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September 17, 2014

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Wedding Wows

"Do you, Lisa, take Scott to be your lawfully wedded husband ...

"To have and to hold, in sickness and in health ...

"Even as he's wearing a tight-fitting 'Star Trek' costume and packing a phaser set on stun?"

"I do. Beam me up, Scotty."

In a city where "theme" is the overriding theme, and in a state where just $35 can produce a marriage license, Las Vegas continues to boldly go where no man -- where no one -- has gone before.

Especially in the art of matrimony.

Las Vegas newlyweds have ventured back to the Renaissance era and walked like an Egyptian. They've set out for the wild West, visited tropical islands, soared to great heights above the Strip and harmonized with Elvis Aaron Presley.

They've even gone to the moon, Alice.

Las Vegas remains one of the world's most popular wedding destinations. Nearly 110,000 couples were issued wedding licenses in Clark County in 1997, according to the Clark County Marriage Bureau, a jump of more than 40,000 from a decade ago.

And as the volume of Las Vegas weddings has risen, the methods of exchanging nuptials have become increasingly diverse. Once the reputed home of the "quickie" wedding, Las Vegas is fast becoming the weird 'n' tacky marriage capital of the world.

Fly with me

There are countless churches, chapels and outdoor venues in Las Vegas suitable for hosting wedding ceremonies of nearly any size and scope.

But there's only one star-spangled helicopter service lifting blushing couples 1,000 feet above the Strip to exchange wedding vows.

"I think people enjoy flying over the Strip," said Gerald Shlesinger, who has owned and operated Las Vegas Helicopters since 1992. "It's totally unique. You go up, you look down, and you can see all of the sights on the Strip."

Shlesinger's business has serviced more than 400 couples in six years. Couples have also rented the chopper for marriage proposals, and once a couple even agreed to divorce while soaring above Las Vegas.

"I don't know what happened with that one," Shlesinger said. "It only happened one time and I hope it doesn't happen again."

In one whirlwind day, a company-record nine couples were wed consecutively while seated in one of the Shlesinger's five-seat helicopters.

"We had an 85-year-old man marry a 45-year-old (former) Playboy bunny in one of our helicopters," Shlesinger, who also books special ceremonies over the Grand Canyon, said. "The witness was the woman's 22-year-old daughter, who was also a Playboy bunny. We have all kinds of people search us out."

On a clear and calm night earlier this month, the business took on an international flavor as two European couples converged on the Strip location just south of Bellagio.

"We came (to Las Vegas) with the idea we were getting married, but we didn't know exactly where or how we would do it," said Pitt-Juergen Winzen, a resident of Dusseldorf, Germany, moments before taking his relationship with longtime girlfriend Carmen Peeters to a higher level. "Where we come from, Las Vegas is seen as a destination to have fun. We wanted to have fun."

But upon arriving in Las Vegas, neither Winzen nor Peeters had an idea of what type of zany ceremony to choose. That changed when Winzen happened upon a Las Vegas Helicopters brochure.

"It was decided then, on the spur of the moment," Winzen said. "I saw the helicopter painted like the American flag and said, 'This is it.' "

"It was mostly his idea," Peeters said. "I couldn't think of anything better. It's a great idea."

Couple No. 2, to be wed by Shahnam Faeghi of Shalimar Wedding Chapel, were London lovebirds Anthony Guest and Marion Birnbaum. Guest's brother was married in the chopper two years ago, and the English couple decided to follow tradition.

"That's the main reason," Guest said. "When you come this far, you have to do something really memorable."

Both ceremonies were perfectly executed, but for one annoying and unavoidable quirk.

"It's difficult to hear because of the propellor and I knew there were times they couldn't hear me," Faeghi said. "You have to wear headphones with a little microphone to communicate, and sometimes I feel like the pilot, 'I do? Roger, over and out.' "

Blue Suede vows

Elvis rules Las Vegas.

Especially in the wedding industry.

"Our business fluctuates constantly, but we could do 40 Elvis themes a week," said Norm "Elvis" Jones, who has performed ceremonies at the Graceland Wedding Chapel for nine years. "We book by the hour, but if we have to we can move into half-hour bookings."

The longer Elvis remains dead, it seems, the busier Elvis-themed chapels become.

"When I first started doing weddings here, we might do four or five per month," Johnson said. "Since then it's increased constantly, and we do no advertising other than word of mouth. The popularity has grown tremendously, especially with people renewing their vows."

Elvis impersonators vary in their approach. Some pick up couples in limousines, a few have arrived at the chapel riding a four-seat tandem bicycle with the wedding couple, and almost all of them sing.

"I handle all aspects," Jones said. "I sing a song when they're coming down the aisle, and after the ceremony I do a 15-20 minute concert."

There are a few faux pas Jones has observed at Graceland, which was the first chapel to specialize in Elvis themes 25 years ago.

"Don't flirt with the bride, that's a big one," Jones said. "Don't ham it up. You have to remember, this is not the stage. This is someone's wedding and you have to be respectful of that."

At the Viva Las Vegas Wedding Chapel, owner Ron DeCar has performed as Elvis for nearly five years and conducts up to 10 "Blue Hawaii" weddings per week.

