Wavy Gravy is not your ordinary clown. He certainly has had a long run since his earlier days as a poet and stand-up comic, improvisational theater artist, psychedelic bus caravan luminary, and rock concert MC, and often jokes: “if you don’t have a sense of humor, it just isn’t funny any more.” Yet his reach extends far beyond the comic. He is devoted to “do something good for a change,” and his creative activism on behalf of peace, justice, and good humor is legendary. Along with Jahanara, his wife of over fifty years, he has brought joy and helped to relieve suffering for countless people around the globe, largely through his favorite projects, the Seva Foundation and Camp Winnarainbow. Wavy has been called “clown prince of the counter-culture” by Entertainment Weekly, “a saint in a clown suit” by Bob Weir, and “the illegitimate son of Harpo Marx and Mother Teresa” by Paul Krassner. Now in his 80s, this iconic figure from the 60s refers to himself as a “temple of accumulated error,” yet he’s always ready with a twinkling insight, a fantastic story and a helping hand. About those stories, Ram Dass said, “everything Wavy says is true, although it’s all unbelievable.”
Born Hugh Romney, his parents lived for a spell in Princeton. As a five-year-old he was taken for walks by his neighbor, and still remembers the shock of white hair and the twinkling eyes of Albert Einstein. His path to becoming a performer, a storyteller, a clown, and a sage is something like the labyrinths he loves to walk, no straight lines and lots of curves. After high school in Connecticut and a stint in the Army, he studied theater in Boston and New York while experimenting with jazz and poetry on the side, graduating from The Neighborhood Playhouse in1961.
Thereafter he became poetry and entertainment director at the Gaslight Café in Greenwich Village, and cavorted with the likes of Bob Dylan, who shared a room upstairs and used Wavy’s typewriter for the first draft of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” Lenny Bruce briefly became his manager. In time he became a traveling monologist: “I decided to skip the poems and just talk about my weird day,” and opened shows for John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Peter, Paul & Mary, and Ian & Sylvia. He also created a Review at The Living Theater, called the “Phantom Cabaret,” with Wavy, Tiny Tim and Moondog.
Then California called, and Hugh began performing with the Committee improvisational theater company in San Francisco. In 1965 he met his wife, a television actress then named Bonnie Jean, at the restaurant where she worked in LA. She put peanuts in his hamburger, and they married soon after. They were living in a one-room cabin in Sunland outside of LA when one day the Merry Prankster bus showed up and they suddenly had forty extra people to house. They were given a mountaintop farm rent free if they would take care of forty hogs, as old Saul the caretaker just had a stroke. This is how the extended family became known as the Hog Farm commune. They hosted many extraordinary events at that place, and did light shows and Energy Games at the Shrine Auditorium in LA with Cream, Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead.
The Hog Farm crew decided to take their way of life on the road, and lived in a caravan of psychedelic buses for seven years, performing at campuses around the country. As Wavy puts it: “We were a light show, a rock band, a painting, a poem, an anti-war rally, an anthem for freedom and change.” The Hog Farm became known for being able to take care of large crowds while putting on inspirational shows that fostered peace and joy.
In 1969 the creators of Woodstock asked the Hog Farm to do security at the upcoming festival, which position they quickly re-named The Please Force. They were also in charge of the free kitchen and the freak-out tent, and Hugh started giving announcements to the huge concert crowd. After rain storms swept through, we find him standing onstage telling the muddy multitudes, “What we have in mind is breakfast in bed for 400,000!” (a quip that Entertainment Weekly named one of the top entertainment lines of the 20th century). The Hog Farmers, with lots of help, delivered a cup of granola to every person enmeshed in the mud. They also helped those who were lost, hungry or freaking out from a bad trip, and brought touches of peace and love to the festival. Soon after they were asked to work at the International Texas Pop Festival, where B.B. King gave Hugh the moniker of “Wavy Gravy,” and it stuck.
Over the years of protests and sit-ins, Wavy was badly beaten by police, and his back was injured. He wound up needing multiple spinal fusions and full body casts. This didn’t stop him journeying with the Hog Farm toward Pakistan along with 42 people from 17 countries in two buses filled with food, medical supplies, and bottles of bubbles—a relief convoy in the wake of the disastrous cyclone that struck Bangladesh in 1970. They were hoping both to help victims by providing for basic human needs and to embarrass the government into providing more aid. “My God, there’s hippies doing it. We’d better do it better.” But the Indo-Pakistani War broke out and the caravan was diverted to India and Nepal, where the collected supplies were distributed among Tibetan refugees.
Back home, Wavy started dressing as a clown when he was asked to cheer up the children in a cancer unit at Oakland Children’s Hospital. Someone handed him a red rubber nose, which was a big hit with the kids. He expanded his outfit from there, and continued to visit several days a week for the next seven years. One day he was heading to a political rally at People’s Park and didn’t have time to take off his make-up. He discovered that the police did not want to hit him anymore. “Clowns are safe—the cops don’t want to be photographed clubbing a clown!”
For the American Bicentennial in 1976, Wavy launched the first of four Nobody for President campaigns, which whimsically conveyed a needed change in our political imagination. Nobody stood for peace, love, honesty and humor, an all-too-rare platform on the national election scene. Of course, Nobody lost, but everyone gained.
In 1978 Wavy was invited by Larry Brilliant, the former hippie doctor from the Hog Farm bus trip who helped lead the groundbreaking WHO smallpox eradication program, to join a diverse group of distinguished public health doctors, spiritual adepts, and activists to co-found the Seva Foundation. Seva is dedicated to working to improve health in underserved populations, and with its partners, has restored sight to over four million people in developing countries. In 1979 Wavy founded Camp Winnarainbow, a circus and performing arts camp in which he and Jahanara are still active participants. Here kids learn timing, balance, community, and a sense of humor, and many have become young leaders who are helping seed a sweeter, saner, more humane world. The camp maintains a scholarship program that has enabled many economically disadvantaged kids to enjoy the magic of Winnarainbow year after year. Some of the greatest musicians of our time have answered Wavy’s call to perform in the myriad concerts he has organized over the decades to benefit Seva, out of their love and respect for him and the great work of these projects.
In 2009, Saint Misbehavin’: The Wavy Gravy Movie, a feature-length documentary film created by Michelle Esrick, was released and went on to receive numerous film festival awards, aired on Showtime and PBS, and is distributed on DVD, Amazon, Netflix, iTunes and other digital platforms. “Like its subject, Saint Misbehavin’ is an unabashed love letter to our world that defies the cynicism of our age.” – NY Times
Fortunately, all is not said and done in the Wavy Gravy saga. He was last seen in his meditation room conjuring fantastic collage art pieces glued to rough-hewn rounds of wood from trees at Black Oak Ranch, the Hog Farm’s country seat. Looking up, he says, “Hey boss” (a title he lifted from the Marx Brothers that is liberally applied to just about anyone within reach), and talks about his upcoming Seva benefit concert in Maui, a tribute to old Seva colleague Ram Dass, featuring Joan Baez, Jackson Browne, Krishna Das, and, of course, hosted by Wavy Gravy, MC for the ages.
– Shams Kairys, with help from Wavy’s family and friends