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Seeing the need for a service

By Mary Barrett Special to the Daily Planet
Saturday April 28, 2001

’60s icon raises funds for cataract operations  


When he turns 65 on May 15, Wavy Gravy is throwing himself a party, an “ascension to geezerhood” celebration. Idols of rock will perform together at the Berkeley Community Theater – Dr. John, Mickey Hart, Paul Cantina, Jack Casady and more. Wavy will emcee.  

Wavy Gravy, icon of the ’60s, clown and hippie is above all a social activist.  

The birthday gala is just an excuse – the concert is really a fund-raiser in disguise for SEVA, Sanskrit for Service to Human Kind. SEVA is a health organization that provides cataract operations to people in Nepal, India and Tibet. A ticket to the birthday concert is enough to pay for an operation on “one eyeball, 20 bucks,” Wavy says. 

Up the alley from Peet’s on Fourth Street, Wavy’s tidy SEVA office is decorated by, among other things, a light with soft bristles that change color as they revolve and a star fish upon which sits a yellow plastic monk talking on a cell phone. Beautifully framed posters of other SEVA fund-raisers Gravy organized hang in the halls. “Peace through Living” is the subtitle to his book, Something Good for a Change. And his life is an illustration of that concept.  

In jeans and Hawaiian shirt, Wavy describes SEVA and meanders through other details of his most remarkable adventures. 

“The main slice of blindness is curable and preventable,” Wavy says. “Eighty percent of all people who are blind are unnecessarily blind and 80 percent of that 80 percent can regain sight.”  

SEVA was created 23 years ago after Wavy, his Hog Farm commune and Dr. Larry Brilliant, went to Nepal. They had started out for Pakistan to feed people marooned by floods, but because of the war between India and Pakistan they “veered left.” There Brilliant set up a clinic and Wavy blew bubbles. The kids had never seen bubbles before and “chased them through fields of reefer that stretched to the Himalayas trying to escape to the stars. It was such a gift, to be in this beauty, yet the terrain was steep and difficult. It was so easy to fall,” Wavy said. The ironic part was that so many people there were blind. 

Nicole Grasset, a woman legendary in Public Health, (Wavy calls her “one of the great saints, a mother Teresa in a Dior dress, except it’s a ‘knock off’ she washes by hand.”), pitched an idea to Brilliant, Ram Dass and Wavy to do something about the blindness. With an initial $10,000 grant from Steve Jobs at Apple Computer, they were able to go into Nepal and survey where eye camps could be set up.  

Soon after, Wavy happened to be on an airplane with the Grateful Dead and he proposed the idea of a SEVA fund-raiser to them. Bob Weir had already read something in the Whole Earth Catalog about the eye camps. The Dead agreed to a fund-raiser which was a huge success and Bill Graham donated $10,000 too.  

Wavy Gravy has set up such successful fund-raisers that SEVA has been able to expand its health focuses to work with indigenous peoples of the Americas, in diabetes prevention on several American Indian reservations in the United States and with Mayans in Guatemala. 

Never ordinary, Wavy grew up in Princeton, N.J., where, as he tells it, “I was five and airing myself in the front yard. Albert Einstein asked my mother if he might take me for a walk.” It was the first of many walks. Einstein wore tennis shoes and a sweatshirt and told Wavy that “as a young child (he) remembered things like linoleum patterns. I remember Einstein’s smell. Musty,” but more than that. 

When his parents divorced and each remarried and had other families, Wavy, then Hugh Romney, knew he’d have to make his own way through college. He joined the Army and later went to Boston University, on the GI Bill, to study performing arts. There he met the most incredible teachers, people who’d been blackballed by Hollywood during the McCarthy era. Wavy remembers Martha Graham as one of the dance instructors. “I had the hots for her; she had feet like cypress trees.” Top directors would come into the giant theater on campus and cast a play and everyone would have a part or were assigned to the crew.  

But the university administration didn’t want the teachers off in their own space ignoring core curriculum, so they quit. And they took Wavy with them to New York City and got him a scholarship at the Neighborhood Play House. He then became poetry director of the Gas Light Theater. People came in four deep to stare at the beatniks as if they were a geek show. Wavy recited poems he wrote, which got shorter and shorter “until they dissolved into haiku.” 

Eventually, he dropped the poems and just talked about the weird things that had happened to him during the day. He calls what he does ‘Stand Up Philosophy’ or ‘Head Riffs.’ 

His act was so impressive he was invited to open for jazz musicians including John Coltrane and Thelonius Monk. One night in Texas, B.B. King was trying to set up after Wavy (still Hugh Romney) had introduced him and Wavy was in the way. B.B. King clapped him on the shoulder and said, “Don’t worry Wavy Gravy, I’ll work around you.” Wavy’d been christened. 

Wavy brought his theater energies west and was a member of The Committee, an improvisational group in San Francisco. Eventually, he and friends formed a commune which was called the Hog Farm because of a gig they had living on a mountain top in California, rent free for slopping the hogs. Wavy and his Hog Farm Commune criss-crossed the country in buses to bring anti-war messages to college campuses.  

No stranger to stardom, he has been in the national eye since Woodstock where he made the famous announcement, “What we’re thinking of is breakfast in bed for 400,000.” He has been on the cover of Rolling Stone Magazine and Life, as the psychedelic hero, crony to the Merry Pranksters and an original acid test survivor.  

Because of beatings he received during anti-war demonstrations, Wavy had to have several spinal fusions. After the last fusion, he was severally depressed, “bouncing on the bottom,” he called it. 

But someone suggested he work at Children’s Hospital and gave him a red nose to wear there. He went and found the antidote to his depression was the children. (They lit up at the sight of his red nose.)  

The more involved he got with the children, the more he lost track of his own personal pain. He worked at Children’s Hospital for many years. One nurse remembers his devoted readings of Wind in the Willows to a girl who had spina bifida. “He was so unassuming and soft spoken,” said Eileen Barrett (sister of the author). “He came week after week after week, his book tucked under his arm. He was perfect for her.” 

Wavy kept dressing as a clown when he discovered cops didn’t hit him anymore. He’s always touted laughter. “Humor enables people to see things in a new way. When people laugh their defenses go down.” 

When he met his wife, to whom he’s been married 35 years, he knew she was the one because she put peanuts on his hamburger. They bought a ranch in Leggett, and there they run a summer camp for kids called Camp Winnarainbow. The basic idea of the camp is to “set up a palette where people can discover they’re a star.” 

Wavy’s such a famous man, Ben and Jerry designed an ice cream flavor for him, “a very complex blend,” Rob at the Ben and Jerry’s on Oxford Street says. It took about two hundred taste tests to hit the right balance. Money from the ice cream sales is donated to assure diversity at Camp Winnarainbow.  

The camp pays him a monthly salary and his room and board. Although many think he’s a ‘godzillionaire,’ Wavy claims he has only $300 in the bank, that he just deposited. He lives in north Berkeley in a place he calls ‘Hippie Hyannisport’ in a multi-generational communal household. He says he’s thinking of slowing down a little, but right now in addition to the fund-raiser and getting Camp Winnarainbow ready for the summer onslaught, he has an art show hanging in San Francisco at the Laser Reflection Gallery.  

His work, he says, is done out of “pure greed and selfishness. It gets me stoned – a high that is not in the pharmaceutical cabinet.” 

When the phone rings and the caller asks him how he is, his answer “Semi–spectacular” is only semi-accurate. Drop the semi and you’d have the full truth.  

Call SEVA at 845-7382 for information on tickets for the fund-raiser.