How Life Could Be
War is such a complicated way of getting acquainted.
“I’m not a classical clown,” explains Wavy Gravy. “I’m an intuitive clown.” To illustrate, Saint Misbehavin’: The Wavy Gravy Movie offers the clown in action—smiling, performing, and, again and again, agitating.
Wavy Gravy’s intuition has taken him in a range of directions over his 74 years. Born Hugh Romney, he grew up in West Hartford CT and enlisted in the army in 1954. Following an honorable discharge, he used the GI Bill to take classes in Boston University’s Theater Department. The film, which opens 8 December at New York’s IFC Center, charts that he went on to perform his own poetry at the Gaslight Café in Greenwich Village Get (Wavy points to a room where he and Bob Dylan would “get delightfully altered and create”), establishing the Hog Farm collective, and writing the anthemic “Basic Human Needs.” He’s also managed more than one Nobody for President campaigns (the 2012 incarnation is already underway) and used his name—famously bestowed on him by B.B. King at the Texas International Pop Festival in 1969—as tactic and trademark. Not to mention Wavy Gravy’s ice cream flavor (caramel, cashews, and brazil nuts), invented for Ben & Jerry’s and so providing him with a lifetime’s supply of free ice cream: when the film begins, he takes the camera along on a shopping trip, during which he picks up hot dogs and ice cream for his commune family’s dinner.
The commune members appear briefly in Michelle Esrick’s documentary, as Wavy and his wife Jahanara Romney recall their olden days and the younger members extol the benefits of living with “a village all in one house.” Wavy tells a story about not having money for a theme park, and so taking a passel of kids to a department store where they could “ride the escalators.” Everyone laughs as he remembers the manager’s consternation (“Those children there, are they associated with you in any way?”), the scene demonstrating the great warmth and good humor of this paterfamilias.
The film begins and ends with illustrations of Wavy Gravy’s commitments, to his faith and his hope. With incense burning, he gives thanks “for all that ever was, thanks for all that is, and thanks for all that ever will be,” and the camera pans his prayer room, a shrine to his inspirations, from Lenny Bruce, Mother Theresa, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King. Jr. to figures of Jesus and Buddha dolls to a multi-armed Donald Duck and assorted pigs and hogs (one wears a Superman suit). “Let me be the best Wavy Gravy I can muster,” he says as he stands to head out, his bald head shiny in the morning sun.
“Wavy is a consummate idealist,” Jahanara explains. Though they were otherwise very different personalities, she says, “That’s probably what was in me that made us love each other.” When he asked her to marry him, she smiles, he suggested he might not live very long, but “Your life will never be boring.” As evidence in support of his prediction, she remembers their decades together, full of adventures—at anti-war protests, at Woodstock, at political conventions and college campuses. Their mutual commitment to basic human rights and belief in an essential goodness in their fellows helped them build the Hog Farm, part mobile commune, part activist organization, and part circus.
“We were kind of extended pranksters,” she observes of the Hog Farm, noting their inspiration by Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters. Steve Ben Israel describes the Hog Farmers as performing “what the Commedia dell’arte did 400 years ago: they had these plays about consciousness, these archetypal characters.” The film includes here old home movies of the Hog Farmers dancing and marching, their costumes colorful and clownish. “The joy of the youth, the joy of the clowns, the colors,” Ben Israel says, “It’s packed into a civil rights movement and a stop the war movement and a vision of how life could be.”
While Wavy has worked to make this vision a reality for himself and his extended family, he has also worked to help others around the world. The success of the Hog Farm’s efforts at Woodstock made Wavy Gravy famous: the organization was tasked with providing “security” (which he describes in a TV interview at the tome as supplying a “carload of lemon pies and seltzer bottles in case there’s trouble”) and went on to feed thousands of festival goers, while Wavy Gravy served as a soothing, cajoling, and highly entertaining emcee.
Wavy Gravy went on to establish the Seva Foundation, an international health organization, with Larry Brilliant and Ram Dass (who says here, “Everything Wavy Gravy says is true, although it’s all unbelievable: he’s infused politics with humor”). The film traces some adventures, including an effort to bring supplies to Bangladesh (Wavy says they never imagined they could help enough people, but did know they might draw media attention, and so, “We could embarrass these governments, who would say, ‘My God, there’s hippies doing this: we can do it better’), then Bulgaria (where Wavy read to his companions each night from Hesse’s Journey to the East, as they had no radio or other entertainment: “I was it, the nighty night show”), and through Afghanistan. In 1971, the group took the Khyber Pass to bring medical supplies to communities in India and Nepal. Tripping on acid and seeking a variety of enlightenments, they shared all they had with the people they met. Brilliant remembers seeing pictures of John Kennedy in homes they visited: “They loved us so much and America meant something. It’ll be a long time before there’ll be another picture of an American president in those villages.”
Looking back, Wavy sees protests as ways to embrace difference, and came to appreciate the effects of his clown appearances. Police have been less inclined to hurt him when he’s in costume, he observes. “Clowns are safe, just no threat to them.” His Camp Winnarainbow annually invites kids to share in his philosophy: “Laughter is like the valve on the pressure cooker and if you don’t laugh, you’re going to end up with beans on the ceiling.”
Taking Wavy Gravy and his associates at their words, Saint Misbehavin’: The Wavy Gravy Movie is a celebration and something of a scrapbook too, a collection of memories without much in the way of questions. If it alludes to some rough spots (Wavy Gravy’s son remembers that he spent his 13th birthday in court, legally changing his irksome given name, Howdy Do Good, to Jordan Romney) and has since come to terms with the contradictions he grew up with (“society” says bad guys go to prison, but his parents taught him otherwise). But for the most part, Saint Misbehavin’ skirts such potential problems in order to showcase the clown.