The Cockettes: 2 and a half years, 40 years later

I have recently written an article about The Cockettes for Laser Magazine #3.
Read the full text after the jump.

The Cockettes in Laser Magazine

Almost 40 years ago, on New Years Eve 1969/70, The Cockettes had their first stage appearance, dancing for 5 minutes to “Honky Tonk Woman” by the Rolling Stones. San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood, at that time infamous for many of the city’s striptease clubs, was the showcase for the outing of the glitter hippie drag ensemble.

  • 31 December 1969: First stage performance of The Cockettes in San Francisco
  • Spring 1971: Hibiscus, the founder of The Cockettes and around 10 people leave the troupe and form The Angels of Light
  • 07 November 1971: The Cockettes’ New York City premiere turns into a major flop
  • 15 July 1972: The final Cockettes show is called “The First Annual Miss de Meanor Beauty Pagent” and features Divine and Mink Stole

For the only two and a half years they existed, The Cockettes would mainly perform at The Palace Theatre. This Chinese movie theater, seating 1200 people, showed Chinese-language films in the main spot. The Chinese audience would pour out at midnight, running into a huge crowd of crazy hippies, drag queens and dolled up freaks, waiting to come into the Nocturnal Dream Shows. The shows started as an underground movie series, screening Betty Boop cartoons, Hollywood classics, Kenneth Anger, Busby Berkeley and John Waters movies.

After the success of their 5-minute dancing interlude, the Cockettes live performances became part of the after-midnight entertainment.
According to their manager Sebastian, who was also partly responsible for the movie programming at The Palace, The Cockettes described themselves as “Theatre of Sexual Role Confusion”. This sounds so much better than gender-fuck, a term that was coined later to describe gender trouble and the use of parody to blur traditional gender roles and introduce ambiguity and gender confusion.

Most of the group members lived in communes in the hippie neighborhood of Haight Ashbury. They used layers and layers of vintage thrift store clothes, custom jewelery, Chinatown paraphernalia, taking inspiration from 30’s and 40’s movies and musicals, and applied tons of glitter, preferably glimmering up their beards and private parts to bring their day and night personas to live.

The Cockettes didn’t care about traditional drag. They pumped out so many versions of drag, it was hard to keep track: Straight women as drag queens (now known as faux queens), straight men as glitter beard queens, lesbians as drag kings, men as woman, men as men, women as woman, women as men as dolls, adult babies on LSD and so on. Nudity and dangling dicks, bopping boobs. Of course it helped that The Cockettes were super high on drugs and expressed themselves on stage in every way possible and impossible.

Their first shows were loose dance party happenings, then Broadway musicals got a Cockette-over and finally the troupe produced their own material as in more scripted performances or plays. However, the Cockettes rarely rehearsed, everything happened on stage and on drugs.
“Gone with the Showboat to Oklahoma” from April 1970 (the title mixes the Broadway musicals, Show Boat and Oklahoma, with Gone with the Wind, which would also become a musical later in the 70ties) was their first show to use real sets, a show boat that collapsed over the Southern Bells, town whores and saloon girls mid song.

Their most successful and first original scripted production, “Pearls over Shanghai”, premiered in November 1970. Pearls is described as a comic mock-operetta about white slavery and miscegenation set in the colorful world of 1937 Shanghai, China.

For the 40th anniversary of the formation of The Cockettes, the show is resurrected in San Francisco this summer, performed by The Thrillpeddlers. A couple of original Cockettes are involved in the updated Pearls: Tahara and Billy Bowers are part of the costume design team, composer Richard “Scrumbly” Koldewyn serves as musical director and the cast includes Rumi Missabu, reprising his role as the evil Madame Gin Sling.

In April / May of 1971, before the midnight movie success of “Pink Flamingos”, Sebastian brought Divine to San Francisco for the screening of John Water’s Mondo Trasho and put her on the bill with The Cockettes. In her show stopping number, Divine wheeled out a shopping cart loaded with dead fish, throwing them at the audience. John Waters would later use Divine’s act in “Female Trouble”, blowing it up even more, when the drugged up queen shoots at people in the theatre.

