Outside, in the cold distance, Las Vegas is burning with that dead, bright desert light that makes all the casino towers and the brown mountains look like you're seeing them through reflecting sunglasses.
Inside The Little Church of the West though it's cozy -- wood pews, candles, windows with curtains for the glare and bars for Vegas' incredible crime rate. It's not like the newer ones up The Strip with that air conditioned Teflon hacienda look, dozens of them, big business here.
Weekdays, like today, people don't usually start getting married till noon or so, unless it's Valentine's Day, so Bernice Morgan -- she answers the phone and sends out brochures -- gets to watch her favorite soap opera on the little black-and-white TV she sets up next to the organ, which doesn't work. They use the record player. The soap opera is "Search for Tommorrow," which just now is showing a funeral.
"How awful to be watching a funeral in a wedding chapel," she says, as some tourists poke their heads in the door. Like most people who hang on to their jobs in Vegas, Bernice Morgan knows the score.
"They issue 50,000 wedding licenses a year down at the courthouse," she says. It was 56,000 last year, in fact. The Clark County clerk stays open till midnight, except on weekends and holidays, when it's round-the-clock -- an instant Nevada wedding being an American tradition and right. Getting married here is like picking up your car in Detroit: It doesn't improve the product any, but it's something to tell your friends about. And with no cake to buy, no big blowout afterward in the K of C Hall, doing the Mexican hat dance to the strains of Li'l Wally and the Harmony Boys, it's cheaper.
Plus the honeymonn starts immediately. You're here.
"Elvis Presley was married here," one tourist says to another. They're English decked out in brand-new all-American polyester double-knit slacks, and aiming strange 1947-looking cameras around.
Bernice Morgan doesn't bother to contradict, but she's the first to admit that Elvis wasn't, it was only a scene in "Viva Las Vegas" when he married Ann-Margret in here. 'But we had Fernando Lamas and Rhonda Fleming and Mickey Rooney I think several times. We had David Cassidy not too long ago."
Cassidy's picture hangs on the back wall of the chapel, next to a sign that reads: NO CHECKS CASHED.
"It's famous, all right. We had a kid come all the way from Hong Kong, China, to see it; little Oriental guy."
In a town where there aren't any clocks on the walls, the wedding chapels are about the only history around, unless you count Bugsy Siegel, the founding father, who didn't even have the decency to get murdered here.
"Oh, the stories Merle can tell about the old days," Morgan says, referring to the owner, Merle Richards, the grand old man of the wedding chapel business. "He's having a tooth pulled right now, but he'll be in later. He can tell you how the bookies used to use the chapel pay phone, back when he was still working a double shift as a stickman on the crap tables . . . he's got some stories."
Today's first wedding -- five scheduled, it's a slow day -- will unite a couple from Utah who aren't going for any of the extras. Just the chapel ($30) with the fake mums on the altar. But nice fake. No photographs ($10 and up) no flowers ($5 and up) and no tape recording of the ceremony ($5). Some places offer rings, garters, limousine service, videotaping, bridal suites, gown rental, you name it. Here, they keep it simple.
The minister, Rev. John Love, shows up a few minutes early, with his wife Franci, who comes to the weddings, she says, "when we're on the way to the grocery store sometimes."
"I'm a Baptist," says Rev. Love. "Baptist evangelist. I ran Reno Sparks Gospel Mission for about six yers, but it's hard. They've got so many TV evangelists now."
Sure enough, his voice is cured and burnished with all those years of talking at the folding chairs. But after six years here he's got the Vegas look, the hair creaming back from the hole-card eyes, a rust-colored suit over a brown shirt.
"In 1947 we got married here too, in the Grenta Green chapel," says Mrs. Love. "We drove up from San Bernardino -- they didn't ask for any blood test or anything."
Here comes the bride.Deborah Christiansen, 27, a nursing assistant at the VA hospital in Salt Lake City, is going for her second marriage. She wears black and a plaintive look.
