Firehouse Gallery

The Gravy Bio

Adventures with Albert Einstein

Gravy with the Hopi Indians

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Wavy Gravy

This story by Tricia Fagan was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper

on March 31, 1999. All rights reserved.

Sure, the millennium’s only a man-made designation

— valid only in our own minds and culture — but as the days

and hours race towards that arbitrary dateline, there’s still an undeniable

sense of heightened awareness, soul-searching, and rediscovery. Shakespeare

is embraced once more, fractals reveal themselves in their brilliant,

psychedelic glory, the ’60s become a mini-series, and Baby Boomers

are asking `What now?’ Well, if you’re looking for a guide to help

you successfully navigate this great cosmic kaleidoscope, you might

consider Wavy Gravy.

No, I’m not talking about the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream (although it

may make a good start), I’m suggesting the real thing, the 1960s persona,

founder of the Church of Fun, "Please Force" Chief at Woodstock

— now 63 years "young" and still living his life of commitment,

social involvement, art, and FUN.

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Firehouse Gallery

The redoubtable Wavy Gravy — artist, philanthropist, prankster,

’60s icon, and ’90s activist — brings a collection of his collages

to the Firehouse Gallery in Bordentown April 3 to 30. The artist will

fly in from the West Coast to attend the opening reception on Saturday,

April 3, from 1 to 4 p.m. The free reception is open to the public

and features live blues by Trenton’s own Joe Zook on guitar and Philly’s

Steve Guiger on harmonica.

On display will be Gravy’s collage homage works, "Wavy Gravy,

His Blues Period," which feature legendary figures of the blues

scene. Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, Jesse Fuller, Leadbelly (with

Woody Guthrie and Memphis Minnie are all present. Elvis Presley and

Jerry Garcia are also included in the mix. The works feature mixed

media images that although humorous — and even occasionally ironic

— are intended as tributes.

Gravy began experimenting with collage during the ’60s. "My hero

was Kurt Switters, who said, `My palette is the wastebasket of the

world.’ In those days I never worked on regular surfaces. I did people’s

refrigerator doors, I did motorcycle helmets for Peter Fonda and Barry

McGuire, I did an Oldsmobile, a bunch of toilet seats — working

mostly with pages from old Life magazines. Originally I used lots

of images, but my recent work is very minimal."

He admits that the tone of the Blues Period series on exhibit at the

Firehouse — although often humorous and playful — deliberately

cultivates a religious sense. "Yes. They are religious. The blues

are very spiritual. They evoke the spirit in the world. I think there’s

a lot more spirit in the blues than there is in the Hallelujah Chorus

— although they’re both beautiful forms of music."

Wavy Gravy’s works are an act of homage, mostly to musicians and performers

now dead. "I have very few living artists in the Blues Series.

I’m starting to move into jazz icons. There’s a large Thelonious piece.

I did a couple of Elvis works, because people have been after me for

some Elvis pieces. One is called `Elvis Leaving the Building,’ and

another called `Steam Basket Angel." Many of his original collages

are owned by House of Blues and the Hard Rock Cafe, places that can

afford the $900 price tag for Gravy’s original collages — but

Gravy also generates high-quality laser prints of his works that sell

for under $100.

This is Gravy’s second trip to the Firehouse Gallery.

His first was almost four years ago, shortly after the Firehouse opened.

Gallery owner Eric Gibbons says, "I’m really looking forward to

having him back here. It was a lot of fun the last time — he was

walking his trout around the gallery during the reception. Gravy’s

also great to talk with. He has wonderful stories."

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The Gravy Bio

He certainly does. In the course of a phone conversation from his

California home, Gravy shared some thoughts and many stories from

a life that is cram-packed and still going strong. One immediate impression

is that this is a man who is still "young" in the best sense

of the world. He has really enjoyed his life so far, but it is still

very much a work in progress. It is also evident that both his past

and present are liberally populated with famous characters most of

us will only ever read about or see on TV.

Wavy Gravy is cordial and easy to talk with over the phone. "Sorry

we missed each other yesterday," he starts, "I was a judge

at a local `Shuck and Swallow’ oyster eating event. It was the most

disgusting thing I ever saw in my life. After 10 minutes of shucking

and eating, we judges had to count up the number of shells in the

bucket. The eater from the one team ate 126 oysters in 10 minutes.

I was jiving. I got a great fish dinner out of it — Fortunately,

we ate first." He mentions in passing that one of the other judges

was Barry Melton, the much underrated lead guitarist of Country Joe

and the Fish. "You know, he’s still playing music but he’s also

working as a public defender for death row prisoners. He almost got

elected to the California Supreme Court recently," Gravy says.

Although music, friends, and having fun are still very much part of

his approach to life, for some time most of his energy has been dedicated

to Gravy’s many philanthropic activities. (When asked once what inspired

his commitment to service, Gravy said, "It gets me high; service

is a drug I can’t find in the pharmaceutical closet.")