John Waters remembers: “Divine came out here [San Francisco] for the very first time – he was still Harris Glen Milstead then – and The Cockettes flew him in. He got on an airplane in full drag without one penny in his pocket with those fake tits and everything, and sat by himself on the airplane. [“¦]. He got off the plane and The Cockettes met him at the airport in full drag and he never went back, ever, in his mind to being that other person.”

The Cockettes in Laser Magazine

Around the same time, in spring of 1971, Hibiscus, the founder of the Cockettes left the troupe with another 10 members and formed The Angels of Light. The breakup was mostly about money, was für eine Überraschung! It is widely reported that Hibiscus felt the shows should be free. An entrance fee of $2 or $3 was not acceptable to him.

Hibiscus convinced his former lover, the poet Allen Ginsberg, to perform with the Angels of Light and to appear as a Yiddish Mama in the documentary style film, “Pickup’s Tricks“, which features a series of performances by Hibiscus as a crucified Jesus Christ, the target of a golden shower and a gay Bacchus-styled reveler. Other performances included former Cockettes and Angels of Light members, like Pristine Condition, Sandi Love and Fayette Hauser, as a band of glittered, partially nude freaks.
Critics arriving at the opening of “Pickup’s Tricks” at the Palace Theater in 1973 were attacked by the screeching Angels of Light, who objected to the film being shown commercially.

Besides shows in San Francisco and New York, Hibiscus and the Angels even enlightened Europe three times. Clips of the show “The Shocking Pink Life of Jayne Champagne” can be found on youtube, where queens are dancing in rhinestone covered, pink, Las Vegas-style showgirl outfits with ginormous feathered head pieces. A lot of Pink Life looks like a more traditional, though extravagant, drag performance sans the glitter beards of Cockette times.

One of the commenter’s on the clip gives details from the show’s poster:
“From Award Winning European Tour
Hibiscus and Angel Jack Present
FEMME FATALE The Shocking Pink Life of Jayne Champagne
Featuring Hibiscus, Angel Jack, Java, Sugar, Mr. Greece, Eloise, Chi Chi
Montgomery Playhouse, 622 Broadway (at Grant Ave.), [San Francisco]
Opens August 5, 1976 at 8:30 p.m. – $5.00 General Admission
Special Midnight Shows Friday and Saturday – Original Music by Ann Harris”

Most likely, this is less of an Angel of Light gig and more of a collaboration with Hibiscus’ then boyfriend, Angel Jack. The couple had moved to New York in 1972, around the same time that the Cockettes disbanded.

Once before, the Big Apple was the nurturing ground for Hibiscus. In 1964, at the age of 15, back when he was still known as George Harris III, his parents, who had a background as theatre performers, moved to the New York. In fact, father and son could be seen on stage together, in Ronald Tavel‘s jungle-movie parody play “Gorilla Queen” in March 1967.

Apart from being in the circle of the Theatre of Ridiculous, George also became friends with the influential artist and filmmaker Jack Smith of “Flaming Creatures” fame and the writer Irving Rosenthal. It was Rosenthal who took Harris on a cross-country trip to San Francisco in the fall of ’67 and gave him a home in his Kaliflower commune, introducing him to the “hippie-utopian ideal that everything should be free”.

Back in New York from his San Francisco years, Hibiscus formed the rock band “Hibiscus and the Screaming Violets”. His sister recalls in a New York Times article: “And, yeah, he had his preppy moments and had some straight jobs, like the time he ran a florist shop, but there’s also a photo of Hibiscus around the same time in pure drag next to François Mitterand. He was a chameleon.”
Hibiscus died of HIV related illnesses in May 1982.

The premiere of a new documentary about The Angels of Light by controversial filmmaker Mary Jordan, who also did “Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis”, should happen later this year. A rather dull trailer can be found online and one can only hope that the movie kicks it up a few notches.

