Local News Matters Arts & Entertainment newsletter
End your week with a bit of culture to unwind and refresh. Sign up for our surprising and inspiring options in our weekly newsletter, delivered on Thursdays with news about Bay Area arts and entertainment.
Just as Kamala Harris stands on the shoulders of Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks and Shirley Chisholm, today’s drag queens stand on the shoulders of the Cockettes.
That gaggle of gender-bending, sequin-studded or naked in-your-face hippies traces back to when, hours before 1970 began, some dozen Cockettes exploded into public consciousness by wildly dancing and flailing on the stage of the Pagoda Palace Theater in San Francisco’s North Beach while singing the Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women.”
After that, the avant-garde contingent quickly gained a Bay Area cult following because of its monthly LSD-laced late Saturday night performances that became part of the Palace’s Nocturnal Dream Show.
Productions spotlighted original costumes concocted mainly from thrift shops and flea markets, not to mention glitter that adorned eyes, beards and penises.
Before eventually earning a few American dollars, the Cockettes were paid in free admissions to the midnight screenings of vintage and experimental films.
They didn’t care. They were used to having little money in their Haight-Ashbury commune, Kaliflower, which had blossomed after the Summer of Love and was dedicated to distributing free food and creating free art and theater.
The utopian commune also emphasized a common treasury, group marriage and gay liberation.
One Cockette, Richard “Scrumbly” Koldewyn, recalls the counterculture troupe shaking off “any vestiges of shame around being queer.”
“Our statement was simply, this is who we are, no apologies — in fact, celebrating it — and f— ’em if they can’t take a joke,” he says.
The group, he says, accented “gender role confusion” and “inspired a lot more people to do outrageous over-the-top, make-a-statement drag, whether male or female.”
Koldewyn also affirms that “we’d bring home hot guys, and they’d make the rounds of half the beds in the house over a few days’ time.”
“Sweet Pam” Tent, author of a 2004 memoir, “Midnight at the Palace: My Life as a Fabulous Cockette,” says she doesn’t believe “there will ever be another time of such innocence and wild abandon. We had no agenda except to delight in our freedom from sexual and social mores and to share it with our peers.”
Tent, now writing “a character-driven novel filled with quirky characters living in a retirement community,” elaborates: “No one knew how to define us. There were no media labels to divide us yet — no gay, bi, trans; you were either straight or a freak. …We abandoned all constraints onstage and off. We lived our art. We were like the Little Rascals on acid doing Busby Berkeley musicals. We were lucky enough to live our fantasies in the golden age of psychedelic euphoria.”
Also prominent in the Cockettes, who merged feminine and masculine traits and costuming and thereby diverged from conventional female-impersonation shows like those staged at Finocchio’s, were Hibiscus, Fayette and Divine:
• Hibiscus (George Edgerly Harris III) founded the theater troupe at age 20 after having gained fame from being photographed stuffing a flower into the barrel of a rifle two years earlier during a protest at the Pentagon. He died in ’82, one of the first AIDS fatalities.
• Fayette Hauser this year marked the group’s half-century anniversary with a coffee-table book, “The Cockettes: Acid Drag & Sexual Anarchy.” She detailed what it was like back then: “Start with sexy, then add fantasy … This was our elixir, our rocket ship to Nirvana, and we rode it right into the stratosphere. Within this milieu we were able to create stage and drag concepts that revealed our inner nature … We were so far ahead of our time that it’s taken 50 years to catch up.”
• Divine (Harris Glenn Milstead), star of John Waters films, joined the Cockettes — after their ill-fated trip to New York City — in an original San Francisco play called “Journey to the Center of Uranus” dressed as a red lobster.
Early gigs tended to parody Broadway musicals (original lyrics were superimposed on, for instance, Noël Coward and Cole Porter tunes). But they were mostly improvised because the actors preferred not knowing how the stories would end. That technique, they were convinced, would ensure results being “magical.”
