Smuggled Meat and Wavy Gravy

A Berkeley icon celebrates 35 years at a camp that welcomes everyone — if not their vices.

If publicists can be trusted, then at least one kid was politely ostracized from Camp Winnarainbow in the organization’s 35-year history. His crime? Selling contraband McDonald’s hamburgers. Evidently, fast food was frowned upon in the health-conscious world of a camp spawned from a hippie commune. (That’s what the kid’s father claimed, at least — many former campers say the staff tolerated a wide variety of gastronomic preferences.) The culprit had fallen off a stilt, been sent to an outside clinic for stitching, and happened to pass by a McDonald’s on the way. He loaded up on burgers and fries, returned to camp, and parlayed the spoils of his field trip to attain instant popularity. Apparently, other kids were also sick of organic lettuce and wheat.

Camp co-founder Wavy Gravy doesn’t remember the incident. He’d probably deem it apocryphal had the hamburger peddler not been a friend’s son, and had the friend not been publicist Lee Houskeeper, who is helping promote a music fundraiser for Winnarainbow on Tuesday, May 22, at Freight & Salvage. Fortunately, they’ve made amends. And the grown-up Winnarainbow exile, who ultimately left camp of his own volition, harbors no animosity toward Wavy Gravy.

Value systems often collide when you’re dealing with seven hundred campers over a span of ten weeks every summer. But Gravy — whose name was Hugh Romney until 1969, when he was rechristened by B.B. King — said the occasional culture clash is also what makes Winnarainbow wonderful. “It’s really important to me that the children make a real rainbow,” said the 76-year-old hippie icon and political activist. He added that Winnarainbow, which started as a roving clown camp and eventually moved to open land abutting the Hog Farm commune in Laytonville, California, has traditionally granted enough scholarships to ensure that 25 percent of its campers come from low-income families. Indeed, Gravy sees circus skills as a form of social empowerment.

When you look at Gravy’s biography, that credo becomes hard to refute. Gravy says he started dressing as a clown so that cops would stop beating him up at demonstrations. Evidently it worked, and along the way the face paint and red rubber nose turned Gravy into an icon. He joined the retinue of hippie jam band The Grateful Dead, launched an unsuccessful but highly visible “Nobody for President” campaign, had a flavor of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream named after him, and inspired the 2008 documentary Saint Misbehavin’: The Wavy Gravy Movie.

Through it all, he ran Camp Winnarainbow. He traces its genesis to 1977, the year he followed his wife, Jahanara Romney, to a Sufi camp in the Mendocino woodland. Gravy had agreed to look after their son Jordan while Romney did “various spiritual practices.” Once they arrived at camp, though, he realized that other parents were struggling to balance their child-care needs with their desire for enlightenment. So Gravy offered to take everyone’s kids, put them in one cabin, and babysit. Evidently, he wasn’t just presenting himself as a good feminist, or a congenital mensch — he really likes kids. So much, in fact, that the following year, they rented the cabin down the road. Then they moved around for a while, before eventually settling on the camp’s current location at Black Oak Ranch. In 1986, the camp inherited a 350-foot waterslide from Marine World/Africa USA, the theme park that eventually became Six Flags Discovery Kingdom.

For 35 years, Winnarainbow has remained committed to its ideal of circus arts as an unimpeachable social good. He runs one week of adult camp and nine weeks for kids, featuring lessons in juggling, flying trapeze, walking on stilts, clowning, unicycle riding, tightrope walking, mask-making, and other useful skills. The most important lessons are abstract — like how to work with others, how to confront challenges with a sense of humor, and how to pick someone else up when he’s down. Fittingly, every camper starts out with a workshop on how to fall down.

No one understands that particular life lesson more than Gravy. Fond of describing himself — somewhat suggestively — as “slippery when wet,” he actually did slip on a wet flagstone at Harbin Hot Springs a couple weeks ago, shortly before a special screening of Saint Misbehavin’. As of last week, he was still wearing an Aircast. “I’m semi-spectacular,” Gravy said during a phone interview. “I broke my fucking leg.”

But, evidently, all the falling workshops had paid off, because Gravy was still in good spirits. He talked excitedly about the Winnarainbow fundraiser, which will feature performances by Jonathan Richman, Barry Melton Band, and Nick Gravenites. When asked about the kid who got kicked out for l’affaire McDonald’s, he said he’d long forgotten the incident.

“That was Lee’s kid? Well, that naughty boy. Hopefully he’s come a long way.”

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