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Day 63 – Wedding chapels


Submitted by Jody Rice

It’s Sunday, so Jody Rice has the con for a This is Reno column this morning. Jody writes,

This Tough Little Town on the Truckee (thanks, John Townley) is no longer so little but is still unmatched in its unbridled will to survive.

Tacky, cheesy, dowdy, tasteless, trashy, vulgar, garish, ostentatious are but a few Reno descriptors. This is a result of a town historically embracing, legalizing and profiting from what others deemed unseemly, shameful, sleazy or unrefined.

Front and center to this perception is the marriage and divorce trades that for decades now have drawn tourists from all over the world to the “Biggest Little City.”

A mere mention of a trip to Reno in any 1950s movie is understood to mean divorce. Any joke typically at the expense of the town’s lack of sophistication.

Very well; at one time a casino or wedding chapel adorned nearly every downtown street corner. With lax license requirements and cheap accommodations, couples flocked here to tie the knot.

Heck, I even got kickbacks for funneling couples to specific chapels when working as a teenager at a local motel!

No doubt, there is much room for criticism but those same so-called “tacky” wedding chapels also allowed women to work, locals to wed at little expense and buoyed the city’s economy.

Back in 1978, Washoe County issued 36,794 marriage licenses, according to a December 2009 Reno Gazette-Journal article. But by 1999, that number shrunk to 23,393 and in 2008 it was down to 11,744. My attempt to get the most recent number from the county office went unanswered, but I think we can agree that with only a handful of chapels left, that bell has tolled.

Image: Jody Rice

But to miss the significance of Reno’s once-thriving wedding industry is to ignore Reno’s rich history.

Coming up on their 50th wedding anniversary, Jon and Tammy Jensen married at Reno’s longest-running facility, the Chapel of the Bells. It closed in 2015, but the iconic, converted residence with a steeple and faux stained glass still stands at 700 West Fourth Street. It is to come down soon in the name of progress via Jacobs Entertainment development.

“It looked to be one of the nicest around at the time,” said Jon Jensen, 77, who raised two children through Reno schools. “They didn’t look like they do today. We didn’t want a lot of expense. It was a simple, family thing.”

On display in the couple’s glass curio in their west Reno home, is the $64 returned check used to pay for the Oct. 10, 1970 ceremony.

“We’re pretty simple people,” said Jensen, who is now retired from high voltage electrical work. “We live within our means and we have a wonderful life.”

Tammy Jensen, who worked in mental health and substance abuse at West Hills for 26 years, recalls when Fourth Street was the main route through town, Highway 40. Long before the interstate was built this area was where businesses flourished.

Not ones to criticize those who make other choices, to this day the Jensens are practical people about their choice.

“We just wanted to keep costs down,” Jon Jensen said. “Other things meant more. If you didn’t work. You didn’t eat.”

At a time when most women did not work outside the home, in Reno they could earn pin money by acting as a witness or making wedding arrangements.

As times changed, so did the job opportunities for locals.

As late as the mid-80s, two of my friends’ first jobs were at the Heart of Reno Chapel and Starlight Chapel, both, at the time, across from the Washoe County Courthouse which housed the marriage license bureau.

“It was a great starter job,” said Shannon Fune Schmid, who started at the chapels in middle school and worked through high school. “We made good money. Everyone was really nice.”

A typical Valentine’s Day could mean 500 to 600 weddings. New Year’s Eve, with its tax benefits, proved to be another big day for couples to exchange vows.

They made bouquets, drove the limo, photographed, helped couples fill out paperwork and escorted them to get their license. It could get a bit weird at times.

“Brides and grooms were always coming and going,” said Lanya Havas, who worked with Schmid and now lives in San Francisco. “It was like a fast-food type of environment.”

Both remember drunken couples. Schmid remembers a visit from detectives investigating the legality of a union. The typical clientele was from out of town and some not seeking a traditional ceremony.

“Clown suits were probably the funniest,” Havas said. “Although, for Hallowe’en everyone dressed up. Nothing was off the table.”

Heart of Reno Chapel closed in 2009, after a 31-year run. Reno once had more than 20 chapels now there are less than a handful.

The industry also had critics, calling wedding chapel owners “shysters,” who took advantage of couples and degraded the sacred bond of matrimony. The death knell of the industry’s heyday came by way of other state’s lessening their requirements, destination weddings and, some argue, the decline of downtown Reno.

At present, Reno is marrying itself to technology, with the opening of Panasonic, Switch and the Tesla Gigafactory. Many characterize this transition as from “old” Reno to “new” Reno.

Seems to fall in the same gritty, reinvention category into which Reno always fits. Let us hope the industry can retain some of its uniqueness as well…

And with that, I’m going to take a Sunday hike above South Lake Tahoe and probably join you for a yarn midweek. Karl’s coffee group is meeting for the first time since St. Patrick’s Day tomorrow morning at the Bear, so the inside word is, don’t look for anything too cerebral out of him on Monday morn. But as he’s been saying for 62 days, and encourages me to end it all with: Be safe, huh?

Submitted opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of This Is Reno. Have something to say? Submit an opinion article or letter to the editor here.

Karl Breckenridge

Karl Breckenridge was slowly going nuts. So he decided to help out This is Reno by writing a daily out-of-his-mind column for the duration of the coronavirus shutdown. Now that it’s over he’s back to his usual antics, drinking coffee with the boys at the Bear and, well, we’re not sure what else. But he loved sharing his daily musings with you, so he’s back, albeit a little less often, to keep on sharing. Karl grew up in the valley and has stories from the area going back to 1945. He’s been writing for 32 years locally. 

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