Some offices have casual Fridays. Brian Mills does not work at one. On any given Friday, Mills could be wearing a regular suit, or a zoot suit or a spacesuit – or even a sequined jumpsuit. Mills is the chapel manager at Viva Las Vegas Wedding Chapel, home of the themed wedding ceremonies for which Las Vegas is famous. He books and plans weddings and handles arrangements like flowers and limo schedules. He also performs at the ceremonies as a minister and singer, should the theme call for one.
A native of South Florida, Mills grew up singing and playing instruments. After a few years studying music in college, he performed at theme parks and on cruise ships before coming to Las Vegas to sing at Cirque du Soleil on the night of the millennium. “It was a one-night thing on New Year’s Eve and I decided to stay,” he said. “Six weeks after, I got hired at Les Folies Bergere, the show at the Tropicana. I knew I wanted to be on land, and this seemed like a cool place to try.” When Mills landed that gig, he became the youngest lead singer and emcee in the show’s history.
Mills has always loved the city’s endless entertainment options, but at 25 he found Vegas a challenging place to live. “To have any semblance of a normal life here is very difficult,” he said. “It’s so easy to party. This is a 24-hour town; you can do anything you want at 2 in the morning.” Another obstacle was the instability of the entertainment industry. “You get cast in a show, you open the show; six weeks later, it closes,” he added, pointing out that “Jubilee!” is the only show that has been in Las Vegas longer than he has. Mills left Vegas a few times — touring Europe as Danny Zuko in “Grease,” serving as the vocal director for Royal Caribbean Cruise Line, performing at Harrah’s in Reno — but he always came back.
Since settling permanently, Mills has been working at Viva Las Vegas, a gig he just fell into about eight years ago. Proprietor Ron DeCar, a former singing Elvis, was going to England and needed a replacement, and a friend referred him to Mills. “I thought, ‘God, he looks familiar’,” DeCar said. Mills arrived at Viva Las Vegas with darker hair, but DeCar knew him because, coincidentally enough, Mills had also replaced him at Les Folies Bergere, where DeCar had started singing shortly after arriving from Kansas City, Mo., in 1981.
“I was thrilled — I knew he did a great job at the Trop so I knew he’d be a good person to work for me and not flake out or anything,” DeCar said. “I had him fill in for a week, but once I found out how smooth everything went, I hired him.”
Mills still has jet-black hair, which he often styles in the King’s signature pompadour when he’s working, as he does all Elvis weddings on Fridays and half on Saturdays. Sometimes Mills, whose own themeless wedding took place at the MGM Grand, creates his own packages, such as NASCAR or Alice Cooper, and with enough advance planning, the bride and groom can do the same. “If someone comes in and says, ‘I want to get married by the entire band KISS’ — which I can do, I have a friend in a KISS tribute band — I just need some notice,” Mills said. But most of the time, he performs a ceremony from Viva Las Vegas’ extensive repertoire and finds himself transforming into Count Dracula, Tom Jones one of the Blues Brothers or King Tut — as he did at the Howards’ wedding.
Five years after their traditional Catholic wedding, Phil and Jennifer Howard, of San Diego, decided to renew their vows in Las Vegas with the chapel’s Blue Hawaii theme. “We wanted to do something fun for our five-year wedding anniversary,” explained Jennifer, a vivacious lady without much of an indoor voice. “We looked at different chapels and this struck us as fun. It fits our personality.”
The Howards’ friends and family had such a blast that Phil and Jennifer decided to make it a tradition. For their 10th anniversary, they renewed their vows at Viva Las Vegas again, this time with the Egyptian package. A red-caped belly dancer entertained Phil, who wore a purple robe with olive leaves tucked over his ears, while two shirtless slave boys escorted Jennifer, decked out as Cleopatra, down the aisle. A Viking, the Burger King, a Greek goddess and several small children in lederhosen looked on — the Howards decided it would be more fun if everyone dressed up — as Mills emerged from behind the altar curtain, wearing a black robe and a King Tut headpiece.
“Think back to the first day that you met in that pyramid a very, very long time ago.” Mills said solemnly. “With that day in mind, repeat after me.” Then, invoking the power of Bessimini and Ancient Egypt, Mills repronounced the happy couple man and wife.
“He did a really nice job,” Jennifer Howard gushed in her Cleopatra costume. “It reminds you what this is about, this is why we’re here. It sounds so cheesy and cliché, but this is really about celebrating love.”
That’s how Mills sees the mission of Viva Las Vegas — as a way for couples to celebrate their love, just with less planning and formality. He says vow renewals “are the most fun because there’s no pressure; nobody’s sitting there thinking, ‘I can’t believe they’re getting married like this.” Mills says it’s far more common for first-timers to have some drama and tension at the wedding — usually, in his experience, in the form of a bride’s mother who had not imagined Marilyn Monroe being a key player in her daughter’s nuptials.
Now 34, Brian has a different challenge from the one he faced 10 years ago: Cher. Headlining acts on the Las Vegas Strip of yore — “where performers come to die” — were mostly entertainers past their prime. Celine Dion bucked that tradition in 2003 when she opened the “A New Day … Live in Las Vegas” extravaganza that revitalized her career. Dion’s show ended in December 2007 and her place as The Colosseum at Caesars Palace has since been filled by the likes of Cher, Elton John and Bette Midler. Cher’s star may be shining brighter than ever, but her presence in Las Vegas makes it that much more difficult for someone trying to find his place in the entertainment industry.
“Headliners can make a ton of money here 20 weeks a year; here I am trying to compete with Elton John and Cher,” Mills said. “I don’t want to have to kill myself just to maybe make it in 10 years.”
Mills’ eventual goal is to get into the production and marketing side of the entertainment business, where there’s much more security and longevity, as well as the added bonus of opportunities to perform on the side. For now, Mills is happy at Viva Las Vegas. He has the opportunity to sing while enjoying a level of job security not always available to a performer. Plus, he gets to wear a lot of really cool costumes.