On a Saturday evening at the Hilton Garden Inn in Nanuet, a bedroom community about thirty miles north of New York City, a wedding is about to begin. The bridesmaids and groomsmen drink and take photographs in the lobby. The planners gather in the conference room where the ceremony soon will take place. The musician wants to know her cues. The photographers want to know where they should set up. Everything is pretty much per usual, until the conference room doors open. Inside, decorative grass illuminated with LED lights sets the mood. A harpist plays Stairway to Heaven as guests enter. Candles flicker in square lanterns along the floor mirrored by black-and-white paper lanterns that hang from the ceiling. The guests stand when the bride, visibly pregnant and wearing an off-white gown, enters alongside two men. She meets the groom at a two-foot-high white stand bearing three candles: then they stand at this makeshift altar before a man in a black suit and black hat. Once the music stops and the guests are reseated, he speaks.
“Welcome, friends and family, to our gathering here today. We’re going to join together this man and this woman. If there’s anyone here today who knows a reason why these two people should not be joined, speak now or forever hold your peace. Keep in mind, I am from Brooklyn,” he pauses while the audience laughs, “and things could get problematic.”
The wedding might sound unusual, but it’s routine for the man in black at the altar: The Right Reverend Stuart B. Chernoff, or Rev. Stu as he’s more frequently called. Based in Kingston, an artsy Hudson Valley town, he works with couples throughout this area and New York City. Last year Chernoff performed seventy weddings — as many as three a weekend during the April to November “wedding season,” as it’s known in the business. He also presides at commitment ceremonies, baby namings and funerals.
“I really enjoy marrying people. Ask both my ex-wives,” jests Chernoff a week after the wedding over breakfast at a bakery in nearby Rhinebeck. Chernoff grew up in the Sheepshead Bay area of Brooklyn and, at fifty-nine, looks closer to forty. His uniform consists of a black suit and mock turtleneck, funky glasses, a silver band affixed to the top of his left ear, and his trademark pork pie hat. He has the demeanor of a standup comic–a spotlighted outsider who studies his audience carefully, reading for timing and judging his lines.
“I’m an entertainer by trade,” says Chernoff. Indeed, his work as a wedding officiant, which began in 2007, is only the latest unlikely adaptation of a resilient performer, an extension of years as an artist and musician.
After graduating from college, Reverend Stu (a.k.a. “Studio Stu”) worked for two decades as an art and commercial photographer in New York City. He also periodically worked in film, even directing a project in Russia in 1990. Chernoff moved out of the City to Woodstock, upstate, when his son was born in 1988, but kept a studio loft in Murray Hill, on the East Side of Manhattan, until 1992.
He plays a single-string bass instrument of his own invention that he calls the Studivarious. (Pronounced ‘Stū-divarious.’—“What else would it be called?” he asks.) It’s his twist on a relic of Americana that was inspired by necessity.
“[Before] I moved out of the city I was getting real New York photography rates,” Chernoff recalls. Once he was living and working upstate he couldn’t get that kind of money for his photography. So one day he grabbed a washtub and string, went into the City and stood on the 34th Street platform of the A train where he performed the 1939 Billy Strayhorn-Duke Ellington classic “Take the A Train” for passersby on his impromptu washtub bass. The routine worked, and it became a regular gig. He played that song all the time, “because it worked so well.”
Trains kept coming, tourists got out and laughed. He made money in tips. “It was like a shtick,” he says.
The Studivarious was a hit. Eventually other musicians wanted Chernoff to play with them, and he developed and refined the structure of the Studivarious over a decade. (Studio Stu next plays February 15th at Market Market Café in Rosendale.)
The Studivarious was successful, but not sufficient to live on. He bounced around several other Hudson Valley/Catskill-area towns before moving to Kingston in 2006. By the mid-2000’s Chernoff was playing with a music troupe based in Woodstock, a time when he says the music business went “into the toilet” and work became scarcer. He started looking for alternatives.
Zoe Zak, the Woodstock music troupe leader, was also a rabbinical student who had been ordained to officiate at weddings. Zoe suggested Chernoff’s gregarious personality made him a good fit to do the same.
Zak also led Chernoff to the Spiritual Humanist Church, an organization that provides an online ordination service. “It’s half-online, half legit,” says Chernoff.
In the center of the church’s homepage, above a quotation about religion and science from Carl Sagan, is a button that reads, “Ordain Me.” Click the button and you get a contact information form. Fill that out and hit send, then respond to a confirmation email and bang, you’re ordained—and eligible to register with the City of New York to become an officially licensed wedding officiant.
While this seemingly casual ordination has become an increasingly standard practice among modern couples who want to have a friend perform their wedding service, Chernoff takes his online authority seriously. He says he has always been drawn to religion, but never found one that worked for him.
