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Merry Pranksters

The Merry Pranksters were a group of people who formed around American author Ken Kesey in 1964. The group promoted the use of psychedelic drugs, then still legal.

Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters lived communally at Kesey's homes in California and Oregon, and are noted for the sociological significance of a lengthy road trip they took in the summer of 1964, traveling across the United States in a psychedelic painted school bus called "Furthur" or "Further". During this time they met many of the guiding lights of the mid 60's cultural movement and presaged what is commonly thought of as "hippies" with odd behavior, long hair on men, bizarre clothing, and a renunciation of the normal society, which they dubbed, "The Establishment". Tom Wolfe chronicled their early escapades in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test; Wolfe also documents a notorious 1966 trip on Further from Mexico through Houston, stopping to visit Kesey's friend, novelist Larry McMurtry. Kesey was in flight from a drug charge at the time. [1] Notable members of the group include Kesey's best friend Ken Babbs, Carolyn "Mountain Girl" Garcia, Lee Quarnstrom, and Neal Cassady. Stewart Brand, Paul Foster, the Warlocks (now known as the Grateful Dead), Del Close (then a lighting designer for the Grateful Dead), Wavy Gravy, Paul Krassner, and "Kentucky Fab Five" writers Ed McClanahan and Gurney Norman (who overlapped with Kesey and Babbs as creative writing graduate students at Stanford University) were associated with the group to varying degrees.

These events are also documented by one of the original pranksters, Lee Quarnstrom, in his memoir titled When I Was a Dynamiter.


  • Origin of name 1
  • Membership 2
    • On the bus 2.1
    • Off the bus 2.2
  • Eastward bus journey 3
  • Hells Angels 4
  • Later events 5
  • 2011 documentary 6
  • 50th Anniversary Trip 7
  • References 8
  • External links 9

Origin of name

In an interview on BBC World Service in August 2014,[2] Ken Babbs suggested that the name "The Merry Pranksters" was his idea:

Kesey and George Walker and I were out wandering around and the rest of the gang were sitting around a fire in Kesey’s house in La Honda, and when we came back it was dark and Mike Hagen called out “Halt! Who goes there?” And just out of the blue I said, “’Tis I, the intrepid traveller, come to lead his merry band of pranksters across the nation, in the reverse order of the pioneers! And our motto will be “the obliteration of the entire nation”…not taken literally of course, we won’t blow up their buildings, we’ll blow their minds!”


On the bus

Although many other friends and associates of Ken Kesey came and went to his La Honda, California ranch in the Santa Cruz Mountains south of San Francisco, the core group of what became the Merry Band of Pranksters who drove cross-country were:[3]

  • Ken Kesey ("The Chief," "Captain Flag" or "Swashbuckler"), author (1935-2001)
  • Neal Cassady ("Speed Limit"), driver (eastbound), author (1926-1968)
  • Cathy Casamo ("Stark Naked" or "Beauty Witch"), actress, girlfriend of Larry Hankin
  • Ron Bevirt ("Hassler"), photographer (1939-)
  • Ken Babbs ("Intrepid Traveler"), author (1939-)
  • John Babbs ("Sometimes Missing"), Ken Babbs' older brother (1937-2012)
  • Jane Burton ("Generally Famished")
  • Sandy Lehmann-Haupt ("Dis-Mount"), sound engineer (1942-2001)
  • Paula Sundsten ("Gretchen Fetchin" or "Slime Queen"), girlfriend of Ken Babbs
  • Mike Hagen ("Mal Function"), cameraman
  • George Walker ("Hardly Visible")[4]
  • Steve Lambrecht ("Zonker"), businessman (1942-1998)[5]
  • Chuck Kesey ("Brother Charlie"), Ken's brother
  • Dale Kesey ("Highly Charged"), Ken's brother
  • Dr Jimmy aka Acid slim- ("super Nova") Bears chemistry friend from Santa Clara

Off the bus

Other on-again, off-again Pranksters who did not participate in the first cross-country journey (but may have the later trips) include:[6][7]

