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The Renewlywed Game
Renewing your vows in Vegas is easy enough. Throw Elvis in and you've got a real party.

By John Deiner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 12, 2005

The bride wore pearl earrings, tropical capris, flowered sandals and a billowing veil with ancient cigarette burns. The groom wore a mood ring, knee-length black shorts, a maraschino-cherry-red bow tie and a tatty thrift-shop tux shirt with a yellow starch stain marching down the front.

That's right. Something old, something new, something borrowed and something . . . ewww.

On an unseasonably hot May night in an unreasonably crowded Las Vegas, my wife, Janet, and I stood before God, six of our dearest friends, a minister we'd never met and the King of Rock-and-Roll and exchanged our wedding vows. Again. Almost 15 years to the day earlier, we'd first said "I do" in a ceremony devoid of kitschy jewelry, Tevas and dead pop icons.

No need to make that mistake again. With nearly 350 nuptials held each day in the dozens of chapels lining its streets and nestled within its casinos, Vegas posits itself as the wedding capital of the world. Last year, more than 125,000 couples tied the knot in Sin City. Because a license isn't required for renewals, figures aren't available on the number performed, but chapels report that there's no shortage of marrieds reupping for another tour of duty.

Services, and prices, run the spectrum, from as little as $105 for a license and a civil ceremony at the Marriage Commissioner's Office to splashier theme affairs, like the $3,000 you'll beam down for the 20-minute Admiral's Wedding at the Vegas Hilton's "Star Trek" attraction. The latter includes vows on the bridge of the Enterprise, an "intergalactic floral bouquet and boutonierre" and a choice of four costumed "Trek" characters.

Janet and I were fairly confident we didn't need a Klingon to stand by our side as we became renewlyweds. But Elvis? That was a no-brainer.

We'd decided long ago that our 15th would be the "cheese anniversary," much as the 25th is marked with silver, the 50th gold. And we also knew where the festivities would take place: the Little White Wedding Chapel, as much a fixture on the Vegas nuptial scene as drunken bridesmaids and morning-after regrets. We'd seen the chapel on previous visits, a steepled incongruity on the Strip whose sign proudly proclaims that Michael Jordan and Joan Collins had been married within (though, sadly, not to each other).

Missing from the marquee is the fact that Ross and Rachel exchanged vows there on "Friends." Demi Moore and Bruce Willis began their storybook union on the spot. Patty Duke, Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra: all Little White alums. And in January 2004, Britney Spears wed her childhood pal, Jason Allen Alexander, there at 5:30 in the morning. (Those crazy kids: The marriage lasted a less-than-inspiring two days.)

Janet and I can relate, sort of. We're both 42, but we've known each other for 38 years: She's the first person I met on the New Jersey cul-de-sac where my family moved in 1967. After a whirlwind 23-year courtship, we were married in 1990.

Those nups -- planned over the course of 18 aggravating months -- included a flower-strewn church, 125 guests, a 12-person wedding party and a Hawaiian honeymoon that began a few hours after the band stopped playing. Fifteen years later, we organized our Vegas renewal in 12 minutes at Alittlewhitechapel.com.

The process is exceedingly simple. Decide how much you really love your intended and go from there. For $391, the Romantic's Package includes the chapel, a bouquet and a boutonniere, a bride's garter, 24 photographs, a wedding video and a limo. Michael Jordan's Package, for a C-note more, promises a bigger bouquet, more photos and champagne glasses.

This being a renewal and all, Janet and I went with the Economy Package (since renamed the Lover's Package, but Economy still seems to say it all). Instead of a bouquet, our $191 netted a "Presentation of Roses" for Janet, a boutonierre for me, 12 photos and the limo ride. For $69 more, we ordered a video, under the assumption that the images it captured would be unforgettable, if not downright embarrassing.

Elvis was a $175 afterthought. After initially considering the King a wasteful bagatelle, we came to our senses and called the chapel.

"Is Elvis in the building? We really want to include him in our renewal ceremony," I told the receptionist. She'd heard the line before. "No, he's not. Who are you, anyway?"

Once word had gotten out that we'd be renewing our vows in Vegas, friends began a pilgrimage to the desert. My brothers Tim and Chris would be there, as would Patrick "Peewee" Presutto, who grew up next door to Janet. Dan Ewert, my buddy from ninth-grade algebra and eventual 1990 best man, booked a flight. Jenni Bryant O'Connell, a former workmate of Janet's, and her husband, Michael, climbed aboard.

