Send in the Clown
The life of hippie icon Wavy Gravy is chronicled in Saint Misbehavin': The Wavy Gravy Movie, a documentary directed by Michelle Esrick and produced by Ripple Effects Films. The film begins with archival footage of Wavy's early days when he was still Hugh Romney. Years before he became famous, he was a Beat poet who shared a Greenwich Village apartment with Bob Dylan. His Lenny Bruce-inspired monologues captivated audiences at the Gaslight Cafe on MacDougal Street. As part of the folk music scene in Washington Square Park, Hugh Romney was already on the road to countercultural stardom.
Hugh's transformation from jazz-loving beatnik to hippie humanitarian began with the Hog Farm, his commune in Berkeley CA. When the Hog Farm was recruited to serve as security at Woodstock, Wavy Gravy told press he would maintain order with “cream pies and seltzer bottles. ” As head of the “Please Force,” Wavy set up a free kitchen and a freak-out tent for festival-goers on bad acid trips. When torrential rains turned the festival grounds to mud, he came up with a creative solution. Instead of having folks walk through the slippery mud to get their breakfast, the “Please Force” would bring granola to them. In Wavy’s immortal words: “What we have in mind is breakfast in bed for 400,000!”
As Wavy tells his story in this remarkable film, he reveals how his clown persona emerged. By donning the fool’s cap, he could get away with saying things others couldn’t say. He soon discovered the privilege of the clown. At protest rallies, the police were suddenly reluctant to arrest him. Moreover, the clown has the magic of making the ordinary into the extraordinary. Wavy learned that theatricality and humor got people involved. So, with his red rubber nose and heart of gold, he set out to make the world a better place.
Shortly after Woodstock, he was back on the bus. This was not the psychedelic bus of the Merry Pranksters in the days of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. This was a bus headed all the way to Bangladesh. The floods left many refugees starving and relief was slow in coming. Considering the success of the free kitchen at Woodstock, Wavy and the Hog Farmers decided to bring food to the flood victims. Though they did not have much, they could embarrass the authorities by showing that hippies could do the job governments failed to do.
This act of charity would ultimately lead to the founding of Seva. After Bangladesh, Wavy and his busload of Good Samaritans journeyed to Kathmandu. They were moved to compassion by the plight of the people they met. Blindness from cataracts was a common affliction among the poor. It was also curable, so in 1978 Wavy Gravy, along with Dr. Larry Brilliant and Ram Dass, decided to found an organization that would fund cataract surgery. Thus was Seva born. Today, more than two million people can see because of Seva’s work.
Now 73 years old, Wavy Gravy continues his lifelong mission to foster peace, help the needy, and “spread grooviness” around the world. Tie-dye clad, he sits on Seva’s board of directors. He still lives at the Hog Farm which is transformed once a year into Camp Winnarainbow, a circus camp for children. And of course, he juggles it all with the agility and playfulness of a clown.
Michelle Esrick’s film, Saint Misbehavin': The Wavy Gravy Movie, is a loving tribute to a dedicated activist. It is also an inspiration to everyone who dreams of peace, a reminder that dreams can become reality when compassion is put into action.