  • Roy Sebern, artist
  • [8]
  • Chloe Scott, dancer (1925-)[9][10]
  • John Page Browning ("Zea-Lot" or "Cadaverous Cowboy"), light show operator (1938-1984)[11][12][13]
  • Gordon "Dass" Adams, Mountain Girl's brother (1940-)[14]
  • Anthony Dean Wells ("The Hermit")[15]
  • Denise Kaufman ("Mary Microgram"), musician with The Ace of Cups[16]
  • Ron Boise, sculptor (1931-1966)[17]
  • Tom Wolfe, author (1931-)
  • Paul Foster, cartoonist (1934-2003)
  • John Evenson
  • Peter Demma, co-owner of Hip Pocket Bookstore with Kesey[18]
  • Norman Hartweg, columnist (1947-)[19][20]
  • Bradley Hodgeman (aka Brad Hodgman)
  • Margie Piaggio ("Marge the Barge")[21]
  • Larry Hankin, actor (1940-)
  • Larry McMurtry, author (1936-)
  • Stewart Brand, author and futurist (1938-)
  • Del Close, comedian & performance coach (1934-1999)
  • Wavy Gravy, entertainer & activist (1936-)
  • Paul Krassner, author (1932-)
  • The Warlocks, original name of The Grateful Dead
  • Lee Quarnstrom, author (1939-)
  • Ed McClanahan, author (1932-)
  • Gurney Norman, author (1937-)
  • Linda Breen ("Anonymous")
  • Ray Donovan Slade, rock & roll manager, outlaw (1936-2013)
  • Henry Belliveau

Eastward bus journey

"Furthur", Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters' second bus

On June 17, 1964, Kesey and 13 Merry Pranksters boarded "Furthur" at Kesey's ranch in La Honda, California, and set off eastward. Kesey wanted to see what would happen when hallucinogenic-inspired spontaneity confronted what he saw as the banality and conformity of American society. One author () has suggested that the bus trip reversed the historic American westward movement of the centuries.[22]

The trip's original purpose was to celebrate the publication of Kesey's novel Sometimes a Great Notion (1964) and to visit the 1964 World's Fair in New York City. The Pranksters were enthusiastic users of marijuana, amphetamines, and LSD, and in the process of their journey they are said to have "turned on" many people by introducing them to these drugs.[23]

The stated destination of the psychedelically painted bus - destination "further" - was the Merry Pranksters' goal: a destination that could only be obtained through the expansion of one's own perceptions of reality. They traveled cross-country giving LSD to anyone who was willing to try it (LSD was legal in the United States until October 1966).[23]

Novelist [24]

Hells Angels

Kesey and the Pranksters also had a relationship with the outlaw motorcycle gang the Hells Angels, whom Kesey introduced to LSD. The details of their relationship are documented in Wolfe's above-mentioned book, in Hunter S. Thompson's book, Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs (1966), and in Allen Ginsberg's poem about the Kesey/Angels relationship, titled "First Party at Ken Kesey's with Hell's Angels" (December 1965).[25]

Later events

In 1969, Further and the Pranksters (minus Kesey) attended the Woodstock rock festival. In the same year, they were also present at the Texas Pop Festival at Lewisville, Texas.[26]

A collection by Kesey of short pieces, several about the Merry Pranksters, called Demon Box (1986), was a critical success,[27] although a subsequent novel, Sailor Song (1992),[28] was not, with critics complaining it was too spacey for comprehension. In 1994, Kesey toured with the Pranksters, performing a play he'd written in 1989 about the millennium, influenced by L. Frank Baum's Wizard of Oz works, called Twister: A Ritual Reality in Three Quarters Plus Overtime if Necessary.

The Merry Pranksters filmed and audiotaped much of what they did during their bus trips. Some of this material has surfaced in documentaries, including the BBC's Dancing In the Street.[29] Some of the Pranksters have released some of the footage on their own, and a version of the film edited by Kesey himself is available through his son Zane's website.[30] On August 14, 1997, Kesey appeared with the Merry Pranksters at a Phish concert during a performance of the song "Colonel Forbin's Ascent" from the album The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday (1987). Kesey and the Pranksters also helped stage The Enit Festival held on November 22, 1997, with Jane's Addiction, Funky Tekno Tribe, Goldie, and Res Fest to round out the bill held at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium.

The original Prankster bus is at Kesey's farm in Oregon. In November 2005, it was pulled out of the swamp by Zane Kesey and family and a group of the original Merry Pranksters with the intent of restoring it.[31][32] The Smithsonian Institution sought to acquire the bus, which is no longer operable, but Kesey refused. Kesey attempted, unsuccessfully, to prank the Smithsonian by passing off a phony bus.

