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If They Build It… You Will Come

Any history of Las Vegas is incomplete without the story of Benjamin Siegel. He was called “Bugsy,” but never to his face because he hated the nickname. He thought it made him sound crazy, dangerous, too, but mostly crazy. He was credited with founding Las Vegas. Some believed he was mayor. Neither was true. He wanted a career in the movies, but had to settle for creating the Las Vegas of the movies.

Standing guard at Caesars Palace. Photo by: Susan Marg

The Flamingo, the casino in the desert named after Bugsy’s girlfriend Virginia Hill’s long, birdlike legs, was his vision, creation, and extravagance. We don’t know whether he was murdered for overspending on its construction or for claiming some of the investors’ monies as his own.  It doesn’t matter. When the Flamingo opened ceremoniously on December 26, 1946, it was obvious that every penny that had gone into the place had been well spent.

Bugsy had replaced the atmosphere of the cowboy casinos found down the road  with an ambience of sophisticated luxury throughout the resort. On the first night and every night thereafter, first class entertainers, such as Jimmy Durante, Xavier Cougat, and Rose Marie, performed in the showroom.

Since that time entertainment has always been a big part of the Las Vegas scene.  Edgar Bergen with sidekick Charlie McCarthy on his lap kicked off the festivities at The Desert Inn in 1950.  Ray Bolger, the famous scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz, launched the Sahara Hotel and Casino in 1952.  Liberace starred in a musical comedy revue that included a “candelabra ballet” at the Hotel Riviera’s gala on opening night in 1955.  And Andy Williams headlined at Caesars Palace’s Circus Maximus in 1966.

For decades Caesars’ 800-seat showroom hosted such celebrities as Judy Garland, Shirley MacLaine, Freddie Prinz, Petula Clark, Diana Ross, George Burns, Julio Iglesias, Tom Jones, Wynonna, Ann-Margret, Natalie Cole, Eddie Fisher, David Copperfield, Tony Bennett, and Sammy Davis Jr., to name a few of the famous names.

When Frank Sinatra left the Sands (drunkenly cursing, fighting and driving a golf cart through a front window after his credit was cut off by new owner Howard Hughes), he signed with Caesars.  In 1981 he was appointed its Vice President of Entertainment.

In 2000 Circus Maximus closed down and reopened as The Colosseum two years later.  The new 4,000-seat showroom reportedly cost $65 million, but like The Flamingo, it was worth every cent.  Sell-out crowds turned out for Celine Dion and later Cher, Bette Midler, and Elton John, before Dion returned for an encore.   In December Shania Twain, “the best-selling female country artist of all time” states the publicity, will take her turn.

If past performances dictate future success, Caesars Palace is “Still the One.”

© 2012 Susan Marg – All Rights Reserved

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Out with the Old; In with the New

Say “I do” with your “Moons over My Hammy.” Photo by: Thomas Hawk

The Candlelight Wedding Chapel once sat on prime real estate on Las Vegas Boulevard.

It was one of an esteemed or, at least, in the eyes of those who married there, beloved group of the town’s renowned freestanding wedding chapels on the Strip.  Michael Caine and Shakira Baksh tied the knot there.  So did Bette Midler and Martin von Haselberg.  Both couples are still together.

In 2004 the property on which the chapel was located was sold out from under it, to be redeveloped into something bigger and better, more glitzy and glamorous. The chapel was abandoned, while the motel and casinos surrounding it were demolished bit by bit.

But now the Candlelight Wedding Chapel is being restored.  In 2007 it was moved to the Clark County Heritage Museum down the road in Henderson.

While Little Church of the West, Wee Kirk Wedding Chapel, and Graceland, among others, still welcome wedding parties, big or small, dressed up or down, with or without an Elvis impersonator, Denny’s apparently felt there was an opportunity to get into the wedding business.

Yes, that Denny’s, the breakfast place, open 24 hours, serving pancakes, eggs, and bacon all day long.

The restaurant chain recently announced it’s building a new Denny’s in the heart of Neonopolis, the indoor mall on Fremont Street downtown to open at the end of the year.  It already has two venues on the Strip.  This one will be different.

The 6,400 square foot facility will be decorated to the hilt with over-the-top Vegas memorabilia. A wedding chapel will be located in the middle of the dining area.

Before (and after) the ceremony the couple, and everyone who happens to be having a happy meal or  late night snack, can imbibe at the full service bar.  To spread the news, the newlyweds can have pictures taken in an interactive photo booth and share them on social media sites.

Grand Slam, anyone?

© 2012 Susan Marg – All Rights Reserved

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70 Years Ago in Las Vegas: Little Church of the West

Roy Rogers would still feel comfortable at the Little Church of the West seventy years after he ushered at the first wedding held there.  Although the buckskins draping the windows have been replaced with lace and brocade curtains, the small chapel still exudes a rustic charm reminiscent of pioneer days on the range.

