Tuesday, April 11, 2000 | 9:13 a.m.
The young California bride at the other end of the telephone call almost wept recalling her March nuptials in a Las Vegas wedding chapel.
The dressing room, she said, wasn't elegant enough. The Saturday ceremony was too rushed. There were other wedding parties on the grounds waiting their turns. And the chapel decorations weren't blue and white as she requested.
"It was all white -- the same stuff as it was all day long," she wailed. "And it wasn't even satin. It was plain white."
To be sure, the young woman had a right to "her day," and a wedding chapel should offer all it promises.
Still, this is a town where the county marriage license office is open 24 hours on weekends and holidays. People might want to rethink having a Las Vegas wedding if they're going to have a snit over whether the pew bows are the proper type of satin.
"This is one of the most important days in anybody's life. And no matter how hard anybody tries to comfort, please or satisfy, it's almost impossible to do," said Merle Richards Jr., whose family has been in the Las Vegas wedding chapel business since the late 1930s.
The Richards empire encompasses seven chapels, including A Little White Chapel and the famous Tunnel Of Love drive-through wedding window. Richards' late father was a wedding photographer who bought the Little Church of the West in 1942 and owned it until he sold it in 1983.
Richards says Las Vegas ceremonies are every bit as serious as those $30,000 jobbers. Some people simply want to skip the tuxedo and cut to the chase.
"I've seen a 90-second marriage. He wanted to do it, kiss her and go," Richards said of the Tunnel of Love window.
While large corporations threaten to take over every industry in the country, Las Vegas' mom-and-pop wedding chapel business is booming.
Greg Smith says Las Vegas had 16 chapels, and the county issued 60,000 marriage licenses when he bought the Little Church of the West from the Richards family in 1983. Now there are about 50 chapels and wedding ceremony halls, and the county issued 110,000 licenses last year.
"About 15 percent of the weddings we do are locals," Smith said. "About 15 percent are from foreign countries, and 99 percent of them are already married. They're just coming here to restate their vows. They're coming in droves to do it."
Liberal marriage laws aside, people marry here because it's one-stop, no-hassle and kitschy.
Las Vegas sociologist Claudia Collins says the chapels simply offer without apology what the rest of the country wants. Consider again, if you can bear it, "Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire?"
"This is a society where people will get married on prime-time TV," she said.
The wedding chapel operators say a majority schedule their Las Vegas wedding months in advance. It isn't an alternative to a dream wedding, it is the dream wedding.
And whether it's been planned for a year or an hour, some things about the big day never change.
"I've seen people show up here in hysterics," Smith said.