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Cornwall Eclipse Of 1999: Merry Pranksters Came Together Like The Sun And Moon


Here’s an eclipse story for the books. On August 11, 1999, a total eclipse touched the tip of the United Kingdom at Cornwall. Oregonian author and counter-cultural icon, Ken Kesey, and his band of Merry Pranksters planned a festival to coincide with the solar event. They loaded their techno-color bus on a ship and forty Pranksters traveled “across the pond” to see what they could see.

“Well, I’m Alan Trist. I live in Eugene and I’m part of the old Grateful Dead network. And friendly with Ken Kesey and the Pranksters.”

Trist was born in Scotland. Cornwall, England is part of his patrimony—He’s a Cornish Celt. That August, in 1999, Trist took his son, Orion, on a trip to jolly ole England.  

“I discovered that Kesey and the Pranksters and the bus where going to be over there at the same time,” says Trist. “And learned that they were going to do one of their shows on the “Quest for Merlin” tour in Cornwall at a most amazing theatrical site.”

Credit Alan Trist
The Merry Pranksters performed "Quest For Merlin" during the solar eclipse at Cornwall, England. August 11, 1999.

The Minack Theatre was built in the 1930’s. It’s perched on a cliff above the Celtic Sea. The amphitheater is perfect for performances of Shakespeare’s Tempest or the Merry Prankster’s search for the legendary Merlin.

“The old story in English circles is that Merlin will return at the end of the millennium or the end of some period and restore England to what it should be,” Trist says. “Ken probably had the idea, ‘well let’s go find Merlin and find out what his idea of restoration is.’”

And Kesey surely knew that the Minack Theatre was the best place to witness the eclipse.

Credit Alan Trist
Alan Trist with son, Orion, readying for the 1999 eclipse over the Minack Theatre in Cornwall, England.

“It didn’t go anywhere else in England,” Trist says. “And it was mostly a sea event, But, the path of totality, which has become quite the phrase these days, happened to graze Cornwall and go right over this theater.” 

Once the Pranksters navigated their bus through the narrow lanes of Cornwall and found the Minack Theatre, they all pitched camp and waited. The eclipse would happen at 11 am.

Credit Suffolk Punch
Merry Pranksters, roused by Ken Kesey (center,) traveled to England with their bus, Further. They performed a show at the Menack Theatre during the 1999 solar eclipse.

“To meet your friends at such a location at such a moment is a huge thing. I mean, just the awesomeness of watching this performance on the top of the cliffs as the sky darkened,” says Trist. “And the birds became amazingly quiet. That’s one of the things I noticed. The raucous sea gulls quieted down. And if you’re not looking at the sun—you’re looking at what’s happening around you. And the Pranksters performance was timed to be in the middle of this eclipse. So as everything went dark and mysterious-- you certainly felt more Merlin-like or in a Merlin like situation than you did a few moments before.”

Credit Alan Trist
Preparing for the "Quest For Merlin" show just before the 1999 eclipse at Cornwall.

Trist says the Pranksters’ performance was unstructured, as usual, but that combined with the location and the celestial spectacle, made the total experience fascinating. And something Trist, his son, and the Pranksters won’t likely forget.

Credit Alan Trist
The Minack Theatre from below

“Just like the sun and the moon,” Trist says. “When you asked me to tell this story, the first thing I thought of was what really happened at that theater was a social reflection of what was happening in the sky—conjunction.”

Monday, Trist will experience his second total solar eclipse though he won’t be traveling as far this time.

Credit Tiffany Eckert
Alan Trist looks at photos of his 1999 trip to England where he met up with the Merry Pranksters during the total eclipse.

“Well I’ll be somewhere east of the Oregon coast.” (laugh)

Reporter: “Enough in the path to see?”

“In the path, yes. Somewhere up there.”

The eclipse touches down in Depoe Bay at 9:04 a.m. on August, 21st.

Tiffany joined the KLCC News team in 2007. She studied journalism at the University of Missouri-Columbia and has worked in a variety of media including television and daily print news. For KLCC, Tiffany reports on health care, social justice and local/regional news. She has won awards from Oregon Associated Press, PRNDI, and Education Writers Association.
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