The historic building was originally part of the Western theme park at the Last Frontier Hotel.  It is an exact, half-size replica of a church built in a California mining town in 1849, right down to its shingled roof, redwood interior walls, and nineteenth century hanging lamps long since converted from gas to electricity.  To the right of the entrance there is an antique Davenport desk circa 1860 atop of which a desk lamp with a green glass shade emits an antique, golden glow.  Across the aisle, as modern needs dictate, there is video recording equipment.  The hardwood benches look just as uncomfortable as they have always been, but Las Vegas wedding ceremonies rarely last long enough for that to make a difference.

As Las Vegas casinos and hotels have gotten bigger and condominiums have taken over any empty space, the Little Church of the West has been forced to move three times. Today it is located past Mandalay Bay, so far south it is almost off the Strip.  Yet this location affords it an attractive setting surrounded by green grass and trees, enough land for an outdoor gazebo, and plenty of guest parking.  Presumably, the traffic on Las Vegas Boulevard fifty feet away can’t be heard when the chapel doors are closed.

It wasn’t the first place to welcome out of town guests looking for a place to tie the knot.  That honor goes to The Wedding Chapel at 513 South Fifth Avenue, before Las Vegas Boulevard was so named, in 1933.  It was the residence of the Reverend J.D. Foster, the man behind the idea.  Offering convenience, Foster promised in an interview, “We [will] never close.”

Today, contrary to popular belief, most chapels are not open 24 hours a day seven days a week. Even on weekends, most of the freestanding ones lock their doors at midnight, if not earlier.  The Little Church of the West is no exception.  Business just isn’t what it used to be.   But the chapel accepts reservations for every half hour from 8 AM to 11:30 PM.   Don’t be late, or you’ll miss the 20-minute ceremony.

To put you in the mood – for fooling around or getting serious – listen to Mark Nevin sing “This Little Church,” on his music video, a collage of wedding scenes, movie clips, and singing nuns.  It’s corny, but classic Vegas: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M2IXpeupIbc

© 2012 Susan Marg – All Rights Reserved

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“I do. I do. I do.”

Marry me. Photo by: Thomas Hawk

Was 11-11-11 your lucky day?  Thousands of couples thought it would be as they flocked to Las Vegas to tie the knot.

The Clark County clerk’s office, where those with marriage on their mind have to go to get the requisite license, was swamped on Thursday in preparation for the big day and through the long weekend.

Wedding chapels added ministers, limousine drivers, greeters, photographers, videographers, and florists to accommodate the lovebirds and their friends and families.

Elvis impersonators had been booked for months, but some non-conformists preferred the company of celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe or the Blue Brothers.

Kitschy, depressing, funky or fun.  Whatever your impression of Vegas weddings, there are as many reasons to get married in Sin City as there are chapels up and down the Strip, although there aren’t as many chapels as there used to be.

Vegas is inexpensive and hassle-free, especially if you go to a drive-up window.  It’s convenient to combine the wedding with the honeymoon or to party all weekend to celebrate the event.  And Las Vegas is the most romantic city in the world, or the perfect facsimile of the most romantic city in the world, regardless of what your mother thinks.

As the quotes below demonstrate, perceptions have varied for a quite a while.

JJ: Marry you? What’s the joke, Zeke?

Zeke: No joke, man. I’m talking about the real deal, complete with the wedding of your dreams! Imagine us getting hitched in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower! Huh? Huh?

JJ: The Eif…? We’re going to Paris?

Zeke: Uh… No, Vegas. Get real.

–       Garry Trudeau, Doonesbury, 2000

Faster than a Vegas wedding.

–       Ad for Canon cameras, 2004

“It’s going to be simply beautiful. Stars will twinkle. Birds will float on ribbons, and there will be signs everywhere saying: I love you, I want you, I need you – I can’t live without you.”

–       Charlotte Richards, owner of the Little White Wedding Chapel, 1998

Do you both promise and agree… to adopt each other’s hound dogs? To always be each other’s teddy bear? To never wear your blue suede shoes out in the rain?

–       Wedding vows in an Elvis Special at the Viva Las Vegas Wedding Chapel

“Getting married in Vegas used to be a tawdry thing to do. But now people look at a wedding day as fun.”

–       Barbara Tober, editor-in-chief of Bride’s magazine, 1994

“I was in Vegas and, I just, I don’t know… things got out of hand.”

–       Britney Spears, 2004

“We could have had a videotape [of the ceremony], but we declined.”

–       Cindy Crawford on her 1991 Las Vegas wedding to Richard Gere

“Granted that marriage is the most pitiful institution, right now it’s the only game in town, and we’re going to play it.”

