Ride That Wavy Gravy Train

Michelle Esrick adds a Berkeley icon to the hippie hagiography.

Chances are you’ve seen him tooling around Berkeley in a big white van plastered with Camp Winnarainbow stickers. You know the guy: Tie-dyed shirt. Gray-blond curly hair. Clown nose. Pulling a toy fish on a leash and blowing bubbles through a plastic pink wand. Such odd sartorial choices have rendered him a Berkeley icon. But far more people know Wavy Gravy at a glance than know the legend behind him. It turns out this guy is much more than a do-gooder or a feel-gooder. He came up in Greenwich Village at a time when young anti-war activists were just beginning to question their parents’ credos. The word “jaded” meant something. The word “hippie” meant something. And Hugh Nanton Romney was right in the thick of that famous countercultural movement. In the 1960s he roomed with singer-songwriter Tom Paxton and befriended Bob Dylan, who supposedly wrote the song “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” on Romney’s typewriter. He would later become a Beatnik, a Peacenik, and a serial founder of foundations. His Hog Farm commune would be deputized to make fire trails, run security, and serve food at Woodstock, where Romney also helped manage the “freak-out” tent (for people suffering bad acid trips). He got the moniker “Wavy Gravy” from famed bluesman B.B. King.

Filmmaker and veteran activist Michelle Esrick met Wavy Gravy in the early Nineties, when they were both doing benefit work for Gravy’s performing arts camp, Winnarainbow. Esrick was bedazzled. To her, Wavy Gravy was much more than a highly visible, clownishly-dressed local celebrity. He was incredibly generous, kind-hearted, earnest, approachable, and capable of tackling real-world problems in a common sense manner. He also made an excellent muse. Esrick hatched a plan to document Wavy Gravy’s life in 1999. She assembled a film crew that year and began following him around with a camera, gathering interviews with Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, famed activist Doctor Larry Brilliant, and Gravy’s wife Jahanara Romney. She traced Gravy’s biography from Greenwich Village to the commune he founded on a Southern California mountaintop to his current charitable enterprises. In the process, Esrick unearthed amazing 60mm footage that had been gathering dust for years.

The end result, called Saint Misbehavin’: The Wavy Gravy Movie, will hit theaters this summer. It’s garnered high marks on the festival circuit, partly because of the cult of adoration that still surrounds Wavy Gravy, but also because of Esrick’s creative approach to the story. She perceives Wavy Gravy as both a remarkable individual and the representation of an ideal. “The word ‘hippie’ has become a brand name, you know?” said Esrick. “You see the origin of the word in this film. You find out what a ‘hippie’ really is.”

Esrick presents a preview of Saint Misbehavin’ on Thursday, April 1, at the Grand Lake Theater (3200 Grand Ave., Oakland). It starts at 6 p.m. with a reception for premium ticket holders and ends with a Q&A featuring Esrick, Wavy Gravy, and other stars from the film. Proceeds benefit the film release and Camp Winnarainbow. $15-$95. SaintMisbehavin.com


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