By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
Set back about 50 yards from Haskell Avenue, the church is at the end of an asphalt path lined with shrubbery and vibrant flowers that culminates in a circular driveway. It was constructed in 1964 by Neutra contemporary Frank Ehrenthal and is regarded as one of the world’s first round churches. Sawyer likens the church to the Hagia Sophia, though it has taken on "The Onion" as a nickname on account of its bulbous, wineglass-upside-down-without-a-stem shape. In 1969, the church was renamed Sepulveda Unitarian Universalist Society.
Sawyer, who until his retirement this past summer was the reverend of Throop Memorial Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasadena, met Kesey in 1965 at San Francisco State University, where Kesey was giving a speech about Sometimes a Great Notion. Afterward, Kesey invited Sawyer, his wife and kids up to La Honda for a ride on the bus and a glimpse at a real, live Hell’s Angel. (The Pranksters’ relatively harmonious relationship with the biker gang came to an abrupt end after an Angel stabbed a black fan to death during the Rolling Stones’ set at Altamont Speedway, an event captured in the stark Gimme Shelterdocumentary.) Later that year, Sawyer and Kesey were invited to speak at Asilomar, a new-age conference center on the coast of the Monterey Peninsula. Sawyer was tapped for his knowledge of the arts, religion and worship, and Kesey because One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest had turned on the head theologian at Asilomar.
Having labored all of his ministerial life under his association with Kesey, whom he says many considered crazy, Sawyer is nevertheless quick to exalt the man, his comrades and the overall experience: "Their goal and interest was really making life not just fun, but good in the deepest moral sense. There’s a deep morality to it — to make heaven on Earth, as they say, and to be quite deep at that. Not at all just some playing around. And playing around was part of it. Not to be so highly serious but to have a deep purpose. I think that’s underrated around Kesey’s situation, and I don’t think it comes through in Tom Wolfe’s book. He intimates that that’s what they were reaching for, but you don’t have the sense that they touch it."
The Pranksters went on to throw Tests throughout Los Angeles in 1966. The most notorious was at a Youth Opportunities Center in Watts on Abraham Lincoln’s birthday — only months after the Watts Riots. Reached by phone at "hippie Hyannisport," the communal house in Berkeley where he lives, Wavy Gravy of the Hog Farmers, a collective assembled to quell heads having bad trips, recalled that night. "The electric Kool-Aid was coined by me the night of the Watts Acid Test. Although [Wolfe] did maintain that I put the acid in the Kool-Aid at Watts — and I still have mothers hit me over the head with umbrellas for that one — I didn’t. In fact, I spent a good part of the evening saying the Kool-Aid on the right is for the children and the Kool-Aid on the left is the electric Kool-Aid. Get it? Nudge, nudge. My big falling out with the Pranksters is that I didn’t think people should take LSD unless they knew they were taking it."
Wavy’s eagerness to warn Test participants of the Kool-Aid’s contents stems from an incident involving the Who Cares Girl, the nickname for a freak-out at Watts who required heaps of love and affection to mollify.
Contrary to the Reverend Sawyer, photojournalist Larry Schiller never invited the Pranksters into his life, but they ended up in his home anyway. "I remember one night at 3064 Elvill Drive [in Studio City], my wife and I are in bed — and I’ve got three kids — and people are jumping up and down in our swimming pool," Schiller says, eating a steak with his bare hands in the commissary of a production office in Canoga Park. "And I get out of bed and go out and see who’s in our swimming pool. There they are — half a dozen people tripping out on acid. My wife went ballistic, but I didn’t because I recognized the faces. I later came to know them very quickly as the Merry Pranksters."
While under contract with Lifemagazine in the mid-’60s, Schiller was lured away by the big money of The Saturday Evening Post. When that publication failed, he returned home with his tail between his legs. No matter. He had a "get" that would land him back in the good graces of his Life editors. Following up on a tip from Dr. Sidney Cohen, an LSD expert stationed at Wadsworth Veterans Administration Hospital near UCLA, Schiller modified his idea of doing a medical story on LSD to focus on the subculture of teenagers winding up with psychoses from using the drug indiscriminately. The result was "LSD: The Exploding Threat of the Mind Drug That Got Out of Control," a cover story in the March 25, 1966, issue of Life that unintentionally aided in criminalizing the substance less than six months later.