The master of ceremonies at the 1969 Woodstock music festival, who is responsible for the famous quote “What we have in mind is breakfast in bed for 400,000″ and for whom a nutty Ben & Jerry’s ice cream flavor was named, spent the summer of 1958 entertaining the beat generation in Dock Square.
Wavy Gravy, a nickname later given to him by B.B. King, was still using his birth name, Hugh Romney, in July of 1958 when the editor of the Coast Star wrote “The latest invasion from the outer Bohemia of San Francisco, New York and Boston is the Café on the Square. Here one may purchase espresso coffee and exotic iced drinks while soaking up the atmosphere which consists of abstract paintings, candles in Chianti bottles, checkered table cloths, a bearded poet who reads and a guitar player, disguised in dark glasses, who offers some very good Flamenco …; Jon Adams, the bearded proprietor who reads his own work tries to give the impression that he is telling a story as he reads in his relaxed manner. In fact, he often prefaces a poem by a dialogue to explain it.
“These preliminaries are sometimes more interesting than the work itself. To relieve his partner, Hugh Romney, painter, poet, coffee maker, also reads. His manner is intense as he leans across the table and draws in his audience.”
The editor was impressed enough with Jon Adams and Hugh Romney to publish a booklet of their poetry that summer called Kaleidoscope.
Your Old News columnist had the unique pleasure to speak to the ’60s icon Wavy Gravy recently about his summer in Kennebunkport.
Hugh and his classmate, Jon Adams, were both attending BU Theatre School on the GI bill. Hugh had read about the Beat Jazz-Poetry cafes on the west coast and suggested to his friend that they try something similar on the east coast. The two young men with military discharge money burning holes in their pockets hitchhiked to Old Orchard Beach hoping to get some advice from an old friend of Jon’s.
They arrived late at night and after a short visit that did not produce the sought after advice, walked south along the beaches all the way to Kennebunkport. Exhausted, the travelers wandered into the village hoping to find a place to sleep. Spotting a little vacant building across from Weinstein’s Fruit and Produce, they went in and fell asleep on the floor.
In the morning Mr. Weinstein woke them up to encourage them to move along. Not yet refreshed, the young men asked if the little building was for rent. Mr. Weinstein was surprised when after giving the boys a price for the whole summer they reached into their pockets and pulled out the full amount.
Their landlord left with his money and Hugh and Jon went back to sleep. When they awoke again the first of many young faces was pressed against the window initiating what would be a successful enterprise for the hard-working entrepreneurs.
Friends and fellow performers from the Boston club Pat’s Pebble in the Rock, came to Kennebunkport to entertain their patrons. One such friend, gifted Flamenco guitarist Augustin de Mello was thrilling the audience one day when an appreciative listener yelled “Ole!”
Hugh, thinking they were ordering cafe au lait, swung around to respond catching the cord of the coffee maker perched atop the refrigerator with his arm. The coffee poured down his back scalding him badly. Wavy Gravy remembers that the local police rushed him to the hospital in a squad car while he faded in and out of consciousness. He was bandaged up and sent back to work where he had to rely on his friends to change the dressings between sets.
Hugh and Jon also rented a small cabin on the outskirts of town. One night a banging kept them awake. Jon suggested it might be a deer ramming the cabin with his antlers but when Hugh went outside there was no deer. Eventually the source of the persistent noise was discovered. A skunk was thrashing around under the cabin trying to escape a mason jar that was stuck on his head. Wavy recalls trying to become one with the skunk and trying telepathically to convey how to remove the jar with his hands but the skunk did not receive his vibe. The men put cotton in their ears and fell asleep. When they woke up the skunk was gone.
At the end of the summer of 1958, Hugh Romney got a scholarship to study at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York City. As poetry director and performer at the famous Gaslight Café in Greenwich Village Hugh was at the convergence of the Beat, Folk and Hippy movements until his manager, comedy legend Lenny Bruce, asked him to move to the west coast in 1962.
Wavy Gravy still lives at Hog Farm in Berkley, Calif., America’s oldest commune and directs a performing arts camp for kids and adults called Winnarainbow across the street.
Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead once referred to him as a saint for his philanthropic work with the SEVA Foundation, an organization that supports health, education and sustainable community development around the world. Wavy, who has described himself simply as “an activist, clown and former frozen dessert” responded “Saint Misbehavin, maybe” thereby naming a soon to be released movie about his life.