The Cockettes were a psychedelic drag queen troupe founded by Hibiscus in the late 1960s in San Francisco's North Beach, San Francisco, North Beach neighborhood. The troupe performed outrageous parodies of show tunes (or original tunes in the same vein) and gained an underground cult following that led to mainstream exposure.
In 1971, over differences in philosophy, the group split into two separate groups, the Cockettes and The Angels of Light. The Cockettes continued to work as paid performers while the Angels of Light chose to do free theatre without admission charge.
Underground beginnings Edit
On New Years Eve, 31 December 1969, at the Palace Theatre in San Francisco's North Beach neighborhood, Steven F. Arnold let the Cockettes perform as part of his "Nocturnal Dream Show", a showcase of underground films, in exchange for free admission. The show soon became a "must-see" for San Francisco's hip community. Combining LSD-influenced dancing, set design, costumes and their own versions of show tunes (or original tunes in the same vein), the Cockettes took to the stage every 6 weeks, performing prior to the Saturday midnight "Nocturnal Dream Show". Show titles included Gone With the Showboat to Oklahoma, Tinsel Tarts In A Hot Coma, Journey to the Center of Uranus, Smacky & Our Gang, Hollywood Babylon and Pearls Over Shanghai. Word quickly got out that nothing like these shows had ever been seen before, and within a few months the Cockettes were getting enormous attention from the media. Not only hippie magazines, such as Earth and Rolling Stone, wanted stories on the Cockettes, but also mainstream magazines such as Look, Life and Esquire were anxious to do features as well.
David Ferguson, who went on to become a notorious Punk Rock impresario, worked with The Cockettes on a number of different projects including producing one of their most famous shows on New Years Eve 1971. Even against the tolerant backdrop of San Francisco, The Cockettes' bawdy antics presented PR issues.
In 1971, The Cockettes released the short film Tricia's Wedding, lampooning the wedding ceremony of Richard Nixon's daughter, Tricia Nixon; Nixon's chief of staff H. R. Haldeman arranged a secret screening of the film for White House staffers.
Partial list of CockettesEdit
- Hibiscus (George Harris Jr.)
- Pam Tent aka Sweet Pam
- Scrumbly Koldewyn
- Gary Cherry
- Rumi Missabu
- Fayette Hauser
- Dusty Dawn
- Reggie aka Anton Dunigan
- Brent Jensen
- Goldie Glitters
- Pristine Condition
- Marshall Olds
- John Rothermel
- Tomata DuPlenty
- Miss Harlow (Hasse)
- Link Martin
- Daniel Ware
- Kreemah Ritz aka Big Daryl
- Martin Worman
- Chris Kilo
Philosophical split Edit
During their first year the Cockettes were not paid for performances, although tickets to the shows sold for $2.00, the proceeds going to the theatre owner (during the first year the Cockettes sneaked many audience members into the theatre free through the back door). The reason for the lack of interest in payment was that the group, having come out of the Haight Ashbury hippie community, was not then focused on money. Later, when Cockette audiences began to consist of celebrities such as Truman Capote and members of European royal houses, the group insisted on being paid by the theatre owner. Even so, the amounts eventually paid were minimal.
In early 1971, over differences in philosophy, the group split into two separate groups, the Cockettes and The Angels of Light. The Cockettes continued to work as professional performers while the Angels of Light chose to do free theatre without admission charge.
New York City trip Edit
Once Hibiscus had left the group some of the members saw the departure as an opportunity to capitalize on the media attention from articles in The Rolling Stone and Maureen Orth's in The Village Voice as well as Rex Reed's nationally-syndicated column. Whereas Hibiscus was dedicated to anarchy and breaking down boundaries others in the group saw the potential of the efforts and they had even hired a director. Hibiscus was explicitly political and committed to free performances as a part of the hippie ethos. At the same time Sylvester was being noted as a stand out act for his singing. He was getting funding from Gregg Gobel, the son of George Gobel, and had started to transform into an accomplished singer even hiring the Pointer Sisters as his back-up singers. With Hibiscus, the defacto leader of the group now gone, plans for a New York City show that could catapult the group to even greater fame where set into motion and tied to a double bill of the Cockettes and Sylvester's new band. Although rock-promoter Bill Graham passed on the opportunity for a New York show he did connect the group with Harry Zerler, "a wealthy talent scout for Columbia Records" and booked Sylvester as the opening act.
News of the 47 Cockettes boarding the flight was covered by local television and in full drag the group took over the airplane even complimenting the stewardess' "drag". Once in New York they were housed in a dingy hotel where heroin was easily scored but spent most of their time as celebrated guests at dozens of parties where they could eat and drink for free, running a tab at a local diner and getting free taxicab rides. Sylvester knew the Cockettes were not going to do well but he was determined to make his debut as a rock star and practiced with his band every day. The Cockettes were still transitioning from being "a happening" to actually doing structured performances. The group had one week to prepare but they had few resources and little energy after all the parties. They were however the talk of town and their show was the hot ticket.
