(Sounds of street.)
DAVE ISAY: Kipperman’s Pawn Shop stands out on East Bellfort Street in Houston — a decidedly grungy strip of fast food joints, beauty parlors and liquor stores. The building, located across the street from an abandoned bowling alley, is an oasis of color. Huge signs beckon ”We marry you $49, no appointment necessary” and ”Hock it to me.”
TED KIPPERMAN: One of my slogans out here at this place is ”When you’re in the mood to say I do, and you really care, think of Kipperman’s Wedding Chapel, where love is always in the air.”
ISAY: As you may have guessed, that is Ted Kipperman, the mastermind of this operation. An enormous painted portrait of the man takes up an entire side of the building. He looks distinctly pope-like in his chaplain’s outfit — a long white robe, a red stole draped around his neck.
The inside of Kipperman’s Pawn Shop is packed with the usual assortment of hockables– TVs, VCRs, toasters and tools, glass display cases of jewelry and racks of guns.
KIPPERMAN: This is a 25-caliber pistol, $79.95 . . .
People always kid me and say, ”This is the only place in town you can get married and buy a gun all at the same time.”
This is a .38 right here. Boy, that will stop ’em.
ISAY: The genesis of this odd combination of businesses dates back to the early 1980s. Houston had hit particularly tough economic times, and customers were hocking huge numbers of wedding rings. Kipperman says that he just couldn’t bring himself to melt any of them down.
KIPPERMAN: There’s too many memories.
ISAY: It became an obsession for Kipperman. His collection of surplus wedding rings grew and grew and grew until one day, in 1984, when Kipperman reached his breaking point.
KIPPERMAN: I woke up one morning in a cold sweat. What am I going to do with those wedding rings? So God spoke to me and said, ’Maybe a wedding chapel will be a good thing to put in that pawnshop.’
ISAY: Kipperman followed this divine inspiration. He wrote away to the National Chaplains Association and got himself ordained. Then, sparing no expense, he installed a chapel in his pawnshop. It’s hard to miss. At the back of the store Kipperman has built a miniature church façade — complete with columns and fake stained glass windows, the whole structure adorned with blinking Christmas lights. On an easel next to the chapel entrance sits a big-framed color photograph of Kipperman.
KIPPERMAN: Oh, so happy to see you here, right on time for your wedding.
ISAY: Kipperman’s first couple of the day has arrived, Ernest and Lucy — a handsome pair who live in the neighborhood and say they were drawn to Kipperman through his ”Buy a ring, get a free wedding” offer.
KIPPERMAN: Come right in here.
ISAY: Kipperman leads the couple through two frosted glass doors into his wedding chapel, a small plush room with a few rows of cushioned pews.
KIPPERMAN: Stand right here.
ISAY: Kipperman positions the couple at the front of the chapel, and stands before them inside a seven foot tall wrought-iron heart, threaded with plastic flowers. He hits the play button on an old cassette recorder.
(Tape of ”The Wedding March” plays.)
KIPPERMAN: Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to join Lucy and Ernest in marriage. They’re getting married today. Why? Because they’re in love with each other.
ISAY: Ernest and Lucy have opted for Kipperman’s bargain basement wedding, passing on all of the extras he offers — like the $14.95 bouquet, a $50 value.
KIPPERMAN: I have a wedding gown here that if they’d like to rent, that’ll be $20.
If they want to have a videotape of the wedding, I’ve got a video camera I can come in here and shoot it with it. One of my employees can do it for, say, $49.95. That’s a good deal.
KIPPERMAN (to couple): Till death do us part.
LUCY AND EARNEST: Till death do us part.
ISAY: The ceremony is brief, but heartfelt.
KIPPERMAN: Okay, then by the authority of the State of Texas, and my authority as a chaplain, and as a minister, and by the still higher authority of the word of God, I now pronounce you husband and wife. Whom God . . .
ISAY: As is wont to happen, Kipperman is overcome by the emotion of the moment.
KIPPERMAN: Whom God has joined together let no man put asunder. Ernest, you may now kiss the bride.
Well, congratulations. I have Mr. Ernest and Lucy Duran. Thank you very much for letting me officiate. Thank you, Mrs. Duran. Now stand right there . . .
ISAY: One of Kipperman’s clerks, Carl Davis, sits at the chapel’s Baldwin organ — which, incidentally, can be purchased for a mere $200 — and plays.
(Sounds of organ music.)
In keeping with tradition, Ted Kipperman poses the newlyweds, Ernest and Lucy, for a complimentary Polaroid. They toast empty plastic champagne glasses in front of a fake, albeit realistic-looking, wedding cake.
KIPPERMAN: I have to change the cake out about every four or five months because people try to eat the cake.
ISAY: Have you ever had anyone actually get married and then come in later and hock their wedding ring?
KIPPERMAN: Well, once in a while they’ll come in when they get down on their luck, but most people, they pick up their wedding rings up after they pawn them. Once in a while, they’ll come in and tell me they don’t want their wedding rings anymore because they think they’re gonna get a divorce and do I do annulments. And I say, ”No, I don’t do annulments. My weddings are always for better or for worse.”
ISAY: No sooner have the newlywed Durans departed, than Rose Martinez shows up at the pawnshop. She is here without her betrothed, a man named Michael Smith who, she explains, is currently locked up at the state’s maximum security penitentiary. He’s been there for eight years. Rose and Michael have decided that now is as good a time as any to tie the knot — by telephone.
ROSE MARTINEZ: I guess we don’t want to loose each other. But by the time he comes out he’ll be 50-something years old and I’ll be 50-something years old, but I love him. I love him very much, and he loves me too, so I guess that’s what counts.
ISAY: A wedding by proxy. Kipperman knows the routine well. Rose has brought with her a marriage license and the prison’s phone number. That is all Kipperman needs to join the two in holy matrimony. Unfortunately, there’s no telephone in the chapel, so the ceremony takes place out front.
KIPPERMAN: We’ll have to do this one across the counter.
MARTINEZ: It don’t matter, as long as I’m married to the man I really love.
KIPPERMAN: Oh, is this the Eastham Unit? Is Warden Martin there?
ISAY: As it turns out, the groom is unreachable. So, Ted Kipperman has the prison chaplain stand in for Michael Smith at the penitentiary. And, on this end, who to stand in and exchange rings with the bride? Well, I do the honors.
KIPPERMAN: Dearly beloved, we’re gathered here today to join Michael and Rosario in marriage.
ISAY: I have to admit, we were both a little nervous. But Kipperman, with his sugary smile and sure-footed execution of the ceremony, puts us right at ease.
KIPPERMAN: Rosario, do you take Michael to be your lawfully wedded husband, to live with him according to God’s holy ordinances?
MARTINEZ: I do.
KIPPERMAN: And we have a stand in for the groom Mr. David Isay. You do vow to take care of her and do everything according to God’s holy ordinances? Say, ”I do.”
ISAY: I do.
KIPPERMAN: Well then, by the authority of the State of Texas, and my authority as a chaplain, I now pronounce you husband and wife. Whom God has joined together, let no man put asunder. Congratulations.
ISAY: And so another couple is joined in matrimony. Just add them to the long list of satisfied customers who’ve found love at this most unlikely locale, Kipperman’s Pawn Shop and Wedding Chapel in Houston, Texas.
For National Public Radio, I’m David Isay.
MARTINEZ: I appreciate it a whole lot. If my husband was here too, he would thank you, too.