A young bride and groom exchanged their vows in the cockpit of a whirlybird as they hovered 1,000 feet above the Strip’s bright glow.
The Rev. Jim Hamilton sat behind the couple and pronounced them husband and wife — a phrase he has uttered thousands of times — through the buzz of a helicopter headset.
During the 12-minute flight, Hamilton sounded more like a tour guide than a man of the cloth as he pointed out the famed bright lights of the Las Vegas skyline.
As the pilot swooped near the top of the Stratosphere, the newlyweds locked lips, and the 72-year-old pastor giggled in delight with a toothy grin that stretched from ear-to-ear. It’s clear Hamilton enjoys uniting couples in matrimony.
"This is kind of a neat way to spend my retirement years," he said. "It keeps me in good health and keeps my mind alert."
The grandfatherly Hamilton discussed his passion for weddings during an interview in a small coffee shop. In the parking lot sat his "office," a small white Hyundai. A gray blazer hung in the back, and Hamilton pulled out a stack of wedding licenses he needed to turn in to the county.
Today, that stack of wedding licenses will grow larger, he said, as the wedding industry buzzes about one of this year’s most popular days to get married: 10/10/10. On this day, Hamilton will be responsible for more than 30 weddings at the Valley of Fire, the Grand Canyon and night flight weddings over the Strip.
Hamilton sipped at the hot coffee and told a story about dueling Elvis impersonators during a wedding at the "Welcome to Las Vegas" sign. The rivaling Elvises were trying to outdo each other. One had a megaphone; the other, a microphone.
His 50-year pastoral career, which began with his ordainment in Wichita, Kan., at the Church of the Nazarene, is full of such anecdotes. Life’s ups and downs came along the way: run-ins with celebrities, two movie roles, his own divorce, a second marriage and a one-year sabbatical to re-examine his career.
He resigned from the Las Vegas Church of the Nazarene, where he served for eight years. He was going through a divorce, and the church didn’t allow for a divorced minister, Hamilton said.
He re-established his pastoral career in 1982 and formed Sunrise Community Church in Henderson.
Hamilton spoke about meeting Nicolas Cage in 1992 during his cameo as the reverend character in the final scene of "Honeymoon in Vegas."
"He called me over to talk about the wedding industry," Hamilton said, in between sips of coffee. "I’ll never forget, he was reading a book about alligators."
In the 15-second scene before the credits, a darker-haired Hamilton peers over his glasses and delivers a short monologue about marriage. Then he pronounces Cage and co-star Sarah Jessica Parker as man and wife.
The credits roll.
In 1996, Hamilton also played a small movie role during a funeral in "Bogus," which starred Whoopi Goldberg. He recently received his occasional residual checks for his appearances: $12.91 for "Honeymoon in Vegas" and $0.96 for "Bogus."
He even appeared on television talk shows with Joan Rivers and Jenny Jones in the early ’90s to discuss Vegas wedding culture. Rivers dubbed Hamilton "The King of I Dos. "
Tough economic times have more couples saying "I do" by themselves rather than planning large weddings with their families and friends, Hamilton said.
He would know. He has signed more than 63,000 marriage licenses in Clark County.
The county averages more than 100,000 weddings annually. Those numbers have fluctuated as the county’s economy rebounds from the recession. According to the county’s marriage bureau, weddings peaked in 2004 with 128,250 marriage licenses issued. Just three years later, that number had decreased by 20,000.
The wedding boom nationwide has slowed in the past five years by about 200,000 weddings. In 2009, the country saw an estimated 2,152,000 weddings, according to WE TV Networks Wedding Report, which tracks market research and industry statistics.
Megan Powell is marrying her fiance Scott Frost on this day because she calls it a "once in a lifetime opportunity to get married on 10/10/10."
"That day will never happen again," Powell said. "We’ve had parties since it was 05/05/05, and we’ve had huge celebrations every year since."
On 06/06/06 she threw a devil-themed party, and on 07/07/07 the couple had a patriotic and slot machine-themed party.
