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Vegas chapels' unholy hustle

LAS VEGAS - Jed Matzke sets out each day to guide love-struck couples to happily ever after.

It's not as romantic as it sounds.

The first stop in Las Vegas for brides and grooms is the Clark County Marriage Bureau, at the corner of Clark and 3rd, down the street from a bail bondsman and the county jail. Matzke hangs out six days a week at the Pit, as some call the corner, smoking Marlboros, sucking Werther's candies, waiting for his shot.

It's been a slow afternoon, and half an hour has passed since the last pair of lovebirds. A casually dressed couple approach the corner.

Matzke rushes them, a flier in hand. His livelihood depends on the pair reading it and then committing to one of five dream weddings offered by Vegas Adventure Wedding Chapel, a short limo ride away.

As he starts to make his pitch, half a dozen other men swarm the bride and groom, shouting deals from different chapels. Larry Frias, 39, wraps his arm protectively around Neeve Gray, 46. "We've got your pamphlets!" he barks.

Gray flinches. "It's like [we] have French fries and all the sea gulls are fighting over them," she says, eyeing the men.

That's as apt a description as any of the Pit.

Las Vegas, which calls itself the Wedding Capital of the World, has more than 60 chapels where people can exchange vows -- on gondolas, with an Elvis impersonator, aboard a pirate ship -- almost any way they want. Competition for couples is fierce. In recent years, it has escalated to minor warfare, with the Pit in the center of it all. Accusations have flown: slashed tires, death threats, homeless men paid to hassle competitors.

Many chapels advertise and take bookings online. But they also rely heavily on a ragtag bunch of handbillers -- some of whom have spent time in the county jail -- who stalk the lovelorn like paparazzi chasing stars.

Chapel owners -- a few of them also pass out fliers -- recruit the pamphleteers via classified ads and word of mouth. The handbillers are a mix of miscreants and Las Vegans who want money badly enough to toil six days a week, from noon until the marriage bureau closes at midnight.

They endure triple-digit temperatures, rain, desert winds and the occasional brawl. Last spring, a handbiller was accused of stabbing a competitor with a 2-inch buck knife -- but said he was defending himself because his rival had punched him in the face and scorched him with coffee in a quarrel over a customer. "I've never in my life seen anything so horrifying as I've seen in the last few years," said Charolette Richards, a nearly 50-year veteran of Las Vegas marriages and owner of the Little White Wedding Chapel. "People come to Las Vegas and get harassed by thieves, liars and drug addicts."

The wedding industry is a mainstay of the Las Vegas economy. Clark County issues more than 100,000 marriage licenses a year, and those weddings pump an estimated $900 million into the region. So the chapel-on-chapel brawling has civic leaders in a tizzy.

"Somehow," the Las Vegas Sun wrote in an editorial, "love needs to be restored to an industry that thrives on it."

The city recently stripped the license of a chapel accused of thuggish tactics, including sending out handbillers who banged on car windows and badgered brides until they wept. Officials are discussing whether tougher regulations, including background checks for chapel workers, could keep wedding peddlers in check.

"People should be able to walk down the steps" of the marriage bureau, said City Atty. Brad Jerbic, "without getting a wedding deal shoved down their throats."

On a recent afternoon, as cold gusts send cigarette butts skittering down 3rd Street, the half-dozen handbillers stand an arm's length apart, scouring the street for taxicabs and cars with out-of-state licenses.

"Usually anybody that's lost is looking for a marriage license," Matzke says.

He's ready. Three dozen Vegas Adventure Wedding Chapel fliers are tucked into his back pocket. The most expensive package, Chianti, promises a candle-lit ceremony, petal-strewn aisle, sparkling bubbly toast, bridal dressing room, lace garter and a bouquet of nine roses -- florist's choice of color -- for $599. The cheapest, Amour, goes for $99 -- five guests maximum, and the chapel loans out a bouquet and a witness, if needed.

Matzke, 27, whose blue eyes and boyish face make him look years younger, is neatly dressed in a black sweater and khakis. Some of his rivals this afternoon sport ball caps, flannel shirts and day-old stubble.

Carlos Arias, 52, who works for A Special Memory, wears slacks and a paisley tie. He warbles "Going to the Chapel" -- off-key -- and flubs the lyrics.

The chatter is typical of boys in a locker room.

One says he's been married three times to the same woman. The men snicker when a blond legal messenger says hi to Matzke. When a blind man navigates the courthouse steps with a cane and his fiancee, Arias remarks: "You think he knows what she looks like?"

