“What we have in mind is breakfast in bed for 400,000 people!” So came the announcement by this character on the stage wearing a floppy old cowboy hat and an American flag inspired shirt. It was another time and, some say, another universe. At the 1969 Woodstock Music and Art Fair there were a group of folks that provided the services to the festival that, in reality, made it work. The Hog Farm, the oldest hippie commune in existence was hired to originally build some fire pits and trails at the site they ultimately took over the “human resource” section of the concert. They set up a free kitchen, coordinated medical care, and saw to the MC duties needed on stage.
The majority of the last duty fell to its leader, Wavy Gravy. An eclectic leader who had participated in the Beat Generation poetry scene in the 1950’s as well as many of the counterculture activities of the last sixty years. He bills himself as a clown and, in fact, has been a professional clown for many years. The original idea behind becoming a prankster was so that the police would not hurt him as he went about his business in the protest of many things, "Clowns are safe." By putting an absurd slant on situations, he has and continues to affect change in the world without the use of violence, aggression, hostility, or savagery.
The muse for this piece was a documentary entitled “Saint Misbehavin': The Wavy Gravy Movie.” Recently viewed when the electronic God in my living room with its three hundred plus channels had nothing on, and I found this gem on a Saturday night when the weather proved too cumbersome to circumnavigate. I am a child of the Woodstock Nation and the nostalgia seemed welcome at the time. Little did I realize that wistfulness would give way to enlightenment, a state of which I am in perpetually pursuit.
His birth name was Hugh Romney and he came to his beliefs as a result of viewing the state of the world around him. The 1950’s and 1960’s were turbulent times and much of the mayhem originated with what many called the “Military Industrial Complex.” To break ranks with society and stand against tyranny was considered, at the time, un-American and possibly criminal, hence, the issues with police and numerous arrests and incarcerations. The truth of this actuality was not that Wavy and his cohorts were un-American, but that they were probably the most American of people. Think back to our founding fathers. Were they not protesters that wore powdered wigs and spoke in absurdities?
An interesting fact about Wavy was that he volunteered for the military draft and was honorably discharged after 22 months in the U.S. Army. Not what one expects from a pinko commie who deserved to be in prison?
The film delineates the life of this Great American and it threw me for a loop. In a world of change and hypocrisy, the Hog Farm and their leader have not changed, or faltered in what they believe is an honorable and generous lifestyle. I thought to make this a feeling piece and speak of wonderful, love filled things. What I really discovered is a research piece as the best method of making a point. What follows is some, and I truly mean some examples of a truly American life:
From various sources on the Web; Wikpedia, Wavy’s homepage, the film, and various other sources forgotten in the face of the real information.
“Arriving at JFK airport they were informed that they had also been assigned the task of providing security at Woodstock. Gravy called his rather unorthodox security force the "Please Force," a reference to their non-intrusive tactics at keeping order ("please don't do that, please do this instead"). When asked by the press what kind of tools he intended to use to maintain order at the event, his response was "Cream pies and seltzer bottles."
“Camp Winnarainbow is a circus and performing arts camp which conducts summer sessions for kids and grown-ups alike.” The adult camp is just like the kid's camp, except "You get to stay up late and don't have to brush your teeth. You can even procreate if you aren't too loud," said Gravy.”
“Seva is an organization that prevents blindness and restores sight in Nepal, Tibet, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Egypt, Tanzania, and Guatemala. Due to the current economic malaise, Seva is "desperately seeking funds" in order to further its works with hospitals to promote wellness in the United States as well as less fortunate countries. The organization is already responsible for helping millions of individuals in regaining their sight as well as tackling other social problems. In an attempt to raise funds, Seva is organizing an acoustic set featuring the Grateful Dead members Phil Lesh and Bob Weir as well as offering signed instruments that will be available on EBay. "It's a great organization, for the price of a movie ticket, you can restore someone's sight," said Gravy.”
“Through his various organizations Seva foundation and Camp Winnarainbow he has offered help in solving global social problems and offering individuals to unite to accomplish common goals. Whether it's curing blindness in less fortunate countries or teaching juggling, Wavy Gravy is considered in some eyes to be a saint in clown shoes.”
These activities are just an example of the work this giant has performed over the years. His commitment and drive has never wavered and part of that is the simple approach to life he champions. When presented with complex issues he continually goes for the uncomplicated. When teaching children at the camp, he takes on the persona of “Smartbo.” With an elephant trunk for a nose he makes reference to the Disney film “Dumbo” and tells the kids not to be a dumbo but to strive to be a “Smartbo” like him.
He looks for the positive and accentuates the compassionate. At Woodstock with its crowded conditions and foul weather he announced to the crowd, “We must be in heaven man! There is always a little bit of heaven in disaster area!”
“It doesn't seem as though the hippie ideals of peace and well-being toward fellow human beings will be allowed to die on Wavy Gravy's watch.” This is a consensus among those who know him and admire him. What’s not to admire? He is seventy five years old and has been in his business for over sixty years with no apparent sign of slowing down. Want to meet a True American Hero? Meet Wavy Gravy. I leave you with a little more of this Saint in Greasepaint.
“Wouldn’t it be neat
If the people that you meet
Had shoes upon their feet
And something to eat?
And wouldn’t it be fine
If all humankind had shelter?”