"It’s perfect because this year we have all of our friends waiting for our biggest party yet," Powell said.
Las Vegas long has been a destination city for weddings. Elvis married Priscilla in May 1967 at the Aladdin. Brandon Reed, general manager at Graceland Wedding Chapel, said the city is the No. 1 destination in the country to get married with its more than 40 wedding chapels citywide.
On a hot summer day, about 15 people from Wisconsin packed into the tiny downtown chapel on Las Vegas Boulevard South near Bonneville Avenue and watched as a bride and groom promised their "hunk-a hunk-a burnin’ love" to one another. An Elvis impersonator clad in a black jumpsuit with red and gold sequins presided over the 10-minute wedding.
The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll peered over a pair of thick, gold aviators and made the bride promise "not to step on the groom’s blue suede shoes, treat him like a hound dog or leave him at heartbreak hotel," all classic Elvis song titles.
Las Vegas weddings have become world-class hotel and fine dining packages, though more affordable wedding packages are still offered, Reed added.
Reed said he has seen many changes throughout the industry, including the use of technology. Five-dollar cassette recordings from the chapels have become free Internet streaming of the ceremony.
"We’re a viable option for people looking to save money," said Reed, who added the average wedding costs between $20,000 to 28,000. "In our economy, people are more cost-conscious than ever before. It’s simple to pitch Las Vegas. It takes very little effort to convince someone to come get married here."
Some chapels offer online package deals for as little as $350, an enticing price for those looking to save money but still have a Las Vegas wedding experience.
Reed flies to Europe to recruit clientele, which he said has boosted his chapel’s business by about 30 percent. His globe-trotting started after casino hotels began offering their own chapels, forcing him to get creative to stay competitive in the industry.
"It’s a huge thing for us these days," Reed said. "As far as the wedding business in Vegas, I can only speak for us, but all of those people that were planning big grandiose weddings at the country club or far off exotic places like Bali are canceling their plans and coming to Las Vegas. Even if they don’t speak English, you say ‘Las Vegas,’ and their eyes light up."
The Internet changed the industry, and Hamilton noticed a difference in business immediately when his eight helicopter weddings a month became 80.
"We’ll marry you anywhere you stand still for five minutes," he joked.
Valentine’s Day in 1996 was his busiest day ever. Hamilton presided over 85 weddings — one at a time — beginning at 9 a.m. and ending at midnight at the old Candlelight Wedding Chapel.
Some of his marriages have lasted longer than others. Hamilton acknowledges that about half will end in divorce such as celebrity couple Billy Bob Thornton and Angelina Jolie, whom he married in 2000. In a scrapbook photo, a much younger Hamilton stands to the right of the happy and casually dressed couple. Thornton is wearing a John Deere hat. Hamilton pasted a copy of their marriage license on the next page.
The picture is posted among Hamilton’s other celebrity wedding memories, including those he married and others he met in the bridal parties.
In Hamilton’s scrapbook is a copy of golfer John Daly’s marriage license and photos of the preacher standing next to Pee-wee Herman, Frankie Valle, John Wayne Bobbitt and other public figures. One of his most memorable weddings was Steve McPeak, a daredevil who married his wife on high wires at Hoover Dam. Hamilton spoke to the couple with a walkie-talkie.
After decades of treating weddings as a religious venture, Hamilton said he struggled with realizing his practice was now more about profit rather than faith.
"You’ve got to come to grips from a spiritual aspect that it’s a business, and you’ve got to recognize that," Hamilton said. "I’ve seen a lot of ministers come and go, and that’s really why they didn’t last. It was a tough transition."
In the end, it was his religious faith that prospered him, he said.
"God has been really good to me," Hamilton said. "They say you make your own breaks, and I think that’s true, but I’ve worked hard at it. But there are certain things a man can’t do that God does."
Contact Kristi Jourdan at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0279.The King of I Do’s: Rev. Jim Hamilton