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September 22, 2014

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From jilted bride to Wedding Queen of the West, love has been a journey for L.V. chapel owner Charolette Richards

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Leila Navidi

Charolette Richards, the owner of A Little White Wedding Chapel, officiates the wedding ceremony of Julie O’Rourke and Sean Christie of Northern Ireland in Las Vegas on Tuesday, February 12, 2013.

Wedding Champ Charolette Richards

Charolette Richards, center, the owner of A Little White Wedding Chapel, laughs with newly married couple Elizabeth Hooker and Johnny Mitchell of Hong Kong inside the chapel in Las Vegas on Tuesday, February 12, 2013. Launch slideshow »

Charolette Richards is rightfully considered the Wedding Queen of the West. As proprietor of A Little White Wedding Chapel since the late 1960s, her Las Vegas wedding fortress has hosted more than half a million services.

She’s not certain of the exact number — the statistics are too dizzying to calculate — nor can she identify how many weddings she has officiated. Certainly in the tens of thousands. On one Valentine’s Day years ago, she wed 127 couples, and she said that Valentine’s Day is her Super Bowl. Today, she expects at least 100 couples to marry at the chapel, which is open through 2 a.m. Friday.

But the woman who has united so many couples at her quintet of chapels (including the drive-thru) at 1301 Las Vegas Blvd. South was herself an abandoned bride when arriving in what was a budding gambling outpost in the late 1950s. It was either 1958 or ’59 — the years tend to run together these days for Richards — but the date she does recall: June 10. It was hot. She had three children, the youngest less than a year old, clinging to her arms and neck and had crossed the country from Kentucky to meet her husband.

“He said to meet him at the Stardust,” Richards said during an interview at the chapel this week, as dozens of roses sat stored in refrigerators awaiting today’s crush of ceremonies. “He sent me $200 — a lot of money then — and said to meet him at this new casino.”

He never showed.

Richards walked and drove up and down Las Vegas Boulevard during the days when you could park on the side of the street. She had taken a room at a little motel across from the Stardust and asked for her husband, repeatedly, at the casino (he was to have taken a job there). No one had heard of him. Finally, a gentleman who owned a flower shop noticed this woman roaming the sidewalks and asked why she seemed so lost.

“I’m looking for my husband,” she said.

“I don’t think your husband is looking for you,” he said.

The man offered Richards, who was in her early 20s and had gotten married at age 17, a job and a place to live. She was down to her last $4. Her husband had effectively abandoned the family. She needed to feed and care for her children.

“I took the job, and guess where it was?” she said, grinning. “The Little Church of the West, down at the (New) Frontier hotel, when the chapel was at the hotel, so I went to work and didn’t know anything about anything.”

Richards booked services at the Little Church and took note of all the orders for flowers that flooded into the business. Soon, she opened her own flower shop in a New Frontier hotel room. Her first husband had their marriage annulled (legendary U.S. District Court Judge Harry Claiborne signed that document), and after four years in Las Vegas, Richards wound up marrying the man who threw her a life preserver, though he was 25 years her senior.

“I didn’t know if I loved him. I didn’t know what I felt about him other than the fact he was a nice guy and was good to me,” she said. “That’s what I needed at the time, someone who was good to me.”

But it was not a clean and simple love story. Richards’ second marriage was marred by her husband’s alcoholism, a foreign concept for a woman who had never been around heavy drinkers until she moved to Las Vegas. She put up with a Jekyll-and-Hyde spouse until he died in 1967, and Richards said, “That’s when everything happened.”

Devastated, Richards turned her attention to a chapel to the north, called A Little White Wedding Chapel. The chapel had just gone up for sale, and Richards saw her future in the business of love. But it would come at a cost: Richards needed a $50,000 deposit on the $300,000 asking price.

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A black and white photo of Charolette Richard's business "Flowers by Charolette."

Caesars Palace had just been built, and a casino host there named Bert “Wingy” Grover had become a regular visitor to Richards’ flower shop, where he bought tiny carnations to wear in his lapel at the casino. Wingy was a nickname owed to a deformed arm.

“He’d always said, ‘Charolette, if I can ever be of any help to you, just ask,’ ” she said. “So, one day I called him and asked if I could borrow $50,000.”

Richards moved into A Little White Chapel — to live and conduct wedding ceremonies — and repaid the loan in six months.

More than 40 years later, Richards said she considers every ceremony “sacred.”

“They are unique, every one,” she said. “The other day I had a couple in here, he was 89, and she was, like, 80. Now, how do you tell somebody about love at that age? We know that you are going to be beautiful companions for the rest of your lives. We know that you wanted someone to hold and communicate with, and you found each other.”

In one way or another, Richards tells young couples marrying for the first time, “It’s a brand new beginning of your life. You’re no longer a little child. You’re growing into an adult, and this is a very serious moment in your life.”

There are times Richards looks at a couple and wonders whether marriage is the right option.

“My heart is going, ‘Why? Why do they choose to get married? Why do they choose Las Vegas? And after they leave here, what happens to them?’ ” Richards said. “I try not to judge anyone. But there are a few who make me think: If they ever make it, it will be a miracle. Those are the ones where I want to just say, ‘Do you realize what you’re doing now? That this is forever? Never to part? That your hearts are going to belong to each other, and you’re going to be as one?’ This is really a hard thing for some couples to understand.”

But the moments far more prevalent are those when a second or third generation enters into matrimony at the chapel.

“We’ve had people who got married here 50 years ago and renew their vows, and their kids and their grandkids are getting married here,” Richards said. “That’s a wonderful history to have, that Grandma and Grandpa got married here, and now we’re getting married here.”

But Richards said she has taken part in her last service as a bride.

“I have no intention of getting married again,” she said. “I really think I want my life to be used for God’s glory, to be able to help women who have made the same mistakes I have made and how to get over it and through it.

“I know what it’s like to be abandoned on the streets of Las Vegas, and I have seen and felt a lot of love, too.”

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at Twitter.com/JohnnyKats. Also, follow “Kats With the Dish” at Twitter.com/KatsWiththeDish.

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