“I was ordained by them for the licensing end of it, and studied with various clergy (rabbis and priests and ministers) on a one-to-one basis for spiritual understanding of the responsibilities of joining people, which I added to my lifelong pursuit of the understanding of religion and faith,” Chernoff explained in an email. He had always been looking for spiritualism, and Spiritual Humanism attracted him. “It works with all ways.”
Chernoff performed twelve weddings in 2007, his first year on the job, getting gigs mostly by word-of-mouth.
“In 2008 I did twenty.” he says. “Then forty, then fifty, then seventy” He never imagined officiating would turn into his bread and butter, as it has.
* * *
As an entertainer, Chernoff relishes the theatrical aspects of his new job, especially as it seems that more people are considering their special day a blank slate for a kind of experimental theatre. As the definition of marriage is changing, brides and grooms (or brides and brides, or grooms and grooms) want to put their own spin on things. If you aren’t having a religious ceremony, and maybe even sometimes when you are, the wedding can become a performance.
Chernoff has performed medieval weddings in which he dressed like a monk, a pirate wedding set in the woods on Halloween, a New York Yankees wedding at which he asked, “Will the bride and groom please step up to the plate and get married?”
“I had a couple, they were getting married for their third time each,” he says, describing a wedding that was deliberately off-color. “They were in their fifties. And they had a great sense of humor. They weren’t serious. They wanted comedy. They wanted a comedy wedding. So I sent them pages of wedding jokes. Man and wife jokes.”
Chernoff sent them the list so they could choose the ones they wanted to include in the ceremony. “They did the vilest, most out jokes, I mean I couldn’t even believe what I was hearing. I was like, ‘Is this the list of the ones you want me to eliminate or do you want me to use?’
“They said, ‘We want you to use these but we also want you to dress as a Catholic priest.’ I remember in the third joke I heard somebody say, ‘Did the priest just say ‘fuck’?’ Cause I was doing standup. By the third or fourth joke everybody got it. It was fifteen minutes of like, ‘When you get to bed tonight, do you promise to…’ It was so funny.”
Many of the couples Chernoff has married have come to him by referral through Hudson Valley Ceremonies, an event planning company based in Kingston. According to owner Jeanne Stark, Reverend Stu is her most requested officiant.
“I think he is so popular because of his flexibility, his ability to add tasteful humor into a ceremony and his ability to make people feel comfortable in what could be an anxious situation,” says Stark.
Chernoff’s base price is $450. That goes up if there is significant travel involved, or if the couple wants him to attend the rehearsal.
Chernoff works with the couple to draft the ceremony, and has only one rule: “I almost always insist that people keep it to fifteen minutes. That’s about the attention span of most people.” He wants to keep it concise for editorial reasons, too. “I always believe short and articulate and to-the-point without overly fluffing something [is best]. Make every word meaningful, that’s the philosophy I go by.”
Unless otherwise instructed, he wears his all-black uniform and reads the ceremony off an iPad disguised by an antique book cover. The one splash of color in his uniform comes from his rainbow socks, which he once wore as a guest at a wedding. When a bridesmaid laughed at their incongruity with his black outfit, he improvised and said, “These are my lucky wedding socks.”
“Since I was a kid I always mix-matched socks. I always loved colored socks,” says Chernoff. “Men can’t get great colored socks. You have to shop in Target in the women’s department. ”
“One of the things I love about Stu is he adapts so fast” says Josh Strong, a photographer who works with Chernoff (and was also married by him). “I’ve done weddings where it’s started down-pouring and he’s just started the ceremony. And he flies through it in five minutes so he gets everything that needs to be done done, so guests aren’t sitting in the pouring rain.”
Chernoff says a big part of his sense of humor comes from his father, who in the 1970s worked as the maître d’ in the Night Owl Lounge at the Concord Resort Hotel near Monticello, New York. It was the twilight of the “Borscht Belt” club circuit, when Woody Allen, Mel Brooks and Billy Crystal honed their stand-up acts at the Catskill resorts. Chernoff would go up on weekends to watch, and developed a love for off-the-cuff humor.
He still can’t resist a one-liner. During our interview a waitress asked Chernoff if he wanted jam with his toast. “Jam? I’m in a jam already,” he responded. His business card is a fake $5 bill featuring his face under the words ‘In Stu We Trust’.
This is the kind of humor that makes its way, as quips and one-offs, into his wedding ceremonies. “I find lines that work,” for the wedding audience, he says. “It’s always fresh. For them.”