Kesey died of complications due to liver cancer in November 2001. Ken Babbs attempts to keep the Prankster spirit alive through his Skypilot Club website, which is a spoof of 1950s comic book clubs and which encourages psychedelic ideals and "mind-expanding" experiences, particularly through immersion in the emotion of love.

On December 10, 2003, Ken Babbs hosted a memorial to Kesey with String Cheese Incident and various other old and new Pranksters. It was held at the McDonald Theatre in Eugene Oregon. The proceeds helped to raise money for the Ken Kesey Memorial sculpture designed by Peter Helzer. The bronze sculpture depicted a life-size Kesey reading to three children while seated on a curved granite bench covered with quotes from Kesey's novels One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962) and Sometimes a Great Notion (1964). (Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Brian Lanker supplied the image.) Other benefactors for the project include Bob Weir, Paul Newman (who starred in the 1971 film adaptation of Sometimes a Great Notion) and Michael Douglas (who produced the 1975 film version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest).

In 2005, Kesey's son Zane asked a friend, Matthew Rick, also known as Shady Backflash, to put on a 40th anniversary of his father's Acid Tests. Matthew gathered a small group of promoters, including Rob Robinson from New York, to help him produce the event, which was held in Las Vegas on October 31, 2005. It was known as AT40. Zane has hosted several Acid Test parties since then.

2011 documentary

Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood directed a documentary film Magic Trip (2011) about the Merry Pranksters, which was released on August 5, 2011.

50th Anniversary Trip

In April 2014, Zane, along with friend Derek Stevens, announced a Kickstarter to fund a 50th anniversary Furthur Bus Trip, offering donors a chance to ride the famous bus. The fundraiser was successful, and the trip took place between June and September 2014.[33] Over 100 participants were invited to ride on legs of the trip as a new batch of Merry Pranksters. The 2014 journey was over 15,000 miles, 53 different events, took place in 29 different states and was 75 days of Merry Prankster mayhem and fun on the road. A group of filmmakers from Canada are producing a documentary about the project slated for release in 2015 under the title "Going Furthur." [34]


  1. ^ Anderson, Kurt (Host) (August 12, 2011). "Episode #1232: Ken Kesey’s Magic Trip and Extreme Tango". Studio 360. 
  2. ^ BBC Radio 4 Witness Programme, first aired 31 August 2014.
  3. ^ Merry Pranksters listing from Cathy Casamo
  4. ^
  5. ^!topic/
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  11. ^!topic/alt.books.beatgeneration/r9bGYwaA2H0
  12. ^
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  22. ^ Cavallo, Dominick (1999). A Fiction of the Past: The Sixties in American History. New York: St. Martin's Press. pp. 110–11.  
  23. ^ a b Studio 360: Episode #1232
  24. ^ Stone, Robert (2007). Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties. HarperCollins. p. 120. 
  25. ^ Ginsberg, Allen (1988). Collected Poems 1947-1980. Harper Perennial Library Edition. p. 374. 
  26. ^ "Texas Pop Festival". 
  27. ^ Kesey, Ken (1987 (first published in 1986)). Demon Box. Penguin Books.  
  28. ^ Kesey, Ken (1993 (first published in 1992)). Sailor Song. Penguin Books.  
  29. ^ [Twister: A Ritual Reality in Three Quarters Plus Overtime if Necessary "Dancing In the Street"] . IMDb. 1995. 
  30. ^ Kesey, Zane (Producer) (2011). Magic Trip: Ken Kesey's Search for a Kool Place. 
  31. ^ "Ken Kesey’s original magic bus being restored". MSNBC. January 20, 2006. Retrieved July 15, 2012. 
  32. ^ Barnard, Jeff (9 January 2006). "Kesey's bus on magic road to resurrection (Associated Press)".  
  33. ^ """Furthur Bus 50th Anniversary "Trip. Kickstarter. April 28, 2014. 
  34. ^

External links

  • Ken Kesey & the Merry Pranksters website - with timeline, posters, recordings & Acid Test essay, maintained by psychedelic researcher Patrick Lundborg
  • Psychedelic 60s: Ken Kesey & the Merry Pranksters at University of Virginia library
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