Jenni, in particular, took to the renewal like a wolverine on roadkill. Not only would she lovingly film the events leading up to and following the vows, but she also promoted herself to the post of "maid of dishonor." On the big day, she spent 12 hours garbed in a flowing white prom dress, a feathery pink halo levitating above her head. Dan was my "beast man," an honor that included a set of flashing devil horns that he was required to wear from 5 p.m. until dawn the next day.

Only Tim seemed a bit out of sync with the proceedings. Perhaps expecting a more dignified affair, like those Willis-Moore vows, he would disappear at odd moments -- like any time we were all together. Upon viewing the wedding quartet in full regalia during a pre-nup cocktail party, Tim asked, a hint of desperation in his voice, "You're going to change, right?"

Yeah, right.

Elvis was late. A 10-minute ride to the Little White Chapel, in a pearly stretch limo with a twinkling ceiling and champagne glasses glued onto a dusty bar, was followed by word that the King was on his way.

As we waited, chapel employee Amber Lester went over the 7:30 p.m. ceremony details as several other, more tastefully attired wedding parties milled about the reception area. The room, which could have been a dentist's office in a previous life, featured a long counter and glass display cases jammed with matrimonial doodads, including a $15 pair of "Just Married" flip-flops.

Janet's sole concern involved our $175 invitee: Was he the young Elvis or the morbidly obese Elvis? Amber shrugged. "Sort of in-between."

We handed over our credit card, and Amber tossed us a wrinkled envelope labeled "Love Gift" that was imprinted with three unexpected amounts: $40, $60 and $100. "That's for the minister. Feel free to put in whatever you wish," she instructed. Zero didn't seem to be an option, so I fumbled for two twenties and gave the envelope back.

Behind the counter, a portly guy in a suit was leaning out a window creating husbands and wives in the Drive Thru Tunnel of Vows, apparently geared toward couples who want to spend the rest of their lives together but don't wish to stand. During our 40 minutes at the Little White, three couples -- including one on a motorcycle who answered "Hell, yeah!" when asked if they were there to get married -- took the plunge tunnel-style.

At about 7:40 p.m., Elvis (mercifully skewed toward the younger side) tapped me on the shoulder and told me we needed to proceed to the chapel. He was wearing a red jumpsuit with silver rhinestones and was sweating like he had a hunka hunka burnin' fever.

The Little White, which opened in 1950, actually has several chapels to choose from, including the Crystal Chapel and the Chapel of Promises. We wanted the dowdy original, the Little White Chapel. With a half-dozen pews, a mirrored back wall and a pillar-flanked altar draped in white, it was cozy, if not exactly plush.

"Let's go all the way to the back so we can walk longer," Elvis purred, taking Janet's hand in his. I'm pretty sure she swooned.

Jenni, Dan and I made our way to the altar. A TV monitor displaying what was being videotaped was propped above the head of Shawn Jewell, the flawlessly coiffed, dulcet-toned officiate who assured us that he'd "take care of everything."

I'm glad, because I was nervous. I've known Janet for most of my life, and her smile is more deeply embedded in my memory than anything else. When we're bored, we chat about our second-grade teacher (good ol' Mrs. O'Hara) or look at pictures of us playing on the swing set in her Jersey back yard. Now, on the brink of recommitting my life to her, I had butterflies.

After minutes of planning and months of waiting, the ceremony itself lasted about 10 minutes, a flurry of Elvis-enriched moments coming in rapid succession: Elvis walking Janet down the aisle as the Wedding March blared from a speaker. Elvis proclaiming, "Congratulations, John, you lucky hound dog," as he placed her hand in mine. Elvis serenading us with "Loving You" as our happy octet locked arms and swayed in unison. Elvis pushing Dan closer to us, as Jewell spoke of the wonders of love, so that our beast man could be in the video.

One "I do" was followed by another. I fumbled my vows, the emotion apparent in that video we've already watched a dozen times. We exchanged the plastic rings Janet had picked up at the mall; mine says "Best," hers says "Friends." We kissed and hugged and kissed again as the tiny congregation cheered; then Elvis stepped between us and started crooning "Can't Help Falling in Love." Our favorite song, performed to perfection.

We shimmied our way back down the aisle and into the 95-degree heat outside as the door behind us slammed shut -- and locked. It was no mistake. Another couple was on the way to the Little White altar, a Vegas wedding statistic in the making.

For us, there were pictures to take, and toasts to make, and Elvis to tip, and slot machines to play, and laughs to share. Into the night we went, just another bride and groom surrounded by loved ones, an angel and devil at their sides.

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