Much of his philanthropic work these days is done through the Seva

Foundation, which he helped create almost 20 years ago. The organization

was founded in 1980 to help fight preventable blindness in India and

Nepal. "Eighty percent of the people in the world that are blind

don’t need to be, and 80 percent of them can get their sight back

with an operation that takes about 10 minutes," Gravy says. "It’s

horrifying that so much of it goes untreated in the world, but the

money isn’t there in those places."

Gravy — whose official title on the Board of Directors for Seva

is "clown emeritus for life" — is clear when describing

the focus and work of the foundation. "We try to keep as low a

profile as possible and work from the bottom up rather than top down.

A lot of what Seva does is to identify a really bright light in a

community and then to support that person with all our guns."

The foundation has branched out to help provide practical solutions

to unmet basic needs in locales throughout the world. The organization

currently is working with residents in the Chiapas region of Mexico,

and with the widows of the `disappeared’ in Guatemala. "We started

out bringing yarns into refuge camps in Chiapas so they could do their

traditional weaving and earn some money. That evolved into helping

out with sanitation, building privies, and getting more and more involved."

What road brings a middle-class youth from the high-end suburbs of

the East Coast to a life of altruism at age 63 on an established hippie

commune in the wilds of California? To hear Gravy tell it, it was

a road far less wavy and far more fated than you might suspect.

He was born Hugh Romney in the late 1930s in East Greenwich, New York.

He grew up an only child, although he has two half brothers from his

parents’ later marriages. His father, an architect with Brown, Lawford

and Forbes, had been living in Hawthorne, New Jersey, until his death

a few years ago. "My dad did the children’s wing at the Metropolitan,

and he also did the kitchen at my kid’s camp. He was a really fine

architect, but was pretty much enveloped by the large firm he worked

for."

He says his personality draws directly from each of his parents. "My

mom is a pretty strong extrovert, and my dad was from space, so I’m

an extrovert in space. I got the best of it."

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Adventures with Albert Einstein

The family moved to Princeton shortly after Gravy was born, and lived

there until he was almost six years old. "One of my claims to

world fame is that Einstein used to spin me around the block every

day when I was five. I can remember his shock of beautiful white hair

— which pre-dated Don King by at least half a century. I remember

that he wore sneakers, and he had an odd odor that I’ve never come

across since. When you’re a kid you remember smells so well. Some

day I’m going to walk up to somebody and say (sniff, sniff), `Hey,

man, you smell like Albert Einstein!’"

His parents divorced and he moved with his mother first to Albany,

New York, and then to Greenwich, Connecticut, when she remarried.

From an early age, Gravy was drawn to the arts, particularly the performing

arts. He entered Boston University in the early ’50s as a theater

major — as it turns out, a remarkable time in the B.U. theater

department.

"At that time, they had the best theater school in the world.

What happened — and this is very topical with Elia Kazan, etc.

— is that they hired all these great, talented people who had

been blacklisted. Sandy Meisner, David Pressman, all these great directors

were there — and the department was isolated from the rest of

the university at that time, way out of the way. And we had this big

Admiral Theater which was 2 or 3,000 seats. The whole school would

read for a play, even freshmen. Even if you didn’t get a role and

just did costumes, you were working with the guy who did costumes

with Katherine Cornell. I mean, Martha Graham taught there."

When the university, fearing that their theater students weren’t really

going to college, moved them closer to campus and began requiring

more academic courses, "most of the teachers simply quit,"

Gravy says, "and they took me with them."

He followed his teachers to New York City’s Neighborhood Playhouse

where he had a scholarship. "I supported myself by doing poetry

readings in Greenwich Village. I became a teenage Beatnik and evolved

into the poetry director of the Gaslight Cafe on McDougal Street.

I ran the entertainment trip there. I remember when Dylan first came

in. He was wearing Woody Guthrie’s underwear — I’m not making

this up — and there was a sign on his guitar that said `This machine

kills fascists.’ He asked me if he could go on, and I just grabbed

the mike and said, `Here he is, a legend in his lifetime — uh,

what’s your name?’"

In 1961, after four years in the Village, Gravy moved to Los Angeles.

His poetry readings had become stand-up humor and philosophy routines

— "I was not exactly a comic, but not exactly not a comic"

— and Lenny Bruce was his manager. For some time Gravy opened

for Thelonious Monk at the Renaissance, recording an album, "Hugh

Romney Third Stream Humor," during that same period.

"Somehow or other I hooked up with (Ken) Kesey. I did that little

traveling road show with the Grateful Dead and the (Merry) Pranksters.

Then the Hog Farm commune started." Gravy’s been part of the Hog

Farm commune — which did the life support at the Woodstock Music

Festival — for 35 years. "We spent our first seven years on

buses," he notes, "moving around the country, doing the demos,

and doing our open celebrations — showing people that they were

the stars of their own movie. It was kind of like the Acid Fests,

but you had to bring your own head. We didn’t dose anybody. That was

where Kesey and I had our big falling out. We ran a pig, Pigasus,

for president. We broke a lot of ground with her — she was the

first female black and white candidate!"

Gravy seems to have moved as gracefully through the Acid Test years

as he has through the rest of his life. One of the few regrets he

spoke of centers on a report in Tom Wolfe’s epic "The Electric

Kool-Aid Acid Test" that named Gravy as the person who had put

the acid in the kool-aid at Watts.

