This story originally appeared on Neon Tommy.
“Showtime!” Fernando Howard announces as he leaps from his desk, where he has been napping away a motorcycle injury. He climbs 17 stairs to the room where he meets an anxious groom, Eduardo Reyes, who is waiting for his bride, Michelle Carper. This is Howard’s fourth wedding of the day. Three more to go.
It’s a typical Saturday at the Albertson Wedding Chapel in Miracle Mile.
Howard leads the couple through their vows.
“Eduardo, do you take Michelle to be your beloved wife?”
“Everybody hear that?”
“I DO!” Reyes shouts, and their friends and family laugh.
Howard doesn’t let the ceremony get too serious. He throws in surprises when he notices couples on the verge of tears.
The couple repeats their vows: “I promise to be faithful, to honor you, to respect you and love you,” and Howard tosses in the line, “And take you shopping.”
Reyes looks from Howard to Carper, and the whole room howls with laughter.
“When I do weddings, I like to make them interesting. I like to make people laugh,” said Howard, who blames his multi-religious upbringing for ruining weddings for him as a youngster.
“My family was Mormon, Catholic and Southern Baptist, and weddings, if you cracked a smile, you got cracked,” Howard said.
As an officiant at Albertson Wedding Chapel, Howard estimates he has performed hundreds of weddings. A friend who worked at the chapel introduced him to the owner, Daniel Franco, eight years ago. Howard and Franco hit it off, and Howard joined the Chapel’s five-member team.
Franco’s dad, Alex Franco, opened Albertson Wedding Chapel in 1974 as an alternative to Las Vegas. A pastor, Franco wanted to give couples an inexpensive chance to commit to each other during the era of free love. Over 20,000 couples have married at the chapel in its 40 years of business.
The economy, wedding industry, and Albertson's style have changed a lot in 40 years, but the chapel's commitment to a low price has not. The average wedding cost of a chapel wedding at Albertson runs $750, with packages starting at $225 and going up to $1,200. According to The Knot, the average American wedding cost $29,858 in 2014.
“I still don’t get why people spend 30 grand on a wedding day. Wedding days go by so fast. The actual morning to when it’s over is like a blink of an eye,” said Daniel Franco, who has been running the Chapel since his father’s health declined 16 years ago. “And to spend 30 grand like a blink of an eye, you have to be Kardashian-rich.”
Franco and his father agreed a wedding shouldn’t cost $30,000.
“The times have proved us right,” Franco said, claiming that the lower price brings them business no matter the state of the economy.
In a good year, 1,000 couples tie the knot at the Chapel. For several years numerology has played a large part in the numbers. Franco considers the last big year as 2012 because of 12/12/12, which fell on a Friday.
The year 2008 was the biggest year for numerology weddings. Many local news stations broadcast from the Chapel on 08/08/08 due to the significance of numerology in some Asian cultures, where eight is considered to be the luckiest number.
2009 and 2010 were soft years, with 650 to 700 weddings each. “When you do weddings like us that are affordable, it’s a volume business. The only way this works is if you do a lot of weddings,” said Franco. “So there’s a lot of stress.”
40 Years Of Wedding Days
On Sat. Nov. 15, every wedding ran behind due to waiting on family members to get to the chapel. While all of the brides were understanding of the delays caused by previous weddings, Chapel Manager Patricia Cortez said that is not to be expected.
“It only takes one bride to be here on time, to want to start on time, to ruin the whole day for us,” said Cortez after she discussed options for shortening the ceremony with a bride whose groom didn’t want to start the ceremony without his extended family at the Chapel. The bride said their dinner reservations didn’t allow them to put off the ceremony.
Moments later, Wagner’s Bridal March came through the speakers and the bride was walking down the aisle.
Michelle and Eduardo Reyes have been together since 2007. They’re from Panorama City and found Albertson Wedding Chapel on the internet. They tied the knot on Nov. 15.
“Eduardo asked me to marry him because he found his soul mate,” said Michelle Reyes, adding that he was her soul mate as well. “My husband and I have been through a lot in our lives and we get along so well and rarely argue. We are a great, wonderful team.”
They are putting off their honeymoon for several reasons. They’re waiting until their son is out of school for the summer. They’re also waiting because they’re going to be grandparents soon. Michelle’s daughter, who was in the wedding, is expecting a son who has heart problems and will need multiple surgeries as soon as he is born. Money was another factor, but Michelle believes everything will work itself out.
“It doesn't matter how much you spend. It's not the money that makes the marriage work, it all has to do with the couples,” Reyes said. “We didn't spend much compared to others, and we are wonderful….The only thing that has changed is my title.”
Another couple said they opted for the smaller chapel wedding because they were together for 12 years and saving for a house.
Longer Marriages From Spending Less?
A recent study from Emory University surveyed 3,000 married or formerly married people and found that those with huge engagement rings and costly weddings were more likely to end in divorce.
“I’ve seen weddings where people have spent thousands and thousands of dollars and they’re no longer together,” said Patricia Cortez, who coordinates many of the weddings. “Why do I know this? Because some of those people remarry and they come to us. They’ll talk about how, ‘Oh, there’s no way we’re spending $10,000 on this wedding. It’s just us. We don’t want all the drama. This is not one of those weddings for show because that’s what my last wedding was.’ We get a lot of that. Spending a lot of money doesn’t keep you together.”
