Thursday, Feb. 12, 2009 | 2 a.m.
Seventy-one-year-old Charolette Richards is ready.
After decades of weddings and vow renewals, she’s had plenty of practice: The ardent minister has performed thousands of marriage ceremonies during the years –- “too many to mention, hundreds of thousands,” she says.
When it comes to Valentine's Day, she’s a seasoned pro. A Feb. 14 All-Star, even.
This year, however, Valentine’s Day will be special for Richards; golden, in fact. It will mark half a century of wedding planning, flower arranging, limo driving and vow exchanging for the V-Day veteran.
“It seems like just yesterday I did my first wedding,” Richards says, “(But) I’m just as excited about marriage and love as I was 50 years ago.”
“I’m really in awe of my doing this for so long,” she says.
While she calls July 7, 2007, “the highlight of my career,” she calls Feb. 14 the “ultimate of all holidays.”
She and her staff at A Little White Wedding Chapel have been working to prepare for the 14th –- and there’s a lot to do: There are flowers to order, employees to schedule, limousines to clean … the list goes on and on.
No detail is too big or too small: The chapel’s pink Cadillac has been polished, as have Richards’ nails, which have a fresh coat of pink paint and silver hearts and silver bells. And the pews in the main chapel have received a fresh coat of paint, too.
If Valentine’s Day is the wedding industry’s Super Bowl Sunday, Richards is the starting quarterback. Her cell phone rings constantly and people are forever asking for signatures and approvals. Still, the smile rarely fades from her face.
While her days are demanding, the nine-time grandmother and four-time great grandmother seems to love every minute of it. She gracefully breezes from one chapel to another, performing a military wedding with the young couple’s baby in her arms one minute, a simple ceremony for a Dutch couple shortly after that and a curbside service for a New Zealand couple in a classic Cadillac convertible after that.
While many couples regard their quickie Vegas weddings as 15 or so minutes of kitschy Vegas fun — the groom driving the Cadillac called his wedding was “the cheesiest option available” — Richards takes her job very seriously.
She sprinkles her ceremonies with marriage advice and strong religious subtexts. While each wedding is slightly different, her message remains the same.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re Muslim, if you’re Catholic, if you’re Jewish … God is not a religion, he’s a spirit,” she says.
And Richards says she’ll be calling on that spirit this weekend.
“To organize a day like Valentine’s Day first starts with a lot of prayer,” she says. Then comes organization, followed by a call for all hands on deck.
Every one of her employees will be working on Saturday, and about a dozen extra staff members will be brought in to make sure things run smoothly.
“It’s falling on a Saturday this year,” Richards notes. “It will be a very, very busy day.”
While the chapel usually closes around 1 or 2 a.m., the operation will shift into 24-hour mode for Valentine’s Day. The chapel already has several weddings booked for midnight, 2:14 a.m. and 2:14 p.m.
“Valentine’s Day is a day of love,” Richards says. “It’s exciting and it really gets your heart pumping … it will just go on and on until everybody’s married.”
She greets her staff with hugs as she arrives in the morning. As love-struck couples walk through the door throughout the day, eager to say “I do,” they, too, get hugs.
The so-called “Wedding Queen of the West” isn’t a handshake kind of girl.
While Richards has been joining people together in holy matrimony for decades, she started at the bottom of the wedding totem pole and worked her way up.
“I took pictures, did floral arrangements, drove limousines, did everything,” she recalls.
Still, it wasn’t long before she bought a chapel of her own and, a few years after that, became a minister herself.
She has seen more than her fair share of interesting nuptials over the years — and more than her fair share of celebrities, too.
Mary Tyler Moore, Paul Newman, Joan Collins, Guns N' Roses guitarist Slash, Michael Jordan, Bruce Willis, Demi Moore, Frank Sinatra, Mia Farrow and Britney Spears have all tied the knot at Richards’ chapel complex on Las Vegas Boulevard, just north of the Stratosphere.
She was there when Elvis Presley said “I do,” too.
“I played a big part in the real Elvis’ wedding,” she says with a huge smile, sounding almost star-struck for an instant.
While she didn’t marry the King (he had a judge perform the ceremony), she proudly describes how she “organized the whole thing.”
“I’ll never forget him and the wonderful wedding,” she says. “He is tops in my books.”
Richards named chapels after both Jordan and Spears — even though both marriages ended in divorce.
While many of the marriages Richards performs don’t fall under the "happily ever after" category, she said the majority of her customers seem satisfied.
Mickey Rooney, who married both his first and third wives at the chapel, still sends Richards a Christmas card every year.
A Little White Wedding Chapel, like its owner, has seen many changes over the years. The complex how has seven chapels split between two buildings, and a drive-through, too.
The main chapel, adjacent to the reception area, sits where Richards’ living room once was. Another, tucked toward the back of the main building, stands in what was once Richards’ kitchen.
Richards used to live on-site, back when the marriage licensing bureau was open 23 hours a day and the chapel was always on-call for nocturnal couples’ nuptial needs.
She now lives about a mile away and commutes between home and work in her ruby red Lexus.
Most of her time, however, is spent on-site.
“This is where I belong,” she says. “This is where God planted me and this is where I bloomed … I’m not retired by any means nor will I ever be.”