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Seeing is Believing - The Story of Wavy Gravy and SEVA Foundation

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Seeing is Believing - The Story of Wavy Gravy & SEVA Foundation

By Vinny Schwartz

"Each time a man stands for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance." — Robert F. Kennedy

Hugh Romney, aka Wavy Gravy, will be celebrating the 79th year of his visit to Earth along with about a half-million adoring fans (plus those who can't actually make it to the party) on May 17, which is two days after the actual date of his emergence in East Greenbush, N,Y,. a suburb of Albany (where, he says, he used to take walks with Albert Einstein).

Little did Hugh know while doing stand up comedy in New York's Gaslight Cafe on MacDougall Street, that the magnitude of his fame and the extent of his outreach  would positively affect the quality of the lives of millions of people. 

Nor could he have dreamed that his roommate who banged  out "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall" on Gravy's typewriter in their flat above the Gaslight Cafe  in Greenwich Village, would become America's most enigmatic poet and far-reaching troubadour.  "He never stopped talking" says Gravy.

Now a happy and seemingly satisfied Grandpa of two girls and father of 44-year-old Howdy Do-Good Gravy Tomahawk Truckstop Romney (who changed his name to Jordan), Wavy claims no relationship with George or Mitt Romney and is happily married to one of Bob Dylan's ex-girlfriends whom he knew from the University of Minnesota, Bonnie Beecher,  who became Gravy's wife in 1965 and is now known as Jahanara Romney.

Bob Dylan, he says, pretty much became Woody Guthrie when he moved to New York.  Like Woody he put a sticker on his guitar case which said "This Machine Kills Facists", and he  wore Woody's underwear which he 'borrowed' from Guthrie whom he visited several times in his hospital room. 

"Dylan was paranoid" says Gravy laughing,  "He used to stand in the doorway." 

After high school in Hartford CT Romney, in 1954, voluntarily joined the Army for a 22-month stint during the Korean war just in time to be eligible for the G.I. Bill (he was advised that the time window to sign up was soon closing) which enabled him to go to Boston University. 

He became exposed to the new morphing 'counterculture' and eventually became an integral part of it.  He moved back to NYC where he had pre-high school roots, and invaded the Gaslight Cafe on MacDougall Street where, along with Alan Ginsburg, Jack Kerouac and other poets he found himself "wearying of the tedious haikus" and eventually "evolved as a teenage beatnik". 

Romney was a funny poet, incorporating humor into his work until a friend of wisdom suggested he displace the poetry with comedy, which Romney did.  Dazzling audiences with a fresher, bolder and more contemporary type of humor Romney became a brilliant   standup comic. Working  in his argyle pullover and neat beard  next to Murray Roman, Bill Cosby and other comic geniuses (and a very few flops). Wavy convinced the owners that they should use the club as a showcase for music as well as the spoken word but they felt it didn't have a place at the Gaslight. 

With Gravy's influence and the amazing talent of the loose 'tribe' of minstrels and gangsters he associated with, he turned them around and as a result Bob Dylan played there, The Greenbrier Boys, Len Chandler, Dave Van Ronk, Phil Ochs, Fred Neil, Richie Havens and Ramblin' Jack Elliott, all part of an impressive catalog of many of America's finest folk music pioneers. 

There was a proliferation of dynamic, quality music in Greenwich Village and environs at that time and because clubs that featured Jazz like the Village Gate, the Cafe au Go Go, and the Half-Note were a short walk from the folk clubs like Gerde's Folk City and the Bitter End, there was a steady flow of music lovers that ran up and down the streets of the Village.

During this time Gravy's reputation grew and he was hired to open for Jazz greats such as  John Coltrane and on the West Coast,  for Thelonious Monk. 

Romney  had been brought to California by fellow comic and groundbreaker, Lenny Bruce who managed his early career.

The famous Hog Farm collective came to be after Ken Babbs hijacked the Merry Prankster's bus, Further, stranding a group of Pranksters and musicians who stayed with Romney until the landlord evicted them. While on a trip to New York the Pranksters discovered that they needed an automobile that could hold fourteen people and all of their filming and taping equipment. 

One of the members saw a “revamped school bus” in San Francisco that was for sale. The Pranksters bought the bus and named it “Furthur”. Babbs was the engineer for the bus.

At one point a neighbor advised Romney that a nearby hog farm needed caretakers so Romney gathered together locals, artists, musicians and other counterculture folk who lived on and worked the mountain top farm, which Romney described as a "bizarre communal experiment.

Romney and Beecher had jobs in L.A. and by 1966 the Farm had transformed itself into an organization providing light shows for Hendrix, Cream and others and soon traveled America in converted school buses, eventually relocating at Black Oak Ranch in Marin County in the early 1990s.

