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The White Chapel of Elvis

Updated on November 18, 2012


I wish I could say my husband and I had a huge wedding with bowls of floating orchids on crisp white linen table cloths. All the guests dressed exquisitely in designer finery, and me, in a gown with layer upon layer of ivory tulle, my face tucked under a delicate ivory veil.

The setting is rolling hills framing a picturesque landscape we picked out so perfectly. The wedding guests sip flutes of Chateau de What’shisname, chirping and laughing as they dine on sumptuous trays of petit this and crème de that, and delicious baby something or other, served just as the sun drifted behind the hills. The sky could have been painted by Renoir himself, as brilliant shades of tangerine and coral streaked and dazzled an almost navy blue sky.

Fortunately, or unfortunately, my wedding day consisted of a quick jaunt up highway 80 to Nevada…Reno, that is, not Vegas. My husband was a fire captain and had only a few hours before his 96 started, (wives of firefighters understand) so we figured that day was as good as any.

My husband was more than a decade older than me and had been through the whole wedding mania before, so to avoid boring him with my girlhood dream of walking down the aisle I opted for a trip to Reno.

Finding a wedding chapel in Nevada is like finding a rock in a rock quarry, they’re pretty plentiful. We stopped at one called the Little White Chapel. I thought it was an adorable novelty at first, but, after we left I noticed there were just as many adorable Little White Chapels as there were 7-11’s, with just as much neon.

It was noon by the time we’d gone up the street to licensing bureau to get the marriage license, so we headed back over to the “chapel”. We pulled up to the front of the mock church and noticed a young woman in a huge picture window, chewing her heart out on a piece of gum while she filed her nails, emblazoned in red lettering with flashing red neon hearts the sign above her read, “Drive-in Wedding”. I’d seen it all.

We walked up the red carpeted steps and entered by two huge Grecian urn-style vases filled with dust covered plastic flower arrangements, complete with spider webs. My intended and I looked at one another, and then he took my hand and said, “Here we go”. I don’t know if he thought I would turn and run or if he took my hand in fear, probably a little of both.

We walked into the church vestibule, we were met with lines of wire racks filled with road maps, cheap 24 - hour breakfast joints, and discounted stage attractions; most had ended months before.

Behind the counter hung the requisite Reno artwork - a larger than life size portrait of Elvis, on black velvet. It was of “The King” in his legendary white jumpsuit, collar turned up to accent his thick mane of blue-black hair. Would you expect anything less from a wedding chapel in Reno, Nevada?

Behind the counter a young man of about 18 welcomed us and told us about the various wedding packages available. We just wanted a quickie, so we opted for the basic/no frills package. Basically, we got the minister and a cassette tape of the ceremony of us saying “I Do”.

The young man politely excused himself and stepped behind a flowery threadbare drape. I could have sworn I heard him say, “Maw, we got one”, but I could be wrong.

In seconds Maw, I mean, the minister walked through the dusty drapes holding a file folder and a Bible in one hand and a cup of something in the other. A cigarette hung for dear life from her bottom lip, bouncing as she spoke to welcome us to wedded bliss.

My husband leaned in to me and asked me if she was gonna smoke through the ceremony. I didn’t really care. I just wanted her to hurry. Between the cigarette smoke in my nose, her noxious body odor mixed with dime store perfume and the stench from the 50 year old casino knock off carpeting, my nose was on sensory overload.

We were escorted into the sanctuary by the minister, that’s when I noticed she was wearing matted fuzzy slippers that were completely devoid of color. I thought to myself, this is too much (!) let’s just get this over with. We got into the sanctuary and my mouth hung open in wonder. As ambience and a backdrop for the minister, there was another life size black velvet painting of The Last Supper hanging in a thick gild plastic frame. One of the disciples looked strangely like Elvis.

The bottom portion of the golden frame was being held together by strips of grey duct tape, but no one seemed to mind the repair technique.

The young man followed us into the church and eased behind the minister to a table where he pushed the play button on an antiquated cassette player. We were entertained by the warbled strains of “Oh Promise Me” as it crackled and hissed, filling the musty church with sound.

My curiosity taunted me so, I wanted to turn back and take a good look around the church, but the rational part of me said to keep my eyes forward. Rational thinking lost. I looked. No, I turned completely around and didn’t turn back until I felt my husband elbowing me…hard.

Rarely am I at a loss for words, but, I was astounded and amazed on so many levels. Even my husband, who was a fire captain, and has seen it all, was stunned.

We were in Nevada, the land of quick marriages, and take no hostages living, but when it comes to getting hitched in what is peddled as being a church I think that velvet Elvis should not be in the building and the minister should not have a smoke in the blessedness of the church sanctuary.

What shocked me more than anything were the ashtrays on the ends of the pews. Smoking in church? There’s no smoking in church! Wooden church pews with metal ashtrays built into the ends of the pews. What company makes church pews with ashtrays? That has to be sacrilegious. And to add to the décor was a table with ice buckets, alcoholic beverages and glasses – a mini bar in church, yes, in church.

So, we didn’t have all the wedding bells and whistles, lavish meal and great gown, but we have a cassette tape of our wedding day with the minister who has a hacking cough, and who continued to puff throughout the ceremony. You can actually hear her exhale and cough throughout the tape. She’s kind of hard to understand at times because the tape of “Oh Promise Me” hisses and screeches a lot. It’s hysterical.

It’s many, many years later and we now have two children to our credit. They listened to that warbled wedding tape well into their 20’s and every time they’d laugh until tears rolled down their cheeks. Every anniversary I’d have to tell the kids the story, and each time they’d laugh uncontrollably.

Sure, we could have waited and had the wedding I dreamed of with the bowls of floating orchids, but I really don’t think we’d have the memories we made that day in Reno in The Little White Chapel.


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