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Little Church of the West marks 70 years of walking down the aisle


Leila Navidi

Owner Greg Smith poses inside the Little Church of the West in Las Vegas on Tuesday, May 21, 2013.

Updated Thursday, May 23, 2013 | 10:07 a.m.

Little Church of the West 70th Anniversary

Joe and Sandra Frohlich of Vancouver get photos taken outside after their wedding ceremony at the Little Church of the West in Las Vegas on Tuesday, May 21, 2013. Launch slideshow »

Map of Little Church of the West

Little Church of the West

4613 Las Vegas Blvd. South, Las Vegas

When Dudley Moore knocked on Greg Smith's office door a few years ago, it was business as usual for the wedding chapel owner.

Moore, an Oscar-nominated actor, was getting married the next day and wanted to see the Little Church of the West before he walked down its aisle.

“He was scheduled to be married with us and I had no idea. We chatted a bit, and he came in and played the organ,” said Smith, 55.

Little Church of the West will celebrate its 70th anniversary on Wednesday, and Smith said it still would be business as usual for the wedding chapel.

Smith said about 50 to 70 weddings a week had been performed at the chapel since its first ceremony in 1943, when a U.S. Army captain and his Californian girlfriend were married.

Celebrity couples such as Angelina Jolie and Billy Bob Thornton and Richard Gere and Cindy Crawford have stood at the chapel's altar surrounded by its large candelabras and manicured flower arrangements. Other celebrities tying the knot at the chapel have included Robert Goulet, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney and Betty Grable.

Although few of the celebrity marriages performed at the chapel have lasted, Smith said his grandfather's seventh marriage, which was performed at the chapel, was his longest.

Little Church of the West also has hosted weddings for everyday tourists and Las Vegas locals, including some of Smith’s friends and employees.

“I've run into people that I've gone to high school with or that I've known somewhere down the line that have gotten married here,” Smith said.

Smith recounted as a teenager driving by the chapel when it was on the corner of Spring Mountain Road and Las Vegas Boulevard, where the Fashion Show mall stands today.

“You'd drive down the Strip, you'd see the little picturesque church sitting there and happy people. It's kind of ironic that I ended up making a career out of it,” said Smith, who worked in wedding photography when he was younger.

Smith bought Little Church of the West from Merle Richards in 1983, four years after the church, constructed of cedar, was relocated to the site of the old Hacienda. In 1996, it was moved to its current location. Richards, whose portrait hangs in the former chapel office — which is now used as an audio room — started out as a photographer in the chapel after World War II.

The chapel, modeled after a California mining church, has been moved three times since its inception. It originally was built at the Last Frontier resort but was relocated on the hotel site in 1954. It currently is situated between the “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign and Mandalay Bay on Las Vegas Boulevard South.

“We're on the Strip, but we're far enough away that it's not crazy, and we have a lot of parking here,” Smith said. “It's accessible and we do a good job.”

Smith said Little Church of the West's association to Las Vegas and its history keeps attracting couples. However, he added that the chapel, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, has had to refine its product to be competitive in today's market.

“You have to have HD videography. You have to have really good photographers. Your florist has to be a master florist. Your wedding consultants have to be experts,” Smith said.

Little Church of the West performs weddings for couples who drop in, but it also accepts reservations, currently into 2015.

“Usually, (the reservation) is three to six months in advance. It's hardly a Las Vegas quickie,” Smith said.

The chapel's original layout is still intact, with modest benches adorned with ribbons lining the interior and an organ prominently displayed near the altar, but Little Church of the West has incorporated new technology to accommodate modern couples.

Brides and grooms can reserve wedding times online and can opt to stream an online webcast of their weddings for family and friends who can't attend in person.

Although technology has improved the wedding experience, some of the chapel's traditions have not changed. Little Church of the West still chimes its bell after every “I do.”

“You can hear that bell in the 'Viva Las Vegas’ wedding in the … scene where Elvis marries Ann-Margret,” Smith said.

The chapel bell in the iconic Elvis film is the same bell still used today.

The chapel has been a part of cinematic history, but it also holds a special place in many couples' personal histories. Smith said couples married at the chapel continue to return to their wedding venue. Just before the 1979 move and over the course of six months, 300 couples married at Little Church of the West revisited the chapel, including couples who had been married 50 years ago.

“They bring their family. They bring their children,” Smith said.

Smith is building a second location for couples who wish to get married outdoors right behind the Little Church of the West. The outdoor garden center will be complete with misters to combat the Las Vegas heat.

Regardless of location, Smith said the secret to a perfect wedding was simple: “A happy bride.”

CORRECTION: This version corrects the number of times the church has been moved. | (May 31, 2013)

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