild West story. In 1930, only 5,165 people lived in Las Vegas, while 8,532 people resided in the whole of its larger district, Clark County. The economy was failing amid the Great Depression, and with little industry left in the dusty railroad town, it was some real Grapes of Wrath shit. In the thick of both regional poverty and Prohibition, Vegas leaders needed something to tax, but also were looking to create the infrastructure needed for a tourist economy. So in 1931, when the Strip was still known as Highway 91, Gov. Fred Balzar made history by legalizing all forms of casino gambling for the first time in almost 20 years. In turn, he established Vegas as a city where rules, inhibitions and restraint weren’t welcome.

2. He applied this mentality to weddings and divorces, too. As of 1931, Clark County instituted the most lenient marriage policies in the country. Unlike other jurisdictions that required blood tests and waiting periods before licensing marriages, Las Vegas expedited the process, allowing for legal marriages to take place in a day.

3. With that ease also came accessibility. According to this Bugsy Siegel biography, which recounts how Siegel galvanized the creation of modern Vegas by opening the Flamingo Hotel in 1946, in the 1940s, Clark County had a marriage license bureau installed in the train depot and kept the county clerk’s office open 24 hours a day. (By the way, Prohibition wasn’t repealed until 1933, so unlike the boozy debauchery we associate with Vegas today, those early Vegas weddings didn’t involve alcohol. At least not legally.)

4. The efficient legislation worked. The promise of an easy wedding attracted tourists to the desert and the local economy began to improve quickly, at least for the time period. In 1939, 5,305 marriage licenses were issued in Clark County, matching the number of Vegas residents at the start of the decade. In 1941, just two years later, 21,000 Vegas marriages were performed — or about quadruple the number from just two years prior.

5. When it opened in 1942, the Little Church of the West was referred to as “The Hitching Post,” one of many chapels to pop up at the time, all of which wanted to cash in on the emerging market. But while the chapels before it were opened in repurposed buildings, the Little Church of the West was the first intentionally designed chapel, featuring Victorian lamps from 19th century railroad cars and other decorative elements that attracted guests looking for a beautiful experience. Today, it’s the oldest building on the Strip, and still one of its most popular wedding locations. It was good enough for Cindy Crawford and Richard Gere, who got married there in 1991.

6. Contrary to my understanding of celebrity marriages in Vegas before this deep dive, which undemocratically prioritized Britney Spears, impulsive celebrities rushing off to Vegas for quickie weddings is hardly a new concept. In fact, Clara Bow, the face of the Roaring Twenties and the first woman dubbed an “It Girl” following her charismatic performance in the 1927 film It (not the one about a killer clown), married actor and rancher Rex Bell there in December 1932. And while non-celebs flocked to Vegas for more discreet weddings, celebrity weddings in Vegas were used as advertising, encouraging fans to follow in the footsteps of their favorite stars.

7. Although if you were looking for discretion, Vegas was sure to provide that, too. At a time where communities were smaller and family structures stronger — or at least more rigid — people who wanted to wed without the support of their families considered Vegas a safe space. Without relatives or gossipy townspeople around to interfere, couples considered transgressive because of their differences in class, caste, race or religion could marry peacefully. Same goes for couples of the same class, caste, race and religion whose families just happened to fucking hate each other.

8. In 1963, Ann-Margret and Elvis Presley checked into the Sahara for an extended stay to film a movie reported to be one of Steven Spielberg’s favorites — Viva Las Vegas. Presley was already a legend and Margaret was hot off the release of her debut Bye Bye Birdie, meaning the two superstars garnered a lot of press for Las Vegas. So much so that before the film’s release in 1964, tabloids widely ran photos of the two having a Vegas wedding of their own. Of course, it was just a scene in the movie.

9. Plenty of celebs did for real though, so here’s an abridged list:

  • Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward (1958)
  • Cary Grant and Dyan Cannon (1965)
  • Frank Sinatra and Mia Farrow (1966)
  • Presley and Priscilla Anne Beaulieu (1967)
  • Demi Moore and Bruce Willis (1987)
  • Jon Bon Jovi and Dorothea Hurley (1989)
  • Michael Jordan and Juanita Vanoy (1989)
  • Kelly Ripa and Mark Consuelos (1996)
  • Dennis Rodman and Carmen Electra (1998)
  • Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf (2001)
  • Leah Remini and Angelo Pagan (2003)
  • Spears and Jason Allen Alexander (2004)

10. The only Vegas wedding I’ve attended was held at the Bellagio. My best friend’s mom, her fiancé and their friends and family from New York and New Jersey all gathered there to celebrate their nuptials. The night before, we drank room-service delivered, coffee-flavored Patrón and all partied together in a penthouse-style suite. The next morning, the bride and groom married in the Bellagio chapel, where “the perfect forever” starts. Afterward, we enjoyed a decadent brunch reception with a fancy Bloody Mary bar. Before the newlyweds went off to enjoy some much-deserved alone time, they handed their closest friends (and me, a lucky tagalong) tickets to go see Cher at Caesars Palace that night. Even when they’re not exactly “quickies,” Vegas can make wedding weekends feel efficient.

