Twelve years ago, Britney Spears arrived at the Little White Wedding Chapel in Las Vegas, Nev., in a lime green limousine, wearing jeans and a baseball hat, to be married — only to get divorced a mere 55 hours later.
But a shotgun wedding isn’t only for celebrities and those living in the fast-paced city of Las Vegas.
The Pioneer Valley’s very own Little White Wedding Chapel sits strategically placed between the Five Colleges and the Massachusetts Turnpike along Route 9. It’s run by a humble man sporting a tweed jacket and cowboy hat. Joe “Zip” Duda is the face of Hampshire County’s sole drive-thru marriage business; its only advertisement is printed on a heart-shaped sign outside Duda’s house that reads: “Enjoy a drive thru marriage here!”
Below, a smaller sign promises: “Two minutes or 20 minutes, one hundred dollars.”
“The sign is definitely an attention grabber,” Duda says. “When it first went up, I got a lot of customers in Belchertown.”
A nostalgic smile creeps over his face.
“Once a student couple saw the sign, took down the information, and returned home to New Jersey for winter break. When they came back, they went through the process of getting a Massachusetts license just so they could bring their entire entourage right to the sign to get married,” Duda says. “They brought cars full with champagne in the trunk and everything.”
Duda grew up in a Catholic family and was always invested in the church, what he says sparked his interest in marriages. As a child, Duda was an alter boy and helped with local weddings.
“I would carry out the wine and the books. I learned to have it down pat. I was very conscientious and knew the routines, and I loved it,” says Duda.
Duda later moved to work at Bradley Airport in Hartford, Conn., as a clerk for a major airline for 31 years. He says these years were the best years of his life.
“I’m retired now, but I’ve worked with the public all my life. I never worked in a factory. My first job was in a market. I did it for about 10 years. It was the best experience. A friend told me I was basically the manager,” he says proudly.
Duda was still working at the airport when he was officially appointed a justice of the peace. However, he performed most of his marriages after retiring.
“I only started doing marriages regularly because a friend said she was surprised I didn’t do them, since I was already a justice of the peace, but I’ve always enjoyed them. Brides and bridesmaids getting all fancied up,” he says, “It’s a happy time in life. Making other people happy makes me happy. People are looking forward to enjoying a life together.”
Duda has married people on motorcycles, students and people of all faiths. Sitting inside the Quabbin Reservoir Administration Building, he describes a typical marriage ceremony.
“Most marriages aren’t done near the sign or at my house. The Enfield Outlook here at the Quabbin is actually the most popular site, and after that, the Quabbin Dam is a popular spot. Sometimes people even get married here in the [building].”
Most couples come dressed in traditional attire, but there are no restrictions. Duda explains he has seen everything from expensive wedding dresses and tuxedos to couples in jeans and T-shirts. He even remembers marrying one couple in under two minutes.
“Over the years, more promises have been added to marriages, but the principle has remained the same; all you really need are the two I do’s,” says Duda.
Looking at his watch, Duda huffs. Now half past two, the couple that planned on coming to the Quabbin for their nuptial has officially become a no-show.
“It doesn’t happen often,” says Duda, looking towards the window facing the reservoir. “But you get stood up. Some people break up and decide not to get married. It happens. The stereotype of a rushed marriage may be true in some cases, but most of the time they’re planned because it’s cheap,” Duda says, defending his craft. “There’s no restaurants, no bridesmaids.”
He stands up and walks toward the door, out to where the ceremony would have taken place.
“I’m going to drive all the way to Chicopee after this and check up on them. I bet they weren’t ready,” says Duda with an air of worry. “It shouldn’t be that way. Marriage is a commitment.”
“Life is geared towards having a spouse,” Duda says as he goes. “It’s the easiest way to live.”
Email Kyle at [email protected], or follow him on twitter @rneanest.