The groom is Tech. Sgt. Jack Kruger, 32, in blue suit and black Air Force shoes. "This is the one with the big name," he says to explain why they chose The Little Church of the West.
"Well," says Rev. Love. And they get started.
"Husband, be very careful with your wife because she's the weaker sex and because she's your partner," Love is saying. He takes his service from 1st Peter, 3d chapter, the "Living Bible" paraphrase. Bernice Morgan says Love is "sort of contemporary."
"Will you, Deborah, try to the best of your ability to fit in with Jack's plan?"
In a pew on the right, the bride's parents, A. Grant and Lorene Weaver, of Ogden, Utah, keep a Polaroid busy spewing out the pictures. A. Grant is a barber, Lorene works at Sears. By mid-service they're covered with prints, picking through them like stoopers, who are the people who hunt through all the thrown-away tickets at race tracks, looking for winners. They nod at the good ones.
Wedding chapels take up 10 pages of the Las Vegas Yellow Pages: Honeymoon Wedding Chapel with "Checks OK"; Silver Bell Wedding Chapel, "Featured on the Dinah Shore Show"; Downtown; Cupid's ("World Famous"), Las Vegas, Gretna Green and Sweetheart Desert Bell "World Famous"), all of which feature identical Stars of David and Buddhas in their ads, plus the logos for major credit cards: The Wee Kirk O' the Heather. We've Only Just Begun and, heading the list (alphabetically, at least), Aaron's Chapel of the Bells.
Cute! Cozy! Shouldn't every county seat in America have at least one? Franchises! One imagines giant neon silver bells rising over the land right next to the golden arches of McDonald's and the plastic effigies of "The Colonel," who, as it happens, once stood up as best man in the Little Church of the West.
At this point in history, though, weeding chapels lag far behind fast food, lingering, comparatively speaking, in the individualistic "drive-in" period of the 1950s, back when America was freckled with Bobbi Burgers, Atomic Burgers, Kwik-Kar Charburgers and Bur-Bee-Chiks, and the traveler never knew what kind of chow he was about to surround.
Why not be eficient? Romance, after all, has only entered the marriage scene in the last couple of hundred years, and it seems on its way out again, flogged and harried by lawyers who write wedding contracts spelling out the terms of divorce.
In any case, speed and convenience are the cry that pricks up ears in Las Vegas -- at the Wedding Chapel of the Fountain for instance, deep inside the Circus Hotel and Casino. ("Interpreters are available for those not fluent in English. The deaf and mute are always welcome.")
"We planned to get married in april, put we couldn't wait until then," says Richard McMullen, 24, a pipefitter of Grimsby, Ontario. He is minutes away from marrying Dorothy Imrie, 28, an assembler of vacuum cleaners, also of Grimsby.
She rented her gown and veil for $67 from Bells and Brides, here in Las Vegas. She looks beautiful, though nervous. Have they argued?
"Not really," she says. "He was afraid I was going to be late."
McMullen's face dithers between frown and grin.
"I made us late for the 'Hallelujah, Hollywood' show over at the M-G-M Grand," she concedes.
Now it's the chapel that's late. The manager wants to discuss photographs -- six 4-by-5's for $21, up to $100 for a 17-photo display. But he's on the phone. The wedding can hold. The couple stands around, demonstrating that wedding regalia makes standing around an awkward-looking business indeed.
Rev. Albert Alalouf, 35, nondenominational and wearing photogray glasses and black tie, takes a Tab out of the chapel office refrigerator and answers questions with a faint, why-not smile.
He performs about 75 weddings a week, usually for a $10 donation. He's been at it for four years, with a phone in his car and a beeper on his belt in case he gets the call, day or night. The most famous person he's married is actor Nick Nolte, "over at the Chapel of the Bells. The bride wasn't as good-looking as the pictures showed."
He likes his work. "It's not boring doing the weddings. It only takes four or five minutes."
