If Wavy Gravy had to write his own job description, he’d call himself a “hippie icon, flower power geezer, temple of accumulated error, camp director and fundraiser, with a small ‘d’ and a big ‘FUN.’”
Born Hugh Romney on May 15, 1936, Wavy Gravy, now mostly famous for being famous, celebrates his 79th birthday today, Friday, May 15 and will mark the occasion in a very public way two days later, on Sunday, May 17 with a birthday bash at the Sonoma Mountain Village Event Center in Rohnert Park.
“What I’ll do is emcee, introduce the bands and fill in the lulls with stories of my life and times,” said Wavy (never “Mr. Gravy”) by phone from his Mendocino County home. “I don’t do stand-up comedy anymore, but I’ll be quite accessible.”
Access is what life is all about for the man who was there when a young Bob Dylan wandered into a Greenwich Village coffee house to sing, enlisted the Grateful Dead to perform at benefit concerts for noble causes (becoming the band’s “official clown” from the late 1970s to the ‘90s) and, as co-founder of the famed Hog Farm activist commune, famously promised “breakfast in bed for 400,000” at the first Woodstock Festival.
Throughout his varied career, Wavy has known and worked with a long list of famous people. His early career was managed by comedian Lenny Bruce. Wavy appeared at New York cabarets with eccentric troubadour Tiny Tim and traveled with author Ken Kesey, a leader of the activist group the Merry Pranksters.
“At Kesey’s funeral, I said, ‘They say Kesey’s dead, but never trust a Prankster,” Wavy recalled.
The name Wavy Gravy was given to him by blues star B.B. King during a Texas music festival in 1969.
“We were onstage clowning around, and people were saying things like ‘moovey groovy,’ ” Wavy recalled. “I was lying on the floor when B.B. King came onto the stage and said, ‘Are you wavy gravy?”
With his wife, Jahanara Romney, Wavy founded Camp Winnarainbow, a circus and performing arts camp at on the Black Oak Ranch in Laytonville in Mendocino County. His Hog Farm collective is based there, with a headquarters in Berkeley, where he also has a home. With spiritual leader Ram Dass and public health expert Dr. Larry Brilliant, Wavy founded the Seva Foundation, dedicated to restoring sight through cataract operations throughout the world. Sunday’s event is a benefit for Seva.
As emcee and guest of honor, Wavy will have some of the region’s best-loved bands to introduce at his slightly belated birthday celebration: Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, Steve Kimock and Friends, the California Honeydrops and Hot Buttered Rum.
While the 1960s dream of universal peace and love hasn’t necessarily come true, Wavy remains optimistic about the future, working at Camp Winnarainbow with children and grandchildren of past campers.
“We’re not trying to create great circus stars, but universal human beings prepared for life in the 21st century,” he said. “We’re teaching them how to duck, with a sense of humor.”
As for his own personal goals, his terms are even simpler.
“In 21 years,” he said. “I’ll be 100 years old.”
You can reach staff writer Dan Taylor at 521-5243 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
A very Wavy birthday
What: Wavy Gravy’s 79th Birthday, with Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, Steve Kimock and Friends, The California Honeydrops and Hot Buttered Rum.
When: 3 p.m. Sunday, May 17
Where: Sonoma Mountain Event Center, 1400 Valley House Drive, Rohnert Park.