"I was staying with Wolfe in his apartment by the U.N. while he

was working on that chapter, and he never asked me anything. He got

the information from a woman named Claire Brush who was a reporter

for the LA Free Press. He had a lot of nice things to say about me

in the book, I mean I actually lift a quote from him where he calls

me a `master satirist.’ A lot of the stuff in that book was right,

it’s just that some of the names of who did what get confused. Little

old ladies still come up and hit me with their pocketbooks because

they blame me for it, and there were 26 people who committed themselves

that night. I just don’t like taking the blame for that."

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Gravy with the Hopi Indians

In 1963 Gravy experienced what he terms the "cosmic

turning point" that led him to redirect his life towards serving

others. "I went to that spot that so many people seemed to go

to, where I just gave away all my stuff and went to live with the

Hopi Indians." He laughs remembering that when he arrived at the

pueblo the Hopi response was, "Well, you’re really early!"

They then told him that in the Book of the Hopi it was written that

there would be a time when all the different races would come together,

but that time was in the future.

He stayed with the Hopi for a few months, before returning to L.A.,

where he got his first job working with brain-damaged children. In

the following years Gravy dedicated himself to public service jobs

or volunteer positions — often with or for children. In 1973 he

established Camp Winnarainbow where scores of children — many

from backgrounds of poverty or homelessness — can escape to a

country experience.

Clearly, of all his projects and initiatives, Camp Winnarainbow is

closest to Gravy’s heart. The circus and performing arts camp —

located on about 15 acres of the Hog Farm spread in Laytonville, California

— is going strong. "It’s our 27th year. These days there are

138 children all summer long, plus a nine-day session for adults."

Around 30 percent of the child campers — who come from all over

the world — receive scholarships supported through sales of Ben

& Jerry’s "Wavy Gravy" ice cream and Grateful Dead fashion

items.

He views the experiences offered by the camp as life-enhancing, with

an emphasis on cooperation, interdependence, and fun. "It’s a

wonderful place. Our motto is `Big Fun or Your Money Back,’ and only

one man ever asked for his money back — because he couldn’t find

enough places to smoke his cigarets."

Gravy’s wife of 33 years, Jahanara, is the administrative director

for the camp. "We met in Fred C. Dobbs, a restaurant she was running

on Sunset Strip — at the same time she was acting in `Gunsmoke’

and `Star Trek’ and stuff like that. The Byrds used to hand out there

and Brando. It was a cool spot, funky. And she put peanuts in my hamburger

— I couldn’t believe it," he says, and laughs.

The couple named their son, who was "born in the back of the bus,"

Howdy Dogood Gravy. "When he was 13 he said he was too old to

be Howdy, so we went to court and he changed his name to Jordan Romney."

Gravy and his son are currently collaborating on a children’s book

titled "Good Morning, What We Have in Mind Is Breakfast-In-Bed

For 400,000," which is about presenting granola to hippies at

Woodstock.

So, where did his name come from — light shows he did for Hendrix

and the Dead? An experience on an acid trip?

"No," says Gravy. "Right after Woodstock we went to Texas

to the Texas Pop Festival to help make peace between cowboys at a

local rodeo and the rock ‘n’ rollers. We ran a free stage there. At

one point B.B. King came out to play with Johnny Winter. As he passed

by, he put his hand on my shoulder and said, `Stay where you are.

You’re wavy gravy, we can work around you.’ And I said, `Yes, sir.’

Gravy’s conversation brims with plans — the new Camp Winnarainbow

season that starts in June, up-dating and re-issuing of his book "Something

Good For a Change," a new super-large format for his collage works,

a benefit talk for the camp featuring Patch Adams, a Ben & Jerry’s-sponsored

rock tour to urge re-investment of military funding into basic needs

programs. He has been offered the emcee job for Woodstock III scheduled

for this year, and is considering an offer to participate in a similar

event being planned for Vienna, Austria. The Hog Farm is raising special

long-haired sheep to be released, by request of the tribe, onto Navaho

lands.

He appreciates his colorful, mind-expanding experiences from the ’50s,

’60s, and ’70s, but life never stopped being exciting for him.

"Hey, the ’90s are just the ’60s turned on their head. I’m seeing

a big move back to service, to volunteering. A lot of ’60s people

have worked their way up — they’ve gotten their BMWs and what-have-you

— and now they’re realizing that there’s something missing that

they can’t find in their medicine cabinet."

Ram Dass once described Gravy as a wise clown of compassion, "a

genuine Mahatma of the cosmic giggle." Not bad qualities for a

guide into the next millennium. At the very least, he’ll make a heck

of an entertaining traveling companion.

— Tricia Fagan

Wavy Gravy, Firehouse Gallery, 8 Walnut Street,

Bordentown, 609-298-3742. Opening reception for the show that runs

to April 30. Free. Saturday, April 3, 1 to 4 p.m.

Gallery hours are Monday 6 to 8 p.m.; Tuesday through Friday,

11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Wednesday to 9 p.m.; and Saturday from noon to

4 p.m. Website: www.firehousegallery.com.


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