11. Generally speaking, Vegas amenities can get you more bang for your buck than investing in a home-based local banquet hall gathering and DJ. At least that’s what this groom, Raphael D’Ambrosio, whose Vegas wedding I just described, told me: “My wife Fabiana and I were ‘old’ enough not to have to do the traditional banquet hall thing. Believe it or not, it was actually going to cost the same to have a larger hall-wedding on the East Coast than it was for us to have our destination wedding in Vegas. Another reason was that I had just seen The Hangover. It was hilarious, so I suggested to Fab that we go to Vegas and get married. I was thinking a smaller chapel, but once she looked into it, she really liked what the Bellagio had to offer.”

12. For others, it’s the kitsch factor, especially when it comes to celebrity impersonators and themes. Do you dream of the Blues Brothers marrying you? How about Marilyn Monroe? Elvis? What about Zombie Elvis? They’re all waiting for you in Vegas, basically 24 hours a day. There’s even the “Wassup Pussycat” option, complete with your own Tom Jones. Or you can straight cosplay with a Camelot or Intergalactic Superhero motif. A lot of geeks must marry in Vegas, especially during CES.

13. Not into kitsch? Vegas still has plenty of options. Take the Run Through Wedding Race, an annual event held outside the convention center where a hoard of couples marry during a half or full marathon. Some renew their vows during the run, too. It’s coming up next month, so there’s still time if you want to participate this year.

14. Vegas caters to fast-food lovers as well. Who needs Tom Colicchio or Wolfgang Puck to cater your wedding dinner when White Castle is happy to do the job? “Getting married at a White Castle in Las Vegas is a BOLD MOVE for those people looking for something new, different, exciting and memorable,” Jamie Richardson, vice president of White Castle, said in a statement announcing a contest that would allow the winners to tie the knot among all those sliders. “Get bold with your entry. Don’t just tell us, but show us why the ‘Royal Wedding’ experience has to be yours!” Unfortunately, the application period for the White Castle Las Vegas wedding is closed, although the results have yet to be announced.

15. Taco Bell pioneered the fast-food marriage, though. Its marriage sweepstake winners got married at the Strip’s Taco Bell Cantina in August. And for just $600, you can, too. The wedding package includes:

  • A private reception area inside the restaurant for 15 of your closest family and friends
  • Custom merchandise like sauce packet garter and bow tie and “Just Married” T-shirts for the bride and groom
  • Taco Bell Champagne flutes, a taco 12-pack and a Cinnabon Delights cake for dessert
  • A Sauce Packet bouquet for the bride

16. Another reason people get married in Vegas? A lot of them are addicted to gambling. And in gambling and its associated superstitions, a little luck never hurts. That’s why so many people get married in Vegas on dates when the numerals on the calendar are jackpot-worthy, thinking it will bless both their marriages and their bank accounts. It happened on 07/07/07 and again on 11/11/11—extremely busy days for Vegas weddings. Blackjack lovers in particular flocked to Vegas on the 2007 date, as its digits add up to 21. TIME described one luxury package offered that year as such: “The Ritz Carlton in Lake Las Vegas has its ‘Seven Ways of Wonderment’ package that includes a deluxe room, seven hours of spa treatments for two, a seven-course meal and a tour of Hoover Dam, one of the Seven Wonders — for $7,707.”

17. Our final reason for people marrying in Vegas? Convenience. It’s like going to a supermarket instead of hunting and gathering your own food. With so many hotels, casinos and chapels equipped with wedding support staff, brides and grooms can just pay and show up, while still ensuring things like photos, champagne and flowers are all taken care of, often for a flat fee. Some couples make Vegas their honeymoon, too. Others host their bachelor and bachelorette parties there right before the wedding, streamlining the amount of travel expected of their guests, who more often than not, would rather spend money getting to a vacation spot like Vegas. It’s what the town’s designed to do — along with hosting gamblers and storing water, of course.