Going to the chapel
The disappearing art of the chapel ceremony
It’s a blustery cold Friday evening. Inside The Chapel Of The Bells near the corner of Fourth Street and Keystone Avenue, Gabriela Osuna’s mother passes a message to her daughter, who is standing in a hallway around the corner and out of sight from Jesus Vazquez, the groom who is walking through the lobby and toward the altar. As the wedding ceremony proceeds, Osuna walks into a room of standing family members while her mother follows her, carrying the long trailing tail of her white gown. The couple have traveled from Livermore, Calif., for this ceremony, which they plan to follow with a weekend in town.
Nestled amidst the casinos and motels in downtown Reno are a handful of private wedding chapels. They are either buildings at the edge of downtown—Silver Bells Wedding Chapel, or the Chapel of the Bells, the only chapel located off of Virginia Street—or chapels within storefronts inside downtown buildings—the Arch of Reno Chapel or the Antique Angel Chapel, both within two blocks of the Truckee River. The state of Nevada requires two steps for a couple to be legally married: first, a wedding license, and second, a ceremony overseen by a person ordained to perform marriages. Traditionally, the state has had more lax laws to obtain a marriage license than surrounding states, such as the absence of a required waiting period or blood tests to obtain a marriage license that many California counties have required. This, coupled with the lack of residency requirements, has for decades made Reno’s chapels a destination for those from Nevada as well as surrounding states who prefer a quicker and more simple ceremony.
“I started marrying people in 1962,” says George Flint, owner of the Chapel of the Bells. “It was a fun industry. People came from all over.”
Vic Marino, whose official title is Officiant to Perform Marriages at the Arch Of Reno Chapel on Virginia Street, explained the ease of the ceremony. “The wedding license bureau is open from 8 a.m. to midnight, 365 days a year, and our chapel has similar hours. In less than an hour, with the right documentation, you can be married.”
The choice to allow private commercial chapels throughout Nevada is determined by each county’s respective clerk. Carson City has opted against the chapels, leaving Reno the hub of quick and convenient wedding ceremonies in northern Nevada.
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Hanging above Osuna and Vazquez is an aging chandelier, while large arrangements of white silk flowers frame the altar. Those in attendance vary in dress from suits and dresses, to one relative in a San Francisco 49ers jacket. Music plays from hidden speakers as the minister leads the couple through the wedding vows and the exchanging of the rings.
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“The majority of the people that get married here are from Northern California, then Oregon, Idaho, Washington,” Marino explains. Asked about the types of ceremonies that he’s had requests for, he says, “We’ve absolutely had themed weddings, Halloween ceremonies where everyone’s in costume. One couple dressed up as teddy bears.”
At the Chapel of the Bells, Flint put in a drive-through chapel several years ago. “In summer, we’ll get couples on motorcycles— their friends stand gathered around,” he says.
Despite the history of the chapels’ presence in Reno’s entertainment-destination fabric, both Marino and Flint describe the chapel industry facing the same economic hardships that have affected other parts of the city’s tourism economy. Today, many California counties no longer require blood tests, and often now have little, if any, waiting period to obtain a wedding license. Those who have lobbied for the chapels in Northern Nevada say that the fight for the statute that keeps Washoe County’s licensing bureau open until midnight each day of the year has been a recurring issue, saying they have faced murmurs of a County Clerk who would like to reduce office hours on weekends and holidays.
“New Year’s Day, the 4th of July—those are our busiest days,” Marino says, considering the potential loss of business should the licensing bureau’s hours be changed.
At the Arch of Reno, a large crowd of people fill the main chapel.
“Reno is a tourist-based town, and we’re a part of that,” says Marino. “We’re a major contributor. That party from Nevada City [California] has over 30 people. These are people who come to town for a wedding, then go to a casino, or go to a show, or go to a restaurant.”
Flint echoes these sentiments. “In 1978, there were 21 chapels operating in Reno,” he says. “Today, aside from the casino hotels, there are four. We’re facing the same economy pains all the other businesses are having. People are still getting married, they’re just not spending as much on getting married.”
Flint’s chapel no longer keeps a constant supply of fresh flowers, and video and photography sales are down due in part to the prevalence and quality of camera-phones. “The little businessman is barely holding on,” he says.
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After the ceremony, Vazquez and Osuna pose for their first pictures as husband and wife while the rest of the party gathers in the lobby awaiting the final witness signatures and paperwork.
“A Reno wedding is convenient,” Osuna’s mother explains. “They do everything for you. They take you to get the license and everything.” Everyone shares a few jokes before shuffling out the door and into the snow. They discuss their plans for the weekend they’ll spend in town before heading back to California.
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“We’re a true tradition of Reno, and we want to stay a tradition,” says Marino. “In this industry, everything’s festive. Everyone’s happy …” he pauses, smiling, “… except maybe a mother-in-law here and there.”