The most he's ever gotten is $100, he says. Well, one time at Caesar's Palace he got $500 but "I had to give $100 of that to the person who set it up."
"Tokes" and "juice," as they say out here, meaning tips and influence, which is the basis of the whole Vegas way of life; only the tourists have to gamble to find out precisely where they stand in the great order of things.
Does he ever get stiffed?
"The chapel gives the groom an envelope that says it's for the minister's donation. If he doesn't give me anything, I ask for the envelope. If the envelope is empty, I point out what it says on it.
"One guy gave me a dollar. As it happened, I decided to play some stud poker after the ceremony. He sat down at my table, and I took extreme pleasure in taking his last $10 off him."
Over at the Chapel of the Bells, night hostess Carrie Creekman stands by the door where it says "Forever Starts Now" and lets her glasses dangle from her hand and says: "Bells? I don't know, they just call it that."
On Halloween, she says, "we got 10 people who showed up wearing bunny suits. The bride carried a carrot corsage with baby's breath. It was cute."
You never know what you'll get, they say. One wedding chapel manager says: "We had a couple of Mexicans come in here, they looked like a couple of tramps, but she brought her gown with her and she made a beautiful bride."
Up and down The Strip, they sell wedding rings, garters, you name it, and the prices tend to vary by how prosperous the couple looks. At its worst, it's not unlike the worst of the funeral business, which might explain the mien of some wedding chapel managers, sly and somber at the same time.
Merle Richards, though would have made a bad funeral director. Which is why, maybe, he stays away from the day-to-day operation of The Little Church of the West.
It's night, now, and the chapel has all the peculiar atmosphere of any church at night, like it's full and empty at the same time.
"Got into it during World War II," he says, slouched in a pew in a plaid shirt and his bedroom slippers. He sucks on one Benson & Hedges after another. The filters come out of his mouth bloody, from the tooth the dentist pulled this morning. He is 66.
"I was a photographer with the Air Force at a field near here. You couldn't get film back then; only film was government film, so I used to sneak it out and do the weddings."
"He used to be a stickman at the crap tables too," says his wife Lucille, who wears tight brown curls and a wary look on her face.
"Been her since '41," Merle says. "I'd have to ask $280,000 for this place now. I've had this particular one since 1960. Hell, it didn't used to be a business. Back in the old days you'd get seven, eight a week. I guess 82 is the best we ever did in one day -- a Valentine's Day -- and it was all day, I'll tell you.
"When i was still a craps dealer I had a pay phone on the outside wall, in case somebody wanted to get married at night. But the bookies started runing a past-posting operation from it and one month a $1,900 phone bill -- they had it worked out with the sheriff where they'd call him and he'd radio the past post from one of the police cars . . . I had to pull that phone out . . . .
"We had everything going on in this place. Old Mario Lanza used to come over Saturdays and sing for kicks, be here all day long singing 'Be My Love.' He'd let that out so the walls would bulge.
"We had two women stayed at the Frontier Hotel six weeks to get their divorces, I remember one of 'em had long braided hair.They were planning on switching husbands at a double wedding. The day came for the wedding, they get in here, one called the other one a dirty no-good son-of-a bitch and they started swinging. The next day they both remarried their original husbands.
"Mickey Rooney was married in here five times," he says.
"Oh Merle, he wasn't," says Lucille. "It was probably one."
She doesn't slow him down. Pretty soon he's talking about growing up in Wyoming, the cowboy life, the American Dream. "When my mom died my dad tried to sell me the ranch. I didn't want to go back to that cold son-of-a-bitch, with all them groovy broads down here."
And he's a gunsmith besides, has his own sporting goods shop.
He fishes the pulled tooth out of his shirt pocket, old and yellow, brown with blood. He hands it to a listener, who hefts it.
"Gonna melt the gold out of it and inlay a gun," he says. "Smith & Wesson, .44 magnum -- I always carry a gun on Saturday -- that's our busy day."