"I'd been doing a lot of Elvis stuff, impersonation, and opened the company as a chapel because Elvis was a big tie to the town," said DeCar, who sang nightly at the Tropicana for 12 years prior to opening the chapel. "We decorate the entire chapel, make it a Hard Rock Cafe kind of thing, we have hula girls come down with the bridesmaids."

The Elvis-themed weddings have prompted a bit of a rivalry among Las Vegas chapels.

"We were the first to do this and we've always tried to do it with dignity," Jones said. "We started doing it shortly before (Elvis) died, and a lot of people have kind of seen us and are now jumping on the bandwagon. Some of the so-called 'Best in Las Vegas' Elvises actually learned how to do it by watching me on videotape."

Countered DeCar: "We put on a very good performance, really nice, unlike anyone else. It's done high-class."

Up, up and away

One of the more famous Las Vegas "quickie" wedding chapels is the Little White Chapel, which has been opened for business for 45 years. Currently operated by Las Vegas matrimony staple Charlotte Richards, the chapel is distinctive for its drive-up and hot-air balloon weddings.

"We've had more than a half-million ceremonies here," Richards said. "We've had a lot of national exposure and international media come through. For people who want an efficient, dignified wedding, this is a great place."

Even as Richards spoke, a camera crew from the Spanish-speaking network Telemundo was conducting interviews for an upcoming special on Las Vegas weddings. The crew made certain to point the camera toward the drive-up menu, which lists three options for soon-to-be married couples who are always on the go.

"I got the idea first because handicapped people in wheelchairs had a difficult time with ceremonies," Richards said. "That's where it started."

Growing in popularity, Richards said, are the company's hot-air balloon ceremonies.

"It's absolutely breathtaking," Richards said. "We take off early in the morning if there's not too much wind, either up in Summerlin or out by Sam Boyd Stadium."

The giant balloon can carry a wedding party numbering 14, is painted with bright flowers and services cost between $500 and $1,000. It's dubbed, "A Little White Chapel in the Sky."

"If people want something that's different, the balloon ride is different," Richards said. "You never forget that."

Viva variety

Kathleen Ragan has run the Divine Madness Fantasy Wedding Chapel on the Strip, near the Fremont Street Experience, for two years.

"I love fantasy," said Ragan, a former fashion designer from Los Angeles who has decorated everything from custom clothes to movie sets. "Life is a fantasy."

Especially at Divine Madness, which is all the name implies. The two-story building is an amusement park for couples with vivid imaginations.

"We cater to everyone," Ragan said. "There's nothing we can't do here."

There are five chapels to choose from at Divine Madness, including the "Star Trek" room, where chairbacks bear the shape of the famed "Star Trek" logo, and the entire place is decked out in silver wallpaper; the Renaissance room, the Egyptian room, the Western room, and the Angel room (for traditional weddings).

In construction are two additional chapels: the S&M room (you may now spank the bride), and the obligatory Elvis-themed room.

"But you don't want just Elvis," Ragan said. "Everyone does Elvis."

Viva Las Vegas Wedding Chapel also provides a potpourri of themed weddings.

"We figured there were too many people who didn't like Elvis," DeCar said. "We wanted more versatility."

The chapel provides ceremonies with a disco theme and polyester-clad John Travolta minister (don't touch the hair), "Star Trek" tributes, rock-'n'-roll theme (Kiss is quite popular), a gangster approach with the chapel resembling the set of "The Godfather," a darkened candle-lit gothic theme for Halloween (complete with that minister of romance, the Grim Reaper), a beach theme reminiscent of the old Frankie and Annette films, and a sports theme with the couple exchanging vows on artificial turf.

"We get younger kids who have escaped the traditional weddings to try something distinctive," DeCar said. "We also have a lot of second- and third-time marriages when the traditional ones didn't work out and they want to do something fun."

At the Las Vegas Sun Club in Sandy Valley, an hour south of Las Vegas, couples can embark on a truly fun-filled event: doing it (getting married) in the buff.

"We have an area here on our grounds where we have ceremonies," Sun Club owner and operator Gloria Massey said. "They are nude. Well, sometimes the bride will wear a veil and the groom will wear a bow tie (around his neck), but usually they're nude."

The Sun Club ceremonies, held under an archway decorated with flowers, are usually offered only to club members. But Massey said non-members might also be welcome.

"If someone wanted to talk to us and was serious about it, we'd be interested," Massey said. "We could work something out."

Love them do

Our helicopter couples from abroad, none of whom had been previously married, said using a tongue-in-cheek approach to weddings is the only way to fly.

"I feel great, a little buzzed," Guest said. "I don't know if it's because I'm emotional, or because of the flight. We looked down on the Stratosphere and the water show (at Bellagio) looked like little squirt guns."

"We had trouble kissing a little, because of the headphones," Birnbaum said. "But it was quite exciting."

Shlesinger recalls one of his favorite ceremonies, involving the 85-year-old man and the 45-year-old former Playboy bunny.

"They got off the helicopter and someone asks him, 'Are you worried about the wedding night?' " Shlesinger said. "And he says, 'Well, if she dies, she dies.' "

How romantic.

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