In November 1971 the Cockettes, minus former Cockettes (now the Angels of Light), were booked for performances at the Anderson Theater in New York City, the venue had no sound or lighting systems and needed a curtain. The stage was also twice the size of the Cockettes usual one so all the sets had to be rebuilt from scratch in six days. They opened with "Tinsel Tarts In a Hot Coma", a send-up of films about Broadway in the 1930s. According to accounts of the time, "Everybody who was anybody" came to the Cockette's New York opening, including such celebrities as John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Liza Minnelli, Truman Capote, Gore Vidal, and Angela Lansbury. Also attending were Andy Warhol and some of his celebrated drag superstars, Sylvia Miles, Holly Woodlawn, Candy Darling. But with the Cockettes loose San Francisco magic, the opening night was a disaster (New Yorkers expected a tightly performed show). And in the theatre things went from bad to worse when Angela Lansbury walked out on the show, soon followed by Andy Warhol and most of the rest of the audience. After the show Gore Vidal quipped, "Having no talent is not enough." Apparently the New York professionals did not view the group as talented.
Later, the Cockettes tried to explain their New York failure by commenting "the New York audiences did not understand us," (although it appeared perhaps New York had understood them). After a week of disastrous "Tinsel Tarts..." playing to empty houses, they performed their original musical "Pearls Over Shanghai" for the remaining 2 weeks of their contract, and the Village Voice gave it a rave review. But it was too little too late. Sylvester and his band was the lone exception but he disassociated himself after several nights on advice from his business friends.
Cockettes disband Edit
After the New York bomb, the Cockettes came back to San Francisco and performed their final show in the summer of 1972, "Journey to the Center of Uranus". At this time Divine, star of films by noted filmmaker John Waters, joined the group, thus making her San Francisco debut. In that show Divine performed her song "The Crab at the Center of Uranus" while dressed as a lobster.
After the group disbanded in 1972, various Cockettes continued to perform, often as solo performers (John Rothermel, who was often cast in a lead roles due to his excellent singing voice and knowledge of 20's/30's music, had a successful cabaret career in San Francisco), but more often as a group, although no longer billed as The Cockettes. Later a few Cockettes formed the group Paula Pucker and the Pioneers, among others.
In 1976 a short lived group, known as The Assorted Nuts, was formed by Tahara, former Cockette/Angel of Light San Francisco. This group consisted mostly of institutionalized mental patients who performed in shows written by themselves. Among Assorted Nut shows were an anti-nuclear energy performance called "Atomic Testes", and a show on discrimination against mental patients called "Transcendental Medication." The Assorted Nuts stopped performing in 1981.
The Cockettes were the subject of a 2002 documentary, The Cockettes, directed by Bill Weber and David Weissman. The film debuted at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival. It went on to a limited theatrical release and to play the film festival circuit. At the premiere at San Francisco's Castro Theatre many of the surviving Cockettes attended in genderfuck drag. The Cockettes received the LA Film Critics Award as Best Non-Fiction Film of 2002 and the Glitter Award for Best Documentary of 2003.
In its history numerous performers and performing groups have spun off from the Cockettes, including, among others, the Seattle Ze Whiz Kidz (including actors Tomato Du Plenty and Screaming Orchids; the first Whiz Kidz show was a musical based on the life of Yma Súmac), The San Francisco Angels of Light, The New York Angels of Light and The Assorted Nuts. Many Cockettes also continue to perform in the theatre world today.
A 2009 revival of Pearls Over Shanghai (the screenplay was originally written by Link Martin) in San Francisco included the participation of Rumi Missabu and piano accompaniment by composer Scrumbly Koldewyn, with Tahara one of the costume collaborators.
On December 3, 2009 several members of the Cockettes (Harlow Hasse, Fayette Hauser, Scrumbly Koldewyn, Rumi Missabu, Sweet Pam, Tahara) came together at SFMOMA for a rare screening of the films Tricia's Wedding, Palace, and Elevator Girls in Bondage followed by discussions and memorable Cockettes moments. There was an afterparty at the Cafe du Nord on Market Street near Noe Street at which the Cockettes inspired New York drag troupe the Dixie Chicks performed.
- 2004 - Midnight at the Palace: My Life as a Fabulous Cockette by Pam Tent
- 2005 - The fabulous Sylvester: the legend, the music, the seventies in San Francisco by Joshua Gamson
- 2002 The Cockettes, documentary