Matzke rolls his eyes.

The men -- women rarely work the Pit -- are paid about $10 an hour. Sometimes they get a bonus if they bring in a lot of business. Sherrie Klute, who runs Stained Glass Chapel, sometimes pays her most downtrodden handbillers in food until they kick their addictions.

Klute wishes she didn't need the Pit. But fliers bring in brides like Sharendra McClendon, who arrived in Las Vegas from Mississippi without a chapel in mind. McClendon, 28, picked Stained Glass partly because its handbiller wasn't as pushy as the rest of the mob.

"It was, 'Here! Here! Here!' " the bride said. "They wanted to cut the price down to half. But nobody talked about the wedding. If it's not sentimental, why do it?"

Little about the Pit has to do with love.

When a man and a woman approach, the men yell "Congratulations!" so nearly in sync that they sound like a men's choir. Sometimes they shout cut-rate wedding prices; other times, advice. Couples often enter the bureau to a chorus of "Make sure you check the spelling!"

Whenever a pair walk out, with their $55 license, the handbillers revive their pitches. They wave brides toward stretch limos, which boom out Elvis ballads and bear personalized license plates such as COZY4U.

They have 10 seconds -- if that -- to close a deal.

Matzke is willing to haggle, amicably.

"It's $99?" asks a groom.

"It's half off, so $50."

"Where's the hidden fee?"

"Well, the minister's separate, so $40 or $50?"

"I bring $100 and I get married?"

The men shake hands. The bride looks pained.

Matzke pitches dozens more couples. He hands a flier to one who has already settled on a chapel: "In case something doesn't work out." To another walking away with a competitor, he pleads: "Give us both a chance before you make a final decision."

He gives up on just one groom, a man who says he speaks only Spanish. Another handbiller tells Matzke: "He spoke English -- crude English. All he wanted to know is, 'Is this cheap?' "

Most people, visibly overwhelmed, don't even bother asking that -- they cross their arms, duck their heads or scowl.

Though the state's wedding business is robust, the number of marriage licenses has been dropping. Clark County is not immune -- it issued 109,000 licenses last year, compared with 128,000 in 2004.

That makes the competition in the Pit that much more intense.

A spiky-haired handbiller named Mike Hem, 47, takes up his spot on the sidewalk. He's looking to make his rent.

"No one is getting married anymore," he complains, shaking his Faithful Love fliers in disgust. "If you don't produce [brides], you're out of a job. And how do you bring in something when there's nothing there?"

Matzke ignores him. He sees a man and woman, hands clasped, crossing the street.

Matzke, a roofer by trade, ended up in the Pit after losing his home in Chicago to foreclosure. He moved here to deal cards; instead he took a job setting up booths at trade shows. Then he spotted a newspaper ad for Faithful Love Chapel (slogan: "Sacred Unity for a Small Price").

His first weekend at the Pit was 07/07/07, when the city was mobbed by thousands wanting to marry on a date they took to be lucky. Officers tried to tame the street corner -- tossing one rowdy handbiller off the block -- but the rough-and-tumble atmosphere quickly returned.

"There were these tatted-up ex-gangbangers just running after couples, taking them by the hand and throwing them into a limo," Matzke said. "And I was like, 'Right in front of the courthouse, this is going on?' "

He sized up the other guys and kept his distance from the most aggressive or drugged out. They didn't stay long anyway. After a few months, Matzke jumped to Vegas Adventure, when its handbiller ended up in jail. The owners felt Matzke wouldn't pick fights over customers.

"I've lost $100,000 jobs to other roofing companies," he said. "I'm not going to get upset over a $200 wedding."

Matzke often works 12-hour shifts, though on a slow day his bosses might tell him to call it quits after a few hours. That eats into his weekly pay, which averages $500. His busiest times are weekends -- and Mondays, when Californians pour into the city because of cheap hotel rates.

He tells friends back home, "I pass out fliers." He offers few details.

"Standing on the corner selling weddings, it sounds goofy to people," Matzke said. Talking about the Pit's bawdiness is even more off-putting. "They're like, 'What?' "

So he bides time tracing the sidewalk, slipping more fliers into his pants pocket. He tries not to sound abrasive or aggressive; at times, his voice is so soft, couples have to lean in to hear.

The low-key pitch works for Frias and Gray, from Washington state, who book a Vegas Adventure wedding -- with an Elvis impersonator -- because, they say, they like Matzke's manner.

Sort of.

Gray puts it this way: "He was the least offensive."

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