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Culture in lockdown: 4. Brendan Paul

Elvis Presley impersonator and Graceland Wedding Chapel co-owner Brendan Paul performs a wedding-vows renewal ceremony over Zoom, July 2020. Photo: Ethan Miller / Getty Images

This is the fourth part of a five-part series. See also our profiles of comedian Dom Joly, theatre director Matthew Xia, classical musician Yana Tsanova and indie-rock musician Elizabeth Stokes

Brendan Paul, Elvis impersonator
Las Vegas, US

“I know what most people think. I can see it in their eyes when I tell them what I do,” says Brendan Paul, owner of the Graceland Chapel in Las Vegas. “People smirk and go, ‘Oh my God, you’re one of those Elvis people that sings at weddings.’ I always think, ‘You don’t realise what this is.’ Life is hard, but if for 15 minutes we can be that bit of fun for people then we’ve hit the mark. These are life memories we are making.”

Paul, who’s an ordained minister, has made a lot of memories. In pre-Covid times, he was performing a wedding every 15 minutes. “Graceland Chapel was the first to offer Elvis weddings,” says Paul, who bought the business in 2003. “It’s why the stars come. Deep Purple, Jon Bon Jovi, Meat Loaf, Lily Allen… I even renewed the wedding vows of Bruce Forsyth. We combined getting married with entertainment and it was a success up until the pandemic. Then it all took a nosedive.”

When the first wave hit in March 2020, Paul closed the chapel for safety reasons and attempted to move his services online. “We couldn’t do a wedding because you need a marriage licence, which has to be obtained in Las Vegas, but we could do renewals of vows and commitments,” he says. “It’s very strange performing to a camera and seeing a wall of faces looking back at you – but you get lemons, you make lemonade. It’s still fun; 100 computers can also log in and watch it, so family and friends can join in. I did one for a couple in the UK the other day. I swear every single person on that Zoom was drunk.”

In April 2020 the chapel reopened, with strict procedures in place. “We check the temperatures of all the guests, we’ve halved the capacity, all the guests wear masks and I’m washing hands between every wedding,” says Paul. “I used to walk the bride down the aisle; now I jump up on the bench and sing to try to make it exciting. We’re doing the best we can.” Despite these efforts, in October 2020 Paul, two photographers and a limousine driver he works with all caught the virus. “It was horrible,” he says. “I was lying on my back for three weeks. I couldn’t do anything.”

Paul is now back on his feet and doing weddings, but things remain quiet, not just in the chapel, which is only hosting five weddings a day, but across the city. “To me it looks like a ghost town,” says Paul. “I’ve walked through a casino and every other machine is blocked off. There are people sitting there with masks on just putting their money in the machines, but hotels are at half-occupancy, entire wings are closed off. I’ve been in this town for 25 years, I’ve done shows in every corner of the city, and to see it like this is heartbreaking.”

With an economy built on entertainment and nobody to entertain, employment in Las Vegas has been hit hard. By April 2020 more than a third of workers in the city were out of work, with 200,000 jobs lost in the space of a month. While things have recovered a little, Las Vegas still has the highest unemployment rate of any major city in America.

“We’re trying to keep the business afloat; we have 25 employees that we’re trying to keep working,” says Paul who, along with his co-owner, split his salary amongst his staff when the chapel’s doors were closed. “I’m lucky,” he says. “I may only be doing five weddings a day, but that’s something. My friends that were in shows, they’re not doing anything. And it’s not just performers. For every person on stage at a major show, there are 45 people working behind the scenes. These people suddenly have nothing. Zero.”

Paul is in no doubt who is to blame. “Donald Trump should be charged with crimes against humanity for people’s deaths,” he says. “He didn’t take it seriously and as a result half the country thought it was a joke. We didn’t pay attention.”

With a new president and a vaccination programme underway, Paul is optimistic about the future – pointing out that when Spanish flu hit the planet in 1918, it was followed by the roaring twenties. “People are making plans,” he says. “The other day we booked 42 weddings for the summer. I think people are going to go, ‘You know what? Let’s go to Vegas and live it up.’ Because that’s what Vegas has always been: an escape from reality and there are plenty of people who want to escape their reality right now.

We hope you enjoyed this sample feature from issue #41 of Delayed Gratification

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