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$25 and 20 Minutes Will Do It : Thousands of Couples Take the Marriage Gamble in Las Vegas

April 07, 1985|RONALD CLARKE | Reuters

LAS VEGAS — Women in flowing gowns and clutching wilting bouquets and men in white suits stand in line with couples in jeans and T-shirts eating ice cream.

An attendant moves quietly from couple to couple assuring everybody that they will be served as quickly as possible.

The wedding business is booming in Nevada, the "quickie marriage" mecca of the United States. The gambling casinos of Reno and Las Vegas may be having a hard time, but wedding bells are ringing strong.

The Las Vegas courthouse estimates that it issues about 60,000 wedding licenses a year, mostly to couples from outside the desert city. Twenty minutes after a man and woman arrive in Las Vegas they can be husband and wife.

Couples pay $25 for a license. They are married by one of seven city commissioners, who conduct services in between watching sports on a television set in a back room, or by a minister in one of the city's numerous private chapels.

Gordon Gust, who runs four private wedding chapels in Las Vegas, remembers an 88-year-old man who married an 85-year-old woman. "His hand started shaking, like he was really nervous," Gust said. "He turned to me and asked, 'This is for a lifetime, isn't it?' "

Gust also remembers a husband-to-be who refused to buy his bride a rose. "What do you need that for? You got me," the man said.

"He took his vows and then she was supposed to say 'I, Mary, take thee John,' " Gust said. "All she said was 'I, Mary, ain't ready for this trip,' and walked out."

The owner of a chapel in Reno said he married a couple in their pajamas. "No explanation. We don't ask," he added. One bridegroom, he said, announced, "I'm going to start you off right"--and slapped his wife's face.

Charlotte Richards, who also owns four chapels in Las Vegas, said she conducted four of the eight marriages of actor Mickey Rooney. And she has conducted three marriages for another man in the last seven years, she said.

Nevada began "quickie marriages" in 1931, the same year it made gambling in casinos legal, and wedding services were first performed by justices of the peace. Some of the justices performed so many services they became known as "marrying Sams" after a comic strip character.

The Office of Civil Marriage was set up in the courthouse in 1969 when residents complained that weddings were disrupting justice.

Although Las Vegas casinos have lost some trade recently to the East Coast gambling town of Atlantic City, the marriage office has been a success.

A couple, who asked to be identified only as Cindy and John, said they had been living together for six years before they decided to marry.

"I came to be romantic," Cindy said. "I was coming anyway because I take a gambling holiday three or four times a year," John said.

A couple met in a restaurant and married three hours later. "That was four years ago and they are doing OK," Gust said. "You never know which marriages will work."

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