Back to The Cockettes and the often-told tale of their 1971 New York debacle. It was an incredibly über-hyped event that did not live up to the expectations of the press and the audience. Prior to the premiere, the drag hippies attended parties all over town, as part of the promotion and anticipation, including events thrown by Robert Rauschenberg and Diana Vreeland.

“History of a hype: Worm in Big Apple” by Maureen Orth, published in The Village Voice, November 25, 1971 gives some insight: “Integral to the making of the myth were the word-of-mouth reports spread around town by key writers, editors, or celebrities who saw the Cockettes behave outrageously at the Whitney, in Max’s, and at all the posh parties where they were honored guest. Everyone expected they’d be even better on stage, but that’s a misconception. The Cockettes are much better in real live.”

Many reasons were given for the NYC flop:

  • The troupe choose to perform the weak “Tinsel Tarts In A Hot Coma” on opening night;
  • Excessive partying didn’t leave time for rehearsals;
  • The stage of the Anderson Theatre was much bigger than in San Francisco and therefore the sets seemed lost;
  • The sound system was terrible;
  • It was a culture clash between New York and San Francisco mentalities and expectations.

Even though “Pearls Over Shanghai” was performed for two more weeks, the New York damage was done. The premiere was attended by the who-is-who list and they didn’t come back: John Lennon, Truman Capote, Gore Vidal, Anthony Perkins, Angela Lansbury, Holly Woodlawn, Candy Darling and Andy Warhol.

After returning home to San Francisco, The Cockettes continued to perform, but the troupe frizzled out within a couple of months. Their final show took place at the House of Good on July 15, 1972. Mink Stole remembers: “I was part of the last – last official – Cockettes show, called “The First Annual Miss de Meanor Beauty Pagent”. Divine was the ruling “Miss de Meanor”. And the woman who won, was a real woman. Her name was China White, she stripped her way to the top and as she was driving home that night, she was arrested because of possession of some illegal who-knows-what. She really earned the title of Miss de Meanor 1972.”

Sylvester, who eventually emerged as an artist in his own right, establishing himself as a disco diva, was the only performer loved by the audience and critics in New York. He arrived in San Francisco in 1970 and moved right into the “Haight Street Chateau”, the main Cockettes commune. Sylvester liked to say: “Well, the Cockettes, when you walk down the street and you see somebody sitting in a mud puddle, and they invite you to jump in and you do – that’s the Cockettes.”

The black drag queen appeared in the Cockettes shows, frequently parodying black stereotypes, something quite unusual at that time. Most often, Sylvester’s numbers would feature himself on stage only accompanied by a piano, singing with his breathtaking falsetto. As a royal diva, he was extremely wary of not being upstaged by other members of the group and face-slapped Hibiscus backstage, after the hippie drag queen stole his spotlight when he had the nerve to appear in a zebra costume during one of Sylvester’s songs.

Following the New York disaster, Sylvester left the Cockettes to work with Motown producer Harvey Fuqua and dance music pioneer Patrick Cowley, releasing his biggest hits, the disco classics “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” in 1978 and “Do You Wanna Funk” in 1982. His backup singers were the Two Tons o’Fun, Martha Wash and Izora Rhodes, who stormed the international charts as The Weather Girls. Sylvester died of AIDS related diseases in December 1988. His androgynous style paved the way for the likes of Prince and Boy George.

For more on The Cockettes including interviews with former glitter queens, check out the documentary by Bill Weber and David Weissman.

Additional Sources:
– “Das einzige, was wir mit den Hippies gemeinsam hatten, waren Drogen”, Mink Stole interviewed by Mike Kelly, from “Golden Years, Materialien und Positionen zu queerer Subkultur und Avantgarde zwischen 1959 und 1974“, Edition Camera Austria 2006
– “Kleine Strolche”, Interview with Sebastian by Mike Kelly, from “Golden Years, Materialien und Positionen zu queerer Subkultur und Avantgarde zwischen 1959 und 1974“, Edition Camera Austria 2006
Theatre Journal column by Michael Smith, The Village Voice, Nov 18, 1971
– “The Fabulous Sylvester” by Joshua Gamson, Picador, 2005

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