–       Warren Beatty to Elizabeth Taylor, in The Only Game in Town, 1970

“Stuart, you know, maybe this isn’t such a hot idea after all. I mean, it didn’t sound so bad in a Beverly Hills restaurant with a half bottle of champagne in me. But…. Here. Look at this place. It’s not exactly the Bel Air Hotel.”

–       Jill Eikenberry to Michael Tucker, in LA Law, 1987

A cool wedding in our completely remodeled and refrigerated air-conditioned chapel. Same price, $10.00 – Same place, 226 South 5th.

–       Advertisement for the Hitching Post Chapel in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, 1954

© 2011 Susan Marg – All Rights Reserved

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Announcing: Donny and Marie in Las Vegas (through October 2012)

Marie Osmond at the Flamingo. Photo by: Susan Marg

Often referred to as “Sin City,” Las Vegas’s claim to the title of “Marriage Capital of the World” has merit, as well.  Over 110,000 marriages take place there each year, plus another 40,000 to 50,000 renewals, commitment ceremonies, and other professions of “till death do us part.”

Everyone has an opinion about such goings on.  It is either oily Elvis impersonators and kitschy decorations or glamour and glitter under the neon lights. There’s no in between, let alone happily ever after.

Marie Osmond’s wedding this past May was an exception to popular attitudes. Then again, she and her husband live in Las Vegas.

Divorced over four years ago from her second husband of twenty years, she remarried her first husband, Stephen Craig, at the Las Vegas Mormon Temple in keeping with their faith.  It was a private, family affair, kept secret from even those closest to her until three days before the event to keep the paparazzi away.  The reception was held at their home.

Afterwards, the bride and groom were pleased to pose for pictures.  She wore the original gown by costumer designer Ret Turner from her first wedding almost thirty years earlier.  Being a Nutrisystem spokesperson really paid off.  “I can’t breathe, but I’m in it,” she declared.  Craig, a former basketball player who filled out over time, went with a black rather than white tuxedo.  They both looked happy.

Marie was back at work less than a week later.  She’s been appearing with her brother Donny at the 750-seat Flamingo Showroom five days a week for thirty-six weeks a year since September 2008.

The siblings put on a variety show.  Does that sound familiar? It’s a high-energy 90-minute multi-media extravaganza that showcases their talents and charm.  She sings a little bit country; he sings some rock ‘n roll. Together they joke around and have fun.  The crowd of all ages loves it.

Now, that sounds like Vegas, the Entertainment Capital of the World.


© 2011 Susan Marg – All Rights Reserved

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Look at those bells.  This is exciting.  I like it.  Let’s go.

—  Albert Brooks, in front of the Wedding Bells Wedding Chapel, in Lost in America, 1985

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With Respect to June Weddings

Love is in the air in Las Vegas. Photo by Susan Marg.

Not everyone wants to get married in spring when buds are blooming, birds are tweeting, and the sun is shining.  Some prefer winter.

Weather not being an issue for a New Jersey couple who so wanted to marry, they robbed a bank in January 2010 and then took off for Las Vegas with a $10,000 payoff.  The roads must have been clear. They made it to Oklahoma before they were captured five days later.

Charles B. Koch, 28, half of the dynamic duo, had told the bank teller he carried a bomb.  His significant other, Cheri Harper, 27, had on her person a concealed knife.  No wonder no one stood in their way.

These days the average cost of a church wedding with the usual trimmings is almost $27,000.  If Bonnie and Clyde went the traditional route, it might be understandable why they needed some extra cash.

But for a wedding in Las Vegas?

Don’t get me wrong.  I love Las Vegas.  My husband and I had a renewal of vows ceremony a few years back.  We danced to an Elvis impersonator singing “Viva Las Vegas,” which has nothing to do with love or marriage, and twenty of our friends joined in.

It’s a tradition that goes way back, Las Vegas weddings, that is.  It began in 1933 when a reverend opened his home on South Fifth Street, eventually renamed Las Vegas Boulevard, to out-of-towners who wanted to tie the knot.

Today a simple ceremony can be had for under a hundred dollars at one of the standalone chapels that still permeate the lower part of the Strip heading towards the Fremont Street Experience.  Witnesses, if needed, are part of the package.

What a deal!  The accommodations are not as upscale as at one of the resort casinos like the Bellagio, but it’s legal.  And dressing in nice clothes for the occasion is optional.

For their effort, Harper and Koch each received a seven-year prison sentence.  Whew!  That’s longer than most first marriages last.  Second and third marriages, too!  When they’ve their done their time, will the romantic robbers still be in love or, like so many others, will they be ready to move on?

© 2011 Susan Marg – All Rights Reserved

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The way I figure it is like this: the eleven of us cats against this one little city.

— Sammy Davis Jr. as Josh Howard, in Ocean’s Eleven, 1960.

I just added two more guys to my wolf pack.  The four of us wolves running around the desert together in Las Vegas looking for strippers and cocaine.

— Zach Galifianakis as Alan Garner, in The Hangover, 2009