At 26 years old, I had just graduated from a music conservatory and was scrambling for gigs in New York City when a buddy called with a $50 concert band date. My wife and I had a ton of student loans so I jumped on it, yet the money became meaningless when he explained it was the Moonie mass wedding at Madison Square Garden. By the seventh grade of Catholic school in a Connecticut factory town, I had rejected what the nuns were selling, so I was fascinated with how people could get indoctrinated into fringe groups. I was only half-kidding when I told friends that I wanted to join one to see if I could leave as a non-convert. I would have paid for a ticket to this Garden show.
The July 1, 1982, spectacle—in which the controversial Reverend Sun Myung Moon was to unite more than 2,000 couples he matched up—was front-page news because his Unification Church was accused of being a cult that brainwashed its members. Cults were new, mysterious and scary—like, you hit the mall for a pair of sneakers and the next minute you were on an Oregon commune with a shaved head, playing the tambourine. Terrified parents even hired deprogrammers to kidnap their children and return them home. But I also wondered if the media was wrong and Moon was running a legit church. Either way, this job was perfect: I'd get $50 cash money for a front row seat.
At the first rehearsal in the New Yorker Hotel that the Moonies owned, the conductor called us to order. He serenely introduced himself and began an overview of the upcoming event. "You may have read some things about the wedding …"
"Moonie!" a trumpet player yelled out from the back like Bluto in "Animal House."
"Yes, I am a member of the Unification Church," he politely continued, yet once the rowdy musicians knew his background, he couldn't finish a sentence without getting interrupted. Realizing that he was losing control, he got right to rehearsing the pieces. Musicians are less problematic with instruments stuffed in their mouths—or so he thought.
On the big day, streets around Madison Square Garden were blocked off and security was extremely tight. It was calmer than I'd expected. Where were the protesters and kidnappers? A woman in a dark business suit greeted me.
"I'm in the band," I told her. "How do I get to the stage?"
The woman just stared at me, blankly. After a long, uncomfortable pause, she replied flatly, "Are you a newspaper reporter?"
OK, that's weird, I thought. "Nope, I'm in the orchestra," I said, holding up my instrument case and pointing to the black tuxedo I was wearing, noticing now that her eyes weren't really focused. "They told us to use this entrance."
After another long pause that full-on creeped me out, she monotoned, "Is that your TV camera?"
"Uh, no. That's my bass clarinet. I'm in the orchestra—for the wedding," I said again, unnerved until I was escorted to the bandstand up in the cheap seats that looked down at the sports arena.
When the ceremony began, Rev. Moon and his second wife were dressed in priestly garb and seated on throne-like chairs atop a huge red platform. The band played traditional wedding tunes as the couples passed by the Moons in orderly lines. All the brides wore white dresses; the men were in matching blue blazers, white shirts, red ties and white gloves. Many of the couples had met just once previously at gatherings where Moon played messianic matchmaker (even though he had gotten divorced himself), then they were immediately separated until today—barely knowing their betrotheds. I joked that if one guy got cold feet and didn't show, all the grooms would accidentally move up in line and marry the wrong women.
At an appointed time, we stopped playing and Moon stood up. There was absolute silence in the legendary arena that had a church banner hanging among sports championship banners and retired jerseys. Then Moon began shouting in Korean into an over-amped microphone until a translator took over and perfectly on cue, all the couples in absolute unison barked, "Yes!" This was yelled multiple times to a series of questions and vows. It sounded like they were answering their drill sergeant in an intense Marine training exercise. The spectacle was surreal and I got chills as their voices reverberated around the Garden but the mood was about to take an unexpected turn.
When the ceremony ended with perfectly synchronized gestures and cheers, the conductor signaled for the traditional Mendelssohn Wedding March, even though there was nothing traditional about this scene. While the familiar introduction began in the brass, "bum, bum, bum, bum, bum, bum, bum," I caught a glimpse of the tenor sax player standing up. The conductor looked confused and gestured for him to sit down while we played on. Ignoring the baton, he lifted the horn over his head like a soloist in a jazz band.
Instead of Mendelssohn's melody, the rogue musician began to blast the theme from "Rocky" at a triple forte, making it fit perfectly over Mendelssohn's accompaniment. The pandemonium was instant. Blats and strange sounds came from the instruments of other musicians who saw what was going on. The conductor yelled and waved his arms helplessly while the group struggled to regain composure. I burst out laughing, but then felt a little guilty that newly married couples were starting their lives together to "Gonna Fly Now." "Yo, A-dri-an!"
I went on to play plenty of gigs in a successful musical career that included Broadway shows, national tours and recordings but none could hold a corsage to this wedding arranged by a divorced, convicted tax evader with a "Rocky" coda. Now 35 years later, I'd love to know how many couples I serenaded are still married. Will they celebrate by exchanging traditional jade or "Rocky" DVDs?
But ultimately, I am no one to judge since not long after the event my high-school sweetheart and I became a divorce statistic. I stayed single for decades until remarrying this year, the traditional way—by running off to Las Vegas and rolling the marital dice an hour after landing.