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Michael Lang with Wavy Gravy
holding up Roll Magazine with
photo of Hugh Romney by
Barry Feinstein

photo by Dennis O'Clair

M. and L. Lang with
Ronnie Spector and Wavy Gravy

photo by Dennis O'Clair

sacred fool, counter-culture clown: Making Saint Misbehavin’: The Wavy Gravy Movieby Jay Blotcher

The guitar face of folk singer-activist Woody Guthrie bore a scribbled message: This machine kills fascists. The same slogan could be applied to the extensive arsenal belonging to Wavy Gravy, which includes a number of huge red noses, bowler hats, rainbow suspenders and a floating goldfish on the end of a leash. For more than a half-century, Wavy Gravy has played the bumbling but knowing fool, at the 1969 Woodstock Music Festival concert, at anti-war protests, in humanitarian missions to Nepal and Bangladesh. This sly diversion has allowed him to win hearts and minds while stealthily spreading potent messages about peace, love and understanding.

For the better part of a decade, Michelle Esrick has followed this psychedelic Pied Piper with a camera. The result is the documentary Saint Misbehavin’: The Wavy Gravy Movie, not only a celebration of this sacred clown and his good works, but also a mind-blowing civics lesson on the American counterculture. Dizzying in its scope and joyous in its execution, Saint offers a contact high for the uninitiated. Like the man himself, the film provides a message of self-empowerment that you’ll eventually discover tucked in between the unbridled insanity. As Wavy says in one of the countless aphorisms that tumble from his lips during the film: “Laughter is the safety valve on the pressure cooker. If you don’t laugh, you’re gonna have beans on the ceiling.”

“Wavy is the fool of our time, he’s the great court jester of modern-day,” said director Esrick. “He’s just so brilliant. And a lot of people see him walking a fish walking by, or whatever outfit he’s in, and say, who’s that crazy guy? Or, who’s that fool? They don’t realize he’s a sacred fool. He uses it to draw people in, and if you wait a minute, you do get drawn in and he does transmit the most simple, beautiful messages of basic human needs.”

On Saturday, December 11, Woodstock Film Festival presents the Hudson Valley premiere of the documentary Saint Misbehavin’: The Wavy Gravy Movie at Upstate Films on Tinker Street in Woodstock. The wise fool himself will be in attendance with director Michelle Esrick. Seltzer bottles and fright wigs are not mandatory but strongly suggested.

Esrick was a New York actress and a leftie activist when she first met Wavy in 1992; four years later, she launched an unlikely line of Grateful Dead neckties. The band members, still in shock over Jerry Garcia’s demise the year before, had no interest in promoting the merchandise. So Esrick and her business partner tapped Wavy for the job, since he had a long association with the band. “They love Wavy and he’s like Santa Claus to the Deadheads.” The newly recruited spokesperson was also motivated by the two percent of sales profits that would go to allowing lower-income children to attend Camp Winnarainbow, Wavy’s finishing school for clowns and free spirits in Northern California. In a tour that hit New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, Wavy was in his element; knocking off 101 press interviews in 25 days with the same combination of loopy logic and Dadaist philosophy that had made him a fixture in the counterculture movement in the 1960s.

“My mind was being blown every day,” Esrick said. “Like, I couldn’t believe that he was here, he was there, he was everywhere,” she said, referring to the many lives Wavy had led, appearing Zelig-like at cultural milestones throughout the last generation. He began as a Greenwich Village stand-up comedian and beatnik named Hugh Romney in the late 1950s, was the leader of a commune called The Hog Farm, became an icon for the ages as head of security and food commissaries at Woodstock 1969—famously announcing the plan to serve breakfast in bed for 400,000. (The origin of his career moniker, revealed in the film, involves a man with a guitar named Lucille.) Along the way, he crossed paths and mingled creative visions with the Beat poets, Tiny Tim, the Yippies and Bob Dylan, sharing a mixture of Eastern religion, bohemian freethinking and anarchic commedia dell’arte that Wavy calls “intense elevated shenanigans.” (The meaningful madness has not always been fun; Wavy was often tear-gassed and beaten at protests by cops, resulting in serious spinal injuries that still plague him.)

Hugh Romney (Wavy Gravy)
Photo by Barry Feinstein (1962)

Wavy, Esrick soon realized, was not some quaint tie-dyed caricature, still living on the fumes from his role in three days of peace, love and music. Building shrewdly on that watershed moment, he had commandeered Merry Prankster-like bus trips across Europe and Asia to help people in impoverished areas in the 70s and 80s. Esrick was fascinated by the mystical way the clown with calculated mania effortlessly buoyed people around him. “I just saw that everybody that got to hang out with him wanted to go hug somebody when they were done being with him.”

“It sounds so silly, but I was completely transported,” she said. “And I said, I’ve got to make a movie about this guy. And it was more like, I have to share him.”

Esrick began plans to do the film with her necktie business partner, who had already won an Emmy for his John Cougar Mellencamp documentary. But he had to fulfill a book contract and begged off, leaving novice Esrick to approach Wavy with her cinematic proposal. She had little previous experience, save for assisting Oscar-winning documentarian Barbara Kopple on the 1994 film My Generation, about the 25th anniversary Woodstock festival. While happy to play the fool, Wavy is far from gullible and considered the offer skeptically.

