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History: Recapturing the Bliss

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Chapel
Photo by Scott Lien

Once a busy wedding venue, the iconic — and retired — Candlelight Chapel is still making memories

Thirty-seven years ago, on May 28, 1982, Marilyn and Danny Kelley hit Vegas for a night on the town — and something more permanent. She was a waitress in El Centro, California, who regularly poured coffee for an engineer who repaired IBM Selectric typewriters. They knew the feeling they shared was special. So, hand in hand, they walked down the aisle at the Candlelight Wedding Chapel, next to the Riviera and across from Circus Circus. She wore something off-white, not too fancy. They’d splurged for a room at the Hilton and two tickets to see singer Mac Davis, so there wasn’t much left over for a ceremony. The Candlelight was perfect: cozy, convenient, cheap.

All these years later, the waitress and the engineer have returned.

“Gosh, a lot has changed,” Danny says. “In Vegas. Even in the chapel.”

He’s right, of course: The chapel is now retired. No longer situated amid the bustle of the Strip, the Candlelight perches in a grove of trees at the Clark County Museum in Henderson — just the kind of place a historic little chapel might spend its reclining years.

Its sign has been sent to the Neon Museum. The steeple has been replaced, the pews and other indoor fixtures lost to time. Mannequins in formal outfits stand in for the many thousands who once passed through. Opened in 1966, the Candlelight was host to some 300,000 ceremonies over 38 years. It shut down in 2003, after which it fell into disrepair — looted, vandalized, marred by graffiti — until 2007, when its owner donated it to the museum.

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Reopened two years later as an exhibit, the Candlelight has since been toured by thousands of its former celebrants. Under Director Mark Hall-Patton, the museum spent $250,000 renovating the chapel, which speaks to Clark County’s postwar niche as the world’s wedding capital. (Some 2 percent of the nation’s weddings still take place here, he says.) In its heyday, it hosted weddings for such celebrities as Michael Caine, Whoopi Goldberg, Bette Midler, and Barry White. It was the first chapel with an 800 number and limo service. The chapel also claims the most Vegas weddings performed in a single day: more than 425 on Valentine’s Day 1989, Hall-Patton says.

Dolly DeLeon, who officiated chapel events over two decades, says, “The ceremonies may have been brief, but we did them all with dignity.”

Hall-Patton understood the significance of the Candlelight at the opening ceremony in 2009. An expected turnout of 200 swelled to 800. “I looked out and asked, ‘How many of you were married in this chapel?’ And most every one of the hands in that crowd went up.”

It was opened by Algiers Hotel owner Marion Hicks as a duplicate of The Little Church of the West and based on an 1859 church in Sonora, California. Initially called The Church of the West Algiers, it passed through numerous names and owners until Gordon Gust took over in 1977.

“(It) was my baby,” Gust says. “It was like a second home to me. I enjoyed every minute of my 30 years there. I’d do it all again if I could.” He recalls a bride so nervous she kept smelling salts in her bouquet, and a Marine so anxious he had to sit. “He said he’d won a Purple Heart but had never been so scared as he was in that chapel.”

When actor Clayton Moore, TV’s Lone Ranger, got married there, he was 72, marrying a woman 30 years younger. He wanted the William Tell Overture played as the processional. “Clayton, will you grow up?” the bride huffed. When the ceremony was over, someone yelled “Hi Ho Silver!”

Many Candlelight fans share memories on the Classic Las Vegas website. One woman wrote that four generations of her family were married there. Still another was married there four times herself. But the Candlelight itself is always the star. “I am glad the old girl has been rescued, and I can see her again, even in a museum!” one woman wrote.

As the Kelleys poke around, a group of young students file in, led by their teacher.

“Any of you getting married today?” Danny jokes.

A boy raises his hand.

“Your first?” asks the old groom as his wife gently punches his arm.

And once again the old chapel fills with laughter.

 

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