Wavy Gravy

Nobody for President

Hugh Nanton Romney (b. 1936), known as Wavy Gravy, is an American entertainer and peace activist best known for his role at Woodstock, as well as for his hippie persona and countercultural beliefs. He has reported that his moniker was given to him by B.B. King at the Texas International Pop Festival in 1969.

Romney has founded or co-founded several organizations, including the activist commune, the Hog Farm, and later, as Wavy Gravy, Camp Winnarainbow and the Seva Foundation. He founded the Phurst Church of Phun, a secret society of comics and clowns that aimed to support ending of the Vietnam War through political theater, and has adopted a clown persona in support of his political activism, and more generally as a form of entertainment work, including as the official clown of the Grateful Dead.

As Wavy Gravy, he has had two radio shows on Sirius Satellite Radio’s ‘Jam On’ station. A documentary film based on his life, ‘Saint Misbehavin’: The Wavy Gravy Movie,’ was released in late 2010.

Romney was born in East Greenbush, New York. He attended William Hall High School in West Hartford, Connecticut. In 1954, Romney volunteered for the military and was honorably discharged after 22 months in the United States Army. He entered Boston University Theater Department in 1957 under the G.I. Bill, and then attended the Neighborhood Playhouse for the Theater in New York City.

In 1958, he began reading poetry regularly at The Gaslight Cafe in Greenwich Village in New York City, where he eventually became the cafe’s entertainment director, befriending musicians such as Bob Dylan, Tom Paxton, and Dave Van Ronk.

His early career was managed by comedian Lenny Bruce who brought Romney to California in 1962 where he did a live recording of Hugh Romney, Third Stream Humor as the opening act for Thelonious Monk at Club Renaissance in Los Angeles.

The Hog Farm collective was established through a chain of events beginning with Ken Babbs, of the Merry Pranksters (followers of American author Ken Kesey in 1964), hijacking Further, the Merry Pranksters’ bus, to Mexico, which stranded the Merry Pranksters in Los Angeles. First Romney assembled a collective in North Hollywood, visited by musicians such as Ravi Shankar and Tiny Tim (whom he managed). After moving to Sunland, a suburb north of Los Angeles, Romney was evicted from his one-bedroom cabin when the landlord found out that a large group of assorted pranksters and musicians were staying there; two hours later, a neighbor informed Romney that a nearby hog farm, owned by Claude Doty, needed caretakers, and Romney accepted an offer to work at the farm in exchange for rent.

Local people, musicians, artists, and folks from other communes began staying at the mountain-top farm. In his book ‘Something Good for a Change,’ Gravy described this early period as a ‘bizarre communal experiment’ where the ‘people began to outnumber the pigs.’ Throughout this time, both Romney and his wife, Bonnie Beecher, had jobs in Los Angeles—he worked for Columbia Pictures teaching improvisation skills to actors, and Bonnie was a successful television actress, appearing in episodes of ‘The Twilight Zone,’ ‘Gunsmoke,’ ‘Star Trek,’ and ‘The Fugitive.’

By 1966, the Hog Farm had coalesced into an entertainment organization providing light shows at the Shrine Exposition Hall in Los Angeles for music artists like the Grateful Dead, Cream, and Jimi Hendrix. Beginning in 1967, the collective began traveling across the country in converted school buses purchased with money earned as extras in Otto Preminger’s feature film ‘Skidoo’ (1968). The Hog Farm relocated to Black Oak Ranch in northern California in the early 1990s.

At the first Woodstock Festival, Romney and the Hog Farm collective accepted festival executive Stan Goldstein’s offer to help with preparations. Romney called his group the ‘Please Force,’ a reference to their non-intrusive tactics at keeping order, e.g., ‘Please don’t do that, please do this instead.’ When asked by the press—who were the first to inform him that he and the rest of the Hog Farm were handling security—what kind of tools he intended to use to maintain order at the event, his response was ‘cream pies and seltzer bottles’ (both being traditional clown props). In Gravy’s words: ‘They all wrote it down and I thought, ‘the power of manipulating the media’, ah ha!’