While ceremonies can last minutes, memories from a wedding day last a lifetime. Holly Stowe commented on the Chapel’s profile picture on its Facebook page years after her Albertson nuptials.
“It was 29 years ago that I married the love of my life at Albertson Wedding Chapel,” her post said. “We are still very much in love and looking forward to many more years of happiness together.”
For Stowe and her husband, who now reside in Iowa, a Kardashian-priced wedding wasn’t ever on the agenda. After dating a month, they decided to get married in 1985. They were remodeling homes in Encino, found the Chapel in the yellow pages and drove to the chapel straight from work.
When they got to the chapel, they were asked if they wanted to rent clothes. Franco’s mother kept six rental gowns on hand that she could easily tailor to fit a bride on demand.
Stowe said they declined the rental clothes and opted to wear what they came in: their construction clothes. She recalls they were filthy.
“This is what we looked like every day,” Stowe said.
Afterwards, they only had $100, so they drove their van north and camped for five days in Ojai. Stowe said they were crazy young kids then and recently celebrated their 29th wedding anniversary.
“If you’re truly in love, you don’t have to have an elaborate wedding,” Stowe said. “You just have to be in love. We work hard. We take care of each other. We don’t have to keep up with the Joneses.”
Cortez has found many who opt for the chapel weddings have been in love for a long time and want to take the plunge without the excesses of a wedding.
She said she’s also seen a lot of people not wanting to have a huge wedding because they want to put their money towards a home or vacations. They don’t want to go thousands of dollars in debt.
“I think sometimes some of the weddings that spend a lot of money are the ones that are doing it for the wrong reasons,” Cortez said. “They’re doing it because they want to keep up this pretense that they’re so in love. They have all of these cutesy little things that they’ve put together -- the video, the slideshow, the napkins with the initials on them. All of these grandiose things and, in the end, they’re not even in love.”
However, Cortez said that certain couples stand out at the chapel. The officiants come back to the office after the wedding and say, “That couple, they were more concerned about their photos than they were about each other,” or “The groom didn’t even wait for the bride, he went and took off with the guys they were doing photos, left the bride.”
“You see a lot of that stuff and it’s really sad,” Cortez said. “You can sense that it’s all just to keep up this pretense of ‘Oh, we’re so in love,’ but they’re really not. They’re getting married for who knows what the reasons are.”
Conventional wisdom has held that 40 to 50 percent of American marriages end in divorce, with a higher divorce rate for subsequent marriages. However, a 2007 study by Justin Wolfers, a University of Michigan economist, found that the divorce rate has been falling for the last 25 years. The New York Times only reported on it recently.
Many of the reasons Wolfers cited for the decline in the divorce rate were based on circumstances couples were in before the wedding. The Albertson Wedding Chapel doesn’t screen couples, but its practices limit the chances of a couple getting married without understanding the implications of their commitment. The Chapel isn’t open 24/7 like a Vegas chapel. If a couple wants to get married outside of business hours, and calls several hours in advance, Franco said he would most likely accommodate the request. But he usually says no to last-minute requests out of business hours.
“You get those calls when people are wasted when it’s like 8 p.m. and they’ll be like, ‘We’ll be there in an hour, I promise.’ They don’t show. Or they’ll keep postponing or postponing it until it’s 10:30 or 11,” he said. “I’ve been burned a few times like that in the past, so I try to keep proper business hours.”
He doesn’t provide any form of marriage counseling, but he doesn’t want people to enter into marriage lightly.
“You want to come with a full understanding of what’s going on. This is not something that should be done on the fly anymore,” Franco said. “Hopefully it’s for life, but if it’s not, 10 years, 15 years, 20 years, five years. It’s a long time. Even two years is a long time for some people.”
The Chapel doesn’t have a way of knowing how many of their couples are still together. Sometimes couples will stop in to say hello, or stay connected through Yelp! or social media.
“Sometimes a wedding party comes in and they say, 'my friend referred me,'” Franco said. "Then the friend shows up as a bachelor or a broken divorcee or divorced. They say, ‘I got married here.’ That’s beautiful. ‘Thanks for bringing your friend,’ I say. ‘Where is your spouse?’"
The sometimes embarrassed response: ‘We divorced a few years ago.’”
Franco said his usual response is to jokingly lament the fact that he doesn’t give refunds, while he is sorry to hear the news. For many couples, their commitment to the wedding chapel they got married in outlasts their marriage.
“I get a lot of couples that come back and they’re divorced now, but they still come back and they still refer their friends,” said Franco. “So that’s beautiful to me as a business owner.”
For the most part, couples come in at an infectious emotional high that energizes the staff, Franco said. Every once and a while the couple will be so stressed that they can’t enjoy their big day.
One couple came in bickering and the argument turned sour. Franco said they were in the bridal room for 45 minutes talking it over. When he came to ask if they still wanted to go on with the wedding, they were making out. The show went on.
“Do I feel great about having married them? I don’t know,” he said. “I can’t think about them anymore…. Who knows what their marriage is like. I don’t even know if they’re still together. I wish them the best, but the next wedding just arrived and I’ve got to take care of them.”
Taking The Plunge
Before you can turn around, the next bride is at the window with her gown draped over her arm in a garment bag, ready to get into the bridal room.
The show must go on.