MAGAZINE

Festival All-Star: Wavy Gravy

by Marcus Dowling | @marcuskdowling Mon February 02, 2015 | 12:00 AM

Though probably best known in popular culture as the man who promised “breakfast in bed for 400,000 people” at the inaugural Woodstock Music and Arts Festival in 1969, the iconic Wavy Gravy is the ORIGINAL Festival All-Star, and has a much deeper and far more impactful story worth telling.

Now 78 years old, the man born Hugh Romney in 1936 in East Greenbush, New York mostly looks forward to one huge goal. “In 22 years I turn 100,” he says in an interview with Fest300, thinking about what he’s looking forward to insofar as goals for the future. Turning 100 may be the only thing left as a “career” highlight for the US Army-discharged, Bay Area-based comedian whose left-leaning mindset and progressive social organizing not only defined the ultra-positive flower power era, but his entire life, too.

Even before the Summer of Love hit the west coast, Wavy Gravy joined the legendary Hog Farm while living in Los Angeles, the group comprised of a peaceful group of Merry Pranksters who were mind- and land-traveling acid-trippers on Ken Kesey’s infamous Furthur bus in 1964. Initially housing a group of the Pranksters in his one-room cabin in Los Angeles, Gravy and his traveling friends were evicted for cramming an unusually large number of inhabitants in the space. Soon thereafter, the “Hog Farm” name was born as the merry crew moved onto an actual hog farm owned by a gentleman named Claude Doty, who asked that the group literally take care of the hogs he kept on the property.

Music enters the picture here as the Hog Farm evolved from a commune into an entertainment organization. Then employed by Columbia Pictures as a teacher of theater improvisation, Wavy Gravy got his fellow Hog Farmers acting roles in films like the 1968 Otto Preminger-directed film Skidoo. Alongside acting roles, the Hog Farm began providing light shows at rock concerts for the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Cream and the Grateful Dead, too. This is where the story gets amazing.

Saint Misbehavin Wavy Gravy

To give you an idea of just how amazing the story gets, only the words of Wavy Gravy himself will do:

"[Woodstock co-organizer] Stan Goldstein showed up at the Lower East Side loft [the Hog Farmers] were crashing at...where a woman had room for 70 of us...it was a big loft. We were seated around a kitchen table, and this dude came through the door looking like Allen Ginsberg on a Dick Gregory diet and he says, how would you like to do this music festival in New York state. We said, ['The Hog Farm will] be in New Mexico for the summer solstice.' He said, 'That's alright, we'll fly you in in an Astrojet!' We figured he was one toke over the line and paid him no mind.

Fast forward to the end of the spring and into the summer solstice and we're in Santa Fe, New Mexico at the Tsuke Indian Reservation and this dude shows up with one of those shiny aluminum rock and roll valises, pops it open, and there is the tree flush indicating that indeed we had our own American Airlines Astrojet to send 85 of us hippies and 15 Native Americans to [New York City's] Kennedy Airport. We did call the promoters and say 'we'd love to be involved.' They wanted us to do fire trails and fire pits. I had ordered a bear suit and a rubber shovel so I could come out dressed as Smokey The Bear and pound the fires to dust. We got them to also agree that we could do a free kitchen. That was the deal.”

Somehow, this idea was translated to the press as the Hog Farmers being hired to provide “security” at the Woodstock festival.

“Oh my,” Wavy Gravy says, reminiscing. “My first thought was, ‘they’ve made us the cops!’” As a renowned free thinker, he bristles at the connotation. When questioned about the task of providing security at the then-forthcoming festival, he famously told reporters that his weapons of choice for crowd control were “cream pies and seltzer bottles.”

Wavy Gravy’s role as the “host” of the Woodstock festival only happened after legendary rock manager and jack-of-all-trades Chip Monck “deputized” him for the job due to his disarming charisma, razor-sharp wit and calming presence. From handling festival announcements with a level of aplomb he still oozes with today, to the story of “having in mind breakfast in bed for 400,000” hippies, his work is the stuff of legend. Intriguingly, his famed announcement actually popularized a healthy breakfast alternative to the world. Again, let’s put this journey in the hands of Wavy Gravy.

"We introduced hippies to granola. The kitchen [at Woodstock] was built as a geodesic dome, and was part of the free kitchen we wanted to provide at Woodstock. They had never seen it before, and we distributed it to them in Dixie cups. [The hippies] were laid out in front of the stage in their sleeping bags, enmeshed in mud and one guy says to us (about the granola), 'What is this shit? Gravel?' But they ate it, and they liked it, and the granola manufacturers of the world owe us an enormous debt."

