January 5, 2011 / 8:45 PM / 7 years ago

Billionaire scion Pritzker pays homage to '60s hippie

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - In San Francisco, where hippies and billionaires glide in the same social circles, John Pritzker has a foot in both camps.

The 57-year-old investor is a scion of the Chicago family behind the Hyatt hotel chain, with a personal net worth of about $1.4 billion, according to Forbes.

But back in the day he was an avid Grateful Dead fan, even moving to San Francisco during the 1970s so that he could be closer to his heroes. He recalled in a recent interview with Reuters that he saw the band about 50 times, but quickly noted that he was not as avid than many other Deadheads.

Like most baby boomers, he was distracted as he grew older by family and business commitments, and his politics became a little more conservative. But he never completely abandoned the youthful idealism of the counter-culture movement.

So it is not completely paradoxical that the proud capitalist has funded a new documentary "Saint Misbehavin': The Wavy Gravy Movie," about the man who is one of the last 1960s radicals still unreservedly upholding the era's classic tenets of peace and love.

"A lot of the ethos of how I view business and how I conduct my day and how I think about things was very heavily influenced by guys like Wavy, or Wavy as a metaphor for the era," said Pritzker, who is heavily involved in the boutique hotel business in California.

To many other Americans, Wavy Gravy is a Ben & Jerry's ice cream flavor. But to people who know him, the name was first the B.B. King-bestowed nom de guerre of Hugh Romney, a beat poet who once shared a Greenwich Village room with Bob Dylan in the early 1960s.

He is immortalized in the "Woodstock" film as the hippie who proclaimed from the stage, "What we have in mind is breakfast in bed for 400,000."

FREE ICE CREAM FOR LIFE

Since then, Wavy Gravy has spent most of his life running a summer camp for children and raising money for a charity that combats curable blindness in the third world, often dressed as a clown.

Without Pritzker and documentary filmmaker Michelle Esrick, the 74-year-old comic activist's life story would likely be lost to the ages. Sadly, Ben & Jerry's discontinued his namesake flavor, though he still gets free unlimited ice cream from the company.

Esrick spent several years following Wavy Gravy for "Saint Misbehavin'" which depicts Wavy Gravy's various turns as a poet, political activist and a humanitarian. A-list friends like musicians Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt provide glowing testimonials.

Pritzker, who vaguely knew Wavy Gravy through a mutual friend, came aboard after viewing a rough cut that left him overcome by emotion.

"I wanted my kids to see it, and I wanted there to be a record of the era and where people's hearts and heads were," Pritzker said. "And Wavy as a representative of it, who would you rather have? He tells the story pretty gloriously."

His body ravaged by numerous police beatings, Wavy Gravy emerges as a resolutely upbeat senior citizen. He reveals that he started dressing up during Vietnam War protests after correctly guessing the police would never attack someone in a clown costume.

"He comes off as a clown, so it's easy to dismiss him ... and I've never gotten the sense that Wavy cared," Pritzker said. "That's how altruistic the guy is!"

Things get more serious and emotional as Wavy Gravy travels to Nepal to watch locals get cataract surgery thanks to the fundraising efforts of his Seva foundation. He had long refused to travel there in the belief that money spent on his airfare could be better spent on the ground.

The film's cost was negligible to Pritzker -- "way under a million" dollars, he said -- but he ensured there were some checks and balances along the way.

"On one hand, I wanted it to be an homage to the era. On the other hand, I'm not out of my mind," he said. "It didn't have to be an epic to the era."

Pritzker's siblings are also involved in filmmaking -- his sister, Gigi, produced the new Nicole Kidman drama "Rabbit Hole" -- but he considers himself "too nebbish" for Hollywood, and he declined to supply a photo for this article.

He says he was "mortified" to see his name flash across the screen during the closing credits. "I was so embarrassed, so that's how I know I'm not meant to be in the movie business."

Reporting by Dean Goodman; Editing by Bob Tourtellotte

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