SENSE AND COLOR: ARTISAN STORIES FROM OUR GRATEFUL DEAD COMMUNITY

By Trina Calderón

Wavy Gravy’s Podcast American Prankster Reminds Us Why We Love Festivals

In the summer of 1969, only a couple weeks before B.B. King called him Wavy for the first time onstage at the Texas International Pop Festival, Hugh Romney and his fellow Hog Farmers were hired to be security for Woodstock, the epic music festival in upstate New York. Expecting 200,000 fans to attend, on the day of show the turnstiles were not yet set up and people flocked into the field ticketless. Rather than try to kick everyone out, organizer Michael Lang rebranded the event a free concert, and nearly 500,00 people showed up! The world was watching as the traffic shut the New York State Thruway down and the youth of America gathered for three days of peace and music. 

Photograph © Michael Weintraub

Not everyone was prepared to be part of such a large crowd, and there was rain, but the Hog Farmers set a tone of sharing and caring that helped make the festival a success. They built fire pits, ran a free kitchen to provide food and water, supplied a steady stream of information, and offered a freakout tent for anyone who was too high and needed space. With many newly indoctrinated volunteers, the Hog Farmers created a good vibe and together in musical community everyone could dance and party in peace. Making his presence known on stage, Hugh told the crowd, “Good morning, what we have in mind is breakfast in bed for four hundred thousand.” And apparently, Woodstock was the first place hippies had granola, the foresight of the free kitchen who passed it out in dixie cups.

Today, Skull and Roses and other great festivals have followed the path laid out by Wavy and the Hog Farmers. RockMed, organic food trucks, and community volunteers contribute the same sensibilities and continue the groundwork for a place to celebrate peace and music. American Prankster is a new podcast with and about Wavy Gravy, created, narrated, and edited by his Camp Winnarainbow protégé, Thessaly Lerner, aka the Ukulady. The hilarious audio documentary pursues Hugh Romney through his life’s adventures from a small child to Wavy Gravy, our cool Hog Farm elder. Recorded during the pandemic, the series features eleven episodes with stories even Wavy forgot he knew. Guests on the series include members of the Hog Farm, the Merry Pranksters, Grateful Dead family, KMPX, The Committee, the Family Dog, the Medicine Ball Caravan, the Yippies and other counterculture institutions. 

In Wavy’s eighty years-plus on this planet, he’s been an active participant in the historical intersection of improvisational comedy, psychedelics, and activism. In fascinating conversations, Thessaly goes way back with him, and they talk about his childhood, growing up in Connecticut, and his early comedic curiosities. The stories develop his unique Beatnik persona in parallel with the world at large, which changed vastly from the 1940’s to the 1960’s.

Thessaly Lerner and Wavy

Thessaly is a VO actress/producer/director and is best known as the teen girl in the Sims 2 franchise and Lisa Garland in Silent Hill, the cult video game. She grew up a theater-loving child of hippies in Marin, and thus went to Camp Winnarainbow with her parent’s friend’s kids and took Wavy’s improv class for fifteen years, until she was teaching the class. Thessaly writes and produces colorful content and podcasts are a combination of her skills. “I heard the Mr. Rogers podcast and knew I had to make a pod with Wavy. He is one of the penultimate storytellers on planet Earth and as violence escalated in 2020, I felt a need to share the stories of our elders, specifically the non-violent protestors and peacemakers, with the young people of today. I’m obsessed with archiving the stories of my elders, who are the counter-culture ground floor members in a time in history unparalleled with the convergence of LSD, the pill, and rock ‘n’ roll, which became the music of the dissident, protest music. The trinity! Sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. I’m interested in the stories of the people who took hold of that trinity and changed culture,” she explained.

Photograph © Susana Millman

Produced by Rainbow Valentine Studios, American Prankster is available anywhere you stream podcasts. Listen to Wavy talk about the campaign to run a pig for president, being present at MLK’s “I have a Dream” speech, supporting his close friend comic Lenny Bruce, and meeting Ken Kesey in Los Angeles, of all places. Spending this time with Wavy to make the podcast was life-changing for Thessaly. She shared, “I was riveted, entertained, and laughed so hard during our interviews. He’s so funny. And brilliant, weird, and wonderful. It’s been incredible to weave together the narrative and put together the dots of my elders’/ancestors’ story and ‘things’ we take for granted…like improv comedy, granola, leotards, tie dye, and even the ability to party in a safe space. Wavy and his crew made these things a normal part of life.”

Trina Calderón is an LA-based writer, proud to be a part of the sunshine daydream of the Grateful Dead.