Romney made announcements from the concert stage throughout the festival. He later wrote in his memoir that ‘the reason that I got do to all those stage announcements was because of my relationship with Chip Monk [sic]. Chip built the stage at Woodstock.’ At the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum’s psychedelic tribute to the 1960s ‘I Want To Take You Higher,’ Romney’s sleeping bag and tie-dyed false teeth were displayed.

Romney, as Wavy Gravy after the first Woodstock, has been the Master of Ceremonies of, and the only person to appear on the bill of all three Woodstock Festivals. On the morning of the 20th Anniversary of the Woodstock Festival, he and author Ken Kesey were interviewed on ‘Good Morning America,’ live from the Bethel concert site, where he discussed his experience as the MC of the event.

At the 1969 Texas International Pop Festival, two weeks after Woodstock, Romney was lying onstage, exhausted after spending hours trying to get festival-goers to put their clothes back on, when it was announced that B.B. King was going to play. Romney began to get up, and felt a hand on his shoulder; it was B.B. King, who asked, ‘Are you Wavy Gravy?’ to which Romney replied ‘Yes.’ ‘It’s OK; I can work around you.’ B.B. King and Johnny Winter then proceeded to jam for hours. Romney said he considered this a mystical event, and assumed Wavy Gravy as his legal name.

Wavy Gravy has also been recognized for his work as a collage artist, with work presented at a solo exhibition in 1999 at the Firehouse Gallery in New York under gallery owner Eric Gibbons. He began exploring collage in the early ’60s, and his first works were created in the period where he lived above the Gaslight in Greenwich Village; he has stated that he was inspired by a Max Ernst collage he saw at the Bitter End, when he opened for Peter, Paul and Mary. His collage work includes larger pieces done for celebrities in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Wavy Gravy’s first appearance at an event in the Neo-Pagan community was at the WinterStar Symposium in 1998 with Paul Krassner. He appeared there again in 2000 with Phyllis Curott, where he joined Rev. Ivan Stang in a joint ritual of the Church of the SubGenius and his Church of the Cosmic Giggle. Wavy Gravy began Seva Foundation along with spiritual leader Ram Dass and public health expert Dr. Larry Brilliant. Based in Berkeley, California, Seva is an international health organization working to build sustainable health projects in many of the globe’s most under-served communities. Gravy is famous for throwing all-star benefit concerts regularly featuring members of the Grateful Dead, Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, David Crosby, Graham Nash, Ani DiFranco, Ben Harper, Elvis Costello and many other musicians. He serves on Seva’s board of directors.

Gravy is also the co-founder, with his wife, of the circus and performing arts camp Camp Winnarainbow, in Laytonville, California, near the Hog Farm. Until 2003, Ben & Jerry’s produced an ice cream named ‘Wavy Gravy’ (caramel-cashew-Brazil nut base with a chocolate hazelnut fudge swirl and roasted almonds) which helped drive a scholarship fund for underprivileged kids to attend Camp Winnarainbow.

In September 1981 there was an anti-nuclear protest, trespass/occupation and civil disobedience action at Diablo Canyon Power Plant, organized by Abalone Alliance. Hundreds of protesters were arrested. Arrested men and women were held separately, and the men were detained at the gymnasium at Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo, California, which some nicknamed the ‘Hotel Diablo.’ Gravy organized and acted as MC for a variety show there that he called the ‘Tornado of Talent’ which featured, among other performers (and after the guards had allowed an acoustic guitar to be brought in), Jackson Browne. Wavy arrived at the holding facility dressed in a pair of bright green coveralls. After settling into his ‘bunk’ (a thin mattress on the gym floor) he removed the coveralls to reveal a Santa Claus suit.

Wavy Gravy ran a ‘Nobody for President’ campaign that held a rally across from the White House on November 4, 1980, which included Yippies and a few anarchists to promote the option of ‘none of the above’ choice on the ballot—as in, ‘Nobody’s Perfect,’ ‘Nobody Keeps All Promises,’ ‘Nobody Should Have That Much Power,’ and ‘Who’s in Washington right now working to make the world a safer place? Nobody!’ After criticizing Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and John B. Anderson, the committee offered the ‘perfect’ candidate: Nobody. ‘Nobody makes apple pie better than Mom. And Nobody will love you when you’re down and out,’ Gravy told a crowd of 50 onlookers at the rally. The allusion had been used previously, in the 1932 short film ‘Betty Boop for President.’

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