But there’s still the question of the name “Wavy Gravy.” As mentioned, our famed subject was born Hugh Romney – so how did Wavy Gravy become the name he uses now? Well, it involves a blues legend and a kind-hearted personal ethos that is ultimately the definition of what festival culture has come to mean for the entire modern age. Romney remembers the moment it happened, and again, it’s another epic tale:

"They were having some problems at the Texas Pop Festival. There was a rock and roll show and a rodeo, so there was a little friction. The promoters sent [the Hog Farm] several shiny buses to take us to Texas. We set up a free stage on Lake Dallas, while the main concert was in a speedway seven miles away. It was on the free stage where I was babbling on a microphone and suddenly this voice comes over the PA system saying: 'BB King is here with his bus, he’s going to play for free, can [The Hog Farm] clear the stage.' I started to get up real slow - this was before one of my multitude of back surgeries - and I felt this hand on my shoulder. I look up, and there was BB King.

He looked down at me and said, 'You’re Wavy Gravy.' That was a first for me, but it BB said so, that’s who I was! He then said, 'Wavy Gravy, I can work around you, and he reached over and he grabbed Lucille [his famed guitar], which was laying against an amplifier, called out [fellow legendary guitarist] Johnny Winter from the other side of the stage, and they jammed until sunrise. It was an extraordinary experience. I kept that name and began teaching improvisation to neurologically disabled kids.

“I dress like a clown because clowns are safe,” says Gravy, regarding his ubiquitous red-nosed presence that has graced the festival landscape for 35 years. The growth of festival culture has been a unique story, but one that, according to Wavy Gravy, has an even more intriguing concept that has served as a unifying thread over the past three and a half decades.

"At one festival in Florida for the Rolling Stones, the fence in front of the stage was too high and the audience elected a team to come and talk to me to have [the festival organizers] lower the fence so that people could stand up and see what was going on. They couldn’t find the Rolling Stones, so while they were being located, [the Hog Farmers] went into the operations trailer and started chanting 'We shall overcome.' We were allowed to cut down the fence. We were given chainsaws and once we cut it down, we had to [basically] sacrifice our lives to make sure that Mick Jagger didn’t get touched!

[The Hog Farm] started going to different festivals, splitting into different teams that would handle garbage and recycling and all of the different ways to make these different cities hum. People went from festival to festival not so much for the music, but because they wanted to create this positive, creative anarchy."

Although he now works at events like the three-day Gathering of the Vibes, Woodstock is still essential to Wavy Gravy’s legacy, but for a different reason. “The first Woodstock made me famous, "Wavy Gravy tells Fest300, “the second and third [Woodstock festivals] got me paid.”

Before you think this story is taking a turn towards greed, do note Gravy’s investment in starting Laytonville, California’s Camp Winnirainbow, which, true to Gravy’s clown roots and overall circus of a life, teaches 700 kids per summer the arts of trapeze, juggling, improvisation, tightrope, gymnastics, acting, unicycle, stilt walking, clown philosophy, art and magic (intriguingly, Woodstock ‘94 participant Tré Cool of Green Day is an alum). The camp not only grooms a new generation of Ringling Brothers employees, it also carries forth his unique messages of goodwill from the Hog Farm and the original festival era into the current day.

"Eventually, we began to evolve into that consciousness that we are a tribe and we want to make [our tribe] the best that it possibly can be. What I do – my main trick in big-time rock and roll – is to dissolve the line between the stage and the audience. How I do this is many fold. Between bands, I’m out in the crowd with a microphone, and if anybody has anything to share, they indicate via raising their hand and letting me know, and they get the microphone to share a poem. They’re not allowed to hustle nookie or drugs. Everything else is pretty much fair and square. What that does is it instills in the consciousness that anybody can talk to a crowd anytime that they need to. I wish I could go more places. But I think that as people go to other places, I’d like to believe that the vibe I spread has spread around."

Since the days of Woodstock, festival culture has expanded globally and now touches literally every single musical genre and artistic form on Earth. Intriguingly, all of these events - from food to “security” to staging, as well as open engagement between crowds and artists, too - all bear some connection back to the Hog Farm and the man named Wavy Gravy, who went from promising “breakfast in bed for 400,000 people” to inspiring millions of “positive creative anarchy”-adoring flower children and festivalgoers worldwide. If you ask Wavy Gravy what festival he’s looking to forward to next, his answer shouldn’t surprise you.

“I can’t wait for Woodstock to turn 50. That’ll be fun.”

When Woodstock celebrates its 50th birthday in 2019, the man born Hugh Romney turns 83. However, Wavy Gravy's life philosophy and his legacy will undoubtedly live way beyond all of that.