“And I thought, Well, I’ll just see what happens,” Wavy said.

“I often have people say that they’re going to do things for me and they’re promising me millions of dollars, and the next day I see them with their face painted blue and a balloon tied to their ear.”

Esrick accepted Wavy’s wait-and-see stance and began lining up investors. The process was arduous: she would raise a bit of cash, race out to shoot Wavy at Camp Winnarainbow or at a benefit concert for SEVA, the foundation he co-founded to restore the sight of poor people in India. Her determination, Esrick said, was powered by an almost spiritual force. “This film came out of a true calling from knowing one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met. It wasn’t like I said, you know, I want to be a documentary filmmaker.”

Wavy found himself impressed by the first-time director. “The years went by and they just kept doing it. And doing it. And every time I was doing something, somehow they’d get someone in to catch the footage. And tenaciously.” When Esrick tapped documentary legend DA Pennebaker as executive producer of the project, Wavy chucked any final reservations and became a cheerleader for the project, encouraging friends like Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, Bob Weir, spiritualist Ram Dass and Dr. Patch Adams to sit for interviews. Even when more established filmmakers came to him with proposals, Wavy swatted them away, in favor of Esrick.

By the completion of principal photography, Esrick had an embarrassment of riches. More than 300 hours of footage was enhanced by the best of 100 hours of archival footage, a good portion of it home movies of the 1970 Hog Farm bus odyssey from London to the Himalayas and Eastern Europe to offer messages of self-empowerment and peace, as well as crucial medical care provided by longtime friend Dr. Larry Brilliant. Wavy had an epiphany on these caravan journeys: “We’re all the same people trying to shake hands with ourselves. But war is a complicated way of getting acquainted.”

It would take Esrick and Emmy Award-winning PBS editor Karen K. H. Sim two years to shape the expansive material to a compact 87 minutes. (The DVD release, Esrick said, will carry as many hours of bonus material as allowed.) Wavy praises the final product. “I think that my goosebumps got goosebumps when I saw it first. I had to pick my chin up off the floor.” But the man who describes himself as “a psychedelic relic” insists that he is simply a supporting player in the larger story. “It’s just not about me; it’s about hippiedom and peace, love and understanding. I am just a cog in the hog.”

“It’s not just about that era, although that was an amazing era, and a lot of people have kind of written it off. But if you look at it and examine it, you’ll see what came out of that era is not only peace and love, but ecology, the women’s movement, fashion. The beat goes on and on and on. So many things. It was fertile soil and we actually began to work toward making a better world.”

Saint Misbehavin’ celebrates, but does not canonize, Wavy Gravy. His wife Janahara provides the bedrock to his life, firmly but gently reeling in his excesses, much like Pete Seeger’s wife Toshi has been his guiding light. But neither does the film harp on Wavy's shortcomings.

“At the end, his wife says, ‘Look, he’s human, he has faults, he makes lots of mistakes,’” Esrick said. “Yeah, I see his humanness but I have to say, he’s the most selfless, guileless person I’ve ever known.”

Asked whether his Day-Glo optimism and save-the-world energy ever flags, Wavy said no. He derives hope from seeing the best in others, even during the darkest days of social unrest during his 74 years on earth. “It’s much more satisfying to live that kind of life than the paranoid, don’t-trust-anybody corner that a lot of people have painted themselves into. And I think, what kind of life is that?” His belief in “kitchen sink-chronicity” remains undimmed; his mission is to stay on the path to find the next “cosmic custard pie.”

Esrick’s film is a form of missionary work; it captures Wavy’s life force and humanitarian brio—masquerading as his exuberant irreverence—and shares it with a new generation. Her quest has succeeded, she said, based on the number of people who approach her enthusiastically at screenings. After seeing what one balding, squinting, roly-poly man in a star-spangled clown suit, greasepaint and a red nose can accomplish, their own flagging self-esteem has been stoked.

The director points to the reaction of a 15-year-old girl who had watched the film. In a letter to Esrick she explained, “My parents always show me films about saints and great people and I always feel like a loser after watching them. But when I watched your film, I realized that even though my dream is to build schools in Africa, that even if I don’t get to do that, it’s okay if I just get up every day and help somebody. When I left your movie I wanted to run and go find an old lady and help her cross the street with her groceries.”

The correspondence moved Esrick to tears, she said, “because everyone struggles with ‘Am I enough?’ And this little 15-year-old girl says, I know that I am enough, as long as I’m helping somebody each day.” With or without a clown nose.



The Woodstock Film Festival presents Saint Misbehavin’: The Wavy Gravy Movie by Ripple Films on Saturday, December 11 at 4PM at Upstate Films at Tinker Street in Woodstock. A Q&A with Wavy Gravy and film director Michelle Esrick follows the screening. Tickets are $15 atUpstate Films 845.679.6608 or online at www.woodstockfilmfestival.com.

More about Wavy Gravy and his charities: www.wavygravy.net | www.seva.org | www.campwinnarainbow.org



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