Letter From America: Hitched In Vegas

Robert Venturi apotheosized Las Vegas as an icon of American culture. What would the great post-modern architect say of it today? There is the Luxor, with pyramids and a Great Sphinx. Paris, with a half-scale Eiffel Tower. The Venetian, with canals and gondolas. Who says Americans aren't interested in the world?

Vegas is the kitsch of high capitalism run amok. License, instant gratification, dreams made real. Small wonder 35 million Americans escape here each year, 110,000 of them to be married.

That's why we're here. No need to say more, except to intimate a shotgun and note that we are proud parents of a darling little girl, 6 months old and cute as a bug's ear. So out we flew, without cares or plans, arriving at Caesars Palace a little after 1:30 a.m.... to find our room reservation had been fuddled. "But we're getting married," protested my bride-to-be, with guile and a smile. "Now?" inquired the receptionist, offering the services of the Neptune Villa, the hotel's private chapel. In Las Vegas, she added, "you can do it anywhere, any time." Then she bumped us up to a suite.

The next morning we checked out the chapel. Sounded great from the brochure: "A dramatic double-balustraded marble stairway sweeps up two stories to encircle a tranquil koi fish pond and a gentle waterfall... The raised altar is draped with white chiffon and accented with a hand-painted mural of ancient Rome..." So what was this little room, featuring a single stained-glass window of a dove, and a clutch of chipped gold-gilt chairs? Where was my mural of Rome, my sweeping balustrades? "Oh, that was long, long ago--almost a year," said the attendant, bespeaking volumes about time in Sin City. The price, with limo and live pianist: $1,095. His and her commemorative candles were $75. (Only $50 if you bring your own.) Hmm. Slot machines aren't the only bandits in Vegas.

The County Court, where we go for our State of Nevada marriage license, is a riot of multiculturalism--Mexican, Korean, black, white. But like only rarely pairs with like. A slim black man with dreadlocks holds 3-month-old Elijah while the Hindu mother fills out marital paperwork. "June 17," he says, turning to me. "Don't ever forget, pardner. It's game over if you do." The clerk stamps our certificate without checking ID. "That'll be $35, please."

It's time to chapel shop. If convenience ruled, we'd head across the street to A Chapel by the Courthouse. Feeling romantic, we do the tour of Chapel Row: the Little Church of the West, the Wee Kirk o' the Heather, the Hitching Post. Viva Las Vegas does theme weddings with costumes. The manager runs down the list. "Renaissance, Aloha, Victorian, 'Star Wars'." "Do you do refugees?" No, she says, shaking her head as we depart. Graceland Wedding Chapel, garlanded with roses and renowned for its Elvis impersonators, nestles by a pawn shop and strip joint. "Bon Jovi was married here," a sign proclaims. Inside, pix of various Elvi, with prices. "This Elvis is $150 more," we're told. Perhaps he actually sings rather than lip syncs. We point to another. "That Elvis isn't here today." Just then an Australian couple comes in to renew their vows after 30 years. One or another Elvis goes into high jiggle, crooning old faves and intoning, "Do you, Molly, take Bill as your hunka, hunka burnin' luv?" Everyone cheers when they're done.

In the end, as I somehow knew, we opt for the drive-through. One dancing Elvis was enough, however charming. Besides, we'd rented a convertible. We went back to the hotel to change into our wedding outfits--big hair and sequins for her, a seersucker ice-cream suit for me. As evening settled over the city and the neon twinkled, we quaffed a bottle of real Champagne on the faux lakeside terrace of the ultrachic Bellagio, then set off to do the deed. We drove up to a chapel window, under a canopy festooned with clouds and cupids, and honked once. "Peach roses or white?" I was asked. Peach, please. "American Express of MasterCard?" Pastor Ann emerged to perform a remarkably touching ceremony--and take our pictures, three Polaroids. We exchanged rings. I kissed my bride, Suzanne, and off we went into the night, barely bothered that a big, white limo cut in front of us in the Tunnel of Vows. No doubt they had the deluxe package; we had just the special.

We drove triumphantly, top down, along the Strip, past the spouting fountains of the Bellagio, past the blasts and burning explosions of battling galleons at Treasure Island, past the volcanos and spouting lava of the Mirage. What now? A honeymoon in Death Valley, Suzanne suggested. I countered with a drive up the Extraterrestrial Highway, three hours to the north in the Nevada desert, where UFO cultists sit in deck chairs amid the cacti, watching for alien spaceships. "We could have dinner at the L'il Ali'Inn. Shoot some pool." We compromised with a nice dinner at Spago's.