Later shows (like “Tinsel Tarts in a Hot Coma”), though, were actually scripted — the tour de force becoming “Pearls Over Shanghai,” with music by Koldewyn. Link Martin, a.k.a. Luther Thomas Cupp, penned lyrics and story.
The group’s fame rapidly spread nationwide through stories in Rolling Stone, Esquire, Life, Look and Rex Reed’s syndicated newspaper column, and by word-of-mouth through celebrities such as bestselling author Truman Capote and socialite fashionista Gloria Vanderbilt.
Notoriety, however, trailed the Cockettes’ 33-minute 1971 film, “Tricia’s Wedding,” which spoofed the ceremony of President Richard Nixon’s daughter by depicting a cross-dressing Tricia, a drunk Mamie Eisenhower and singer Eartha Kitt dumping LSD into the punch bowl.
That didn’t stop the troupe — whose 47-person can-can chorus line never quite resembled Radio City Music Hall’s Rockettes, whose name they mimicked — from flying to the Big Apple to appear on a bill with another Cockette, Sylvester, an androgynous African American singer known for falsetto singing.
The show may have tanked simply because New York audiences expected professionalism. Actor Angela Lansbury and artist Andy Warhol, in fact, walked out — along with a healthy chunk of the audience. And author Gore Vidal was snarky afterwards: “Having no talent is not enough.”
Tent recollects she was eight months pregnant at the time, and that she and Scrumbly “had a child together, after a wedding on Mount Tam” photographed by Rolling Stone photographer Annie Leibovitz.
When the troupe returned to San Francisco, it produced shows into 1972, after which individual Cockettes left for New York and Los Angeles to perform. A handful formed a spinoff group, The Angels of Light. For several decades, though, public appearances of Cockette troupers were either severely limited or nonexistent.
Then, in 2002, “The Cockettes” (http://cockettes.com), directed by Bill Weber and David Weissman, debuted at the Sundance Film Festival, winning the LA Film Critics Award for best doc the next year.
In 2009, following another public dry spell for the Cockettes, a new version of “Pearls” was successfully staged at South of Market’s Hypnodrome Theatre by The Thrillpeddlers (with Koldewyn at the piano). That same year, a handful of Cockettes appeared at SFMOMA for a panel discussion that accompanied the screening of “Tricia’s Wedding” and two other films.
Sure, the Cockettes lasted less than three years. Their influence, however, has been linked to RuPaul, whose hit “Drag Race” TV show has received eight primetime Emmys; “Beach Blanket Babylon” (which began its run in ’74 and kept going through last year); “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” cult movie; the campiness of Bette Midler and Lady Gaga; and the dress and design of pop music stars like David Bowie, Elton John and Billy Porter.
D’Arcy Drollinger, owner of the Oasis restaurant/drag club in San Francisco’s SOMA district, which has socially distanced seating on the roof and in a parklet area out front (http://sfoasis.com/dining), observes that many drag performers he hires “specifically point to the Cockettes as a big influence for their journey.”
He also has a personal connection to the group: “Scrumbly was my singing teacher.”
Additional influence can be found in Drollinger’s Meals on Heels food-and-lip sync service for San Franciscans sheltering in place. One recent recipient, David Landis, called the program “the draggiest fun you’ll ever have. Who can resist a drag queen delivering a delicious dinner to your doorstep? It’s the best cure for the pandemic blues.”
Last month, Cockette Bambi Lake, trans chanteuse, songwriter and actor, died at age 70 of cancer. Her last public appearance was at a January 50th anniversary event — “Cockettes Are Golden!” — at the Victoria Theatre.
That show purportedly began half an hour late because many were too busy catching up with old friends to sit down.
The production, billed as “music, art and mayhem,” highlighted eight original Cockettes (including commentary by Tent and Hauser) and a score of others. Musical direction, piano-playing and script were by Koldewyn.
Filmmaker Waters, after being saluted within the show, declared that “the Cockettes have withstood the test of time. Their legend is cemented in America’s lunatic history … Cockettes then, Cockettes now, Cockettes forever.”