Still, as a kind of wedding emcee, he knows his place. “It’s not about me,” says Chernoff. “I want to be really invisible. I want people to concentrate on them. [The couple] are concentrated on me because I’m doing ninety percent of the talking.”
“When people don’t want religion I leave out the word ‘God.’ If they want to feel religious I could sprinkle God all the way through it, and it feels religious. When I wear a mock turtleneck like this with a suit, people who want to see religion, see religion in this. People who don’t, won’t. It’s really, I hate to say it’s an illusion, but it is an illusion.”
He hints that the tingly feeling people get in the presence of something inspiring—a church, a theater, a beautiful room—is principally a sense of occasion. “It doesn’t matter if I’m a real priest or a Jew boy from Brooklyn wearing a collar, [the wedding guest] is getting that spiritual feeling,” he elaborates.
“You get a great priest or a great rabbi, they’re illuminated. They are entertaining. They would never say they are, but the good ones are. They’re theatrical. That’s what I mean when I say I do entertainment at a wedding. I deliver what they want. It’s not pure entertainment but it smacks of the theatrical because I speak from the heart.”
* * *
Chernoff is in a six-year relationship with a woman who works as a school librarian. They maintain separate residences. He intends this to be the last love of his life, but has no plans to get married. I asked him if marrying people for a living ever makes him feel like a hypocrite.
“No, I don’t personally believe in marriage,” he says. “Not really. I think that it can work; it’s a fun adventure but it’s very permanent. I always joke about this but I think it’s serious–it would be nice if they can make some kind of legislation where you have five-year marriage contracts. You could stay married for five years, and you agree what will happen in five years. Well, you still love each other but what will happen in five years if you don’t want to stay together?”
“It’s not a concept most people can go for because they believe in forever. But forever is hard. And I believe that maybe it needs renegotiating after five years. Okay, now you’ve got to sign that you’ll keep the toilet seat down or I’m not staying in this relationship. Or whatever it is in your marriage. Another five years, sign on or not. And then you don’t have to do divorce because the contract expires. When it expires you do what it says—this is yours this is mine. It’s like a pre-nup with a five year contract.”
He argues that his own bachelorhood doesn’t stem from a fear of commitment.
“I think it’s harder being single and together. If you’re married, you’re together. Getting apart is hard. You have to divorce, there’s finances, kids. Being together and not married it’s like, ‘goodbye.’ You’re actually staying there because you want to, because you choose to. You could leave in a second. When you’re married, you’re married. That’s why they call it married. You’re locked together and you have to find the key to open that lock. It’s really infinitely harder.”
“A lot of people stay together because they’re married. They say, ‘I’m gonna stay here; I’m married, I have kids’. If you’re together with somebody as a boyfriend-girlfriend the door can open you can walk out with your box of clothes in a second. But what’s the glue? ‘I wanna be here. I wanna be here. I’m not here because I’m married to you.’”
* * *
Back at the Hilton Garden Inn in Nanuet, the bride and groom are ready to take their vows. Chernoff looks at the groom and asks, “Do you take this woman to be your lawfully wedded wife?”
The guests laugh and relax into their seats. This is classic Chernoff wedding material. He almost always uses the ‘Good answer’ line to diffuse the tension that has built up in the room. In case things get awkward, if the bride is crying and can’t get her lines out or the groom clams up, he’s prepared to ad lib a joke. But don’t be fooled, he’s very serious.
In almost every ceremony, Chernoff explains, “There’s a line towards the end that goes, ‘This is not a reverend in front of you that makes your marriage real, but the honesty and sincerity of what you have just said and done in front of your friends and relatives.’ And I always say, ‘Do you understand the words coming out of my mouth? ’Do you? And that to me, the look in their eyes, is the confirmation that they mean it.”
“That’s the problem I see with a lot of other officiants–they take themselves so seriously. ‘I am going to put you together I am going to join you.’ It’s like, ‘My spiritual-ness is going to keep you together.’ Bullshit, what are you talking about? It’s so ridiculous. I just want to put the energy into people, and send them on their way. It’s like the Big Bang. You’re married now, go and do this.”
He doesn’t, however, underestimate the importance of a well-performed service to a newlywed couple.
“It’s a funny business, you know? It’s like the pinnacle of a lot people’s lives. It’s themoment. Not the party. I think the reason why I’m getting a lot of work is because I’m giving people exactly what they want.”
“You realize you made a difference in people’s lives,” Chernoff continues. “And come on, free martinis three times a weekend?”
He is, however, sick of mozzarella cheese sticks.
* * *
Josh Adler is an award-winning filmmaker whose work has been featured in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, TimeOut NY, The L Magazine, the NYTV Festival, NBC-NY and many others. He has worked for National Geographic Channel, CBS, History Channel and the BBC.