When you hear the words "wedding in Vegas," what do you think of? I am guessing it is of the waking-up-married tradition, made all the more notorious by Britney Spears' 55 hours of wedded not-quite-bliss with a friend in 2004. But the weddings that Vegas tourism promoters want you to think about look very different. And in truth there are far more elegant, high-end chapels tucked into exclusive resorts than there are drive-through weddings presided over by an Elvis impersonator.
One recent wedding at the MGM Grand looked like a made-for-television commercial, featuring the elegant side of Vegas matrimonial options. Indeed, it was a wedding literally made by television -- or more specifically, the makers of the CBS daytime soap opera "The Young and the Restless." Television cameras and more than a dozen photographers were on hand to record the nuptials, thanks to a news release that had invited coverage of an event that was also in part public relations for the recession-scarred host town.
In fact, the wedding was partly sponsored by the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, the room-tax-financed organization charged with creating events to promote Vegas. (Two other activities by the authority that attracted a lot of attention were bringing an entire small town to Vegas for a vacation last year and implementing the city's best-known advertising campaign: "What happens here, stays here.")
This wedding was a perfect example of that special way Vegas has of creating what seems a custom-made fantasy while creating a product that manages to have mass appeal.
The betrothed in this case were a very real couple, New York City policeman Willie Williams and his fiancee, Charlene Lee, a medical secretary.
They had made a video and posted it on the soap opera's website, telling of how her battle with breast cancer built their love. That short video led to viewers ultimately choosing the couple for this special wedding.
The ceremony was perfect in the way Vegas sometimes can get the details exactly right. The poolside location that the resort PR department had picked was a precious bit of outdoor real estate that benefited from shade from the summer heat at that particular time of day. Two specially made rows of grass led to the spot where the ceremony took place.
The setting's vegetation gave a feeling of seclusion -- never mind that, should anyone look up, it sat nestled amid the visual splendor of the Strip. Two actors -- Christian LeBlanc and Tracey E. Bregman, who play a married couple on the soap opera -- served as witnesses to the wedding. The 42-year-old bride, Lee, has watched the soap opera they act on for decades, since childhood, and was thrilled to have them at her wedding in a way that only fellow fans could understand.
In addition to the actors, as the bride and groom entered, two cast members of the show "O" at the Bellagio sang joyfully, accompanied by a kora, a kind of West African lute. From hair and makeup to dresses and tuxedos, even including the wedding cake and $1,000 spending money, nothing had been left to chance to ensure the couple the wedding of their dreams. And this was not an easy task, according to Lee: "He wanted it small and elegant, and I wanted more. This was still small but managed to make us both happy."
As it turns out, the performers and perks were just the proverbial icing on the cake. The day before, two finalists who were not fortunate enough to win the grand prize but had decided they wanted their dream wedding in Vegas anyway got married in the same spot, according to the MGM Grand's wedding chapel supervisor.
At the prizewinners' wedding, the nondenominational Rev. Eddie Peak, one of the three ministers used by MGM Grand, presided over the services and thanked the Las Vegas visitors authority during the ceremony. He knows the area's tourism and his own niche in weddings could stand a boost.
Though Peak could not look more different from an Elvis impersonator, he says he was a comic/piano player on the Strip decades ago. His own workload clearly reflects the economic downturn -- he estimates that during his six years at the MGM Grand tying the knot, he has presided over 6,500 to 7,000 weddings.
"We used to do about five a day. Monday through Thursday would be the European weddings, maybe two or three, something like that. Friday you'd start into American weddings, and you could have six, seven or eight. On Saturday, 10 to 12. Sunday would be another two or three."
Peak's record for the most came on July 7, 2007, when he says he presided over 26 weddings in a row.
On July 11 of this year, by contrast, he did only 16.
"As soon as I pronounce them [husband and wife], Las Vegas and I are with that couple for life," says Peak, who hopes "The Young and the Restless" wedding will help remind visitors that the city can hold a place in their hearts -- for more than 55 hours at a time. "People need to know Las Vegas is the perfect destination for love."
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