Armed with seltzer bottles and cream pies, Gravy's "Please Force" helped with preparations for Woodstock, and with Gravy as the festival's M.C., also handled security.

Mr. Gravy's dynamism and compassion have driven him to become  co-founder, with his wife, of the circus and performing arts Camp Winnarainbow adjoining the Hog Farm in Laytonville CA.

Gravy says his greatest legacy is providing, for the last 40 years, an opportunity for almost a thousand  7 to 14-year-olds, to spend one of four two-week sessions offered at the camp. 

Classes that campers may choose include trapeze, juggling, improvisation, tightrope, gymnastics, acting, unicycle, stilt walking, (in some sessions) clown philosophy, art, and magic. 

Campers are given total freedom as to which classes they want to attend on a daily basis and just so adults don't feel left out, Camp Winnarainbow also runs a program for adults who have "forgotten how to lighten up and let loose."

Additionally, Ben and Jerry's "Wavy Gravy” ice cream (caramel-cashew-Brazil nut base with a chocolate hazelnut fudge swirl and roasted almonds) helped support a scholarship fund for underprivileged kids to attend the camp which offers a performing arts program for kids involving acrobatics, circus acts as well as  creative and challenging, mostly outdoor activities.

And then there was Dr. Larry Brilliant's Rolodex.

Dr. Brilliant had recently returned from India where his team from the World Health Organization succeeded in conquering smallpox.  To this day, it is the only disease that has been completely eradicated. 

Filled with confidence, Dr. Brilliant pondered what public health issue he would tackle next and flipping through his Rolodex, he invited a conclave of bright and informed people from the worlds of academia and counterculture to join together for a meeting to figure out how best to help the world. Among them were Ram Dass, and Wavy Gravy. So the doctor,  the clown and the guru began exploring the possibilities.

Someone pointed out that diarrhea was responsible for more children's death than any other malady (to which Wavy replied, "No Shit!"), but it was revealed  by a Swiss-French doctor named Nicole Grasset, who had led the smallpox eradication team that in developing countries, tens of millions of people live in complete darkness. Dr. Grasset explained that many of these people could see again if only there were a doctor to perform a simple 15-minute cataract surgery. 

The group realized the huge impact restoring eyesight would have on an individual, the family, and the whole community. "It seemed almost unfathomable that there are nearly 39 million people who are blind in the world, and 4 out of 5 could see again if they just had access to an eye doctor." 

"For $5 per eyeball" says Gravy, blindness in Nepal was practically wiped out.

The Birth of SEVA Foundation

The Seva people marshaled their forces, raised money among those willing to turn compassion into action, saw to it that ophthalmologists were trained in the procedure, and aided people in Malawi, India, Nepal, Ethiopia, Guatemala and several other countries, as well as indigenous people in the United States and the people of Mexico.

The cost of restoring eyesight to a blind person now averages just $50. 

Having become part of  Wavy Gravy's legacy "Saint Misbehavin: The Wavy Gravy Movie" released in 2009 , is a documentary about Wavy's life directed by Michelle Esrick and was called by Stephen Holden of the N.Y. Times  "an unabashed love letter to the world that defies the cynicism of our age."

Said the S.F. Chronicle: "This documentary captures his playful spirit and reaffirms the energy that drives his soul"

Gravy has also appeared in "Cisco Pike" (1972) and three other movies, and has written two books, one of which "was dictated while I was in a coma" to the late Elizabeth Vander-Mei, aka Ruby Begonia and Calico.

Where to from here?

Wavy has had "six major back surgeries" but is currently "feeling great".

We asked Wavy that now that he's almost 79 what his plans are for the future and what he sees himself doing. "Are you kidding?" he shot back. Between Camp Winnarainbow, the Seva Foundation and his family, he doesn't foresee any changes in his lifestyle or activities. As always, he is doing what he wants to do.

Although Wavy's birthday is on May 15, the celebration will be held beginning at 3 p.m., May 17, at the Sonoma Mountain Village Events Center in Rohnert Park.

Wavy speaks well about Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros who will headline the event, which will also feature performances from Steve Kimock & Friends, The California Honeydrops and Hot Buttered Rum. . Tickets are on sale now via Eventbrite. Proceeds from ticket sales for the event will support SEVA's global efforts to prevent blindness and to provide eye care services to impoverished communities around the world.

Although many clowns can be eerily frightening (especially the "Killer Klowns From Outer Space") there's at least one who is loving, compassionate, good-humored, irreverent and angelic. Bright, cheerful and generous may be Gravy's  countenance and long may his feet be.....well....long!