Once upon a time, before Ziggy Stardust, before Rocky Horror, before Hedwig and his Angry Inch, there were the Cockettes, an outrageous early-’70s acid-drag queen theatrical troupe. Almost thirty years after their break-up, on an unseasonably warm San Francisco summer night, the ornate Castro Theater housed the world premiere of David Weissman and Bill Weber’s The Cockettes. This new documentary sheds light on this all-but-forgotten phenomenon from the dawn of the Aquarian Age. The sold-out screening was one of the 25th Annual San Francisco Lesbian and Gay Film Festival’s hottest tickets, attended by a kaleidoscopic crowd of bearded mermaids, green goddesses, Divine-wannabes, and a motley crew of original Cockettes members, friends, and associates. A magical buzz filled the air as the multicolored flock anxiously awaited this feast of freak history. As attendee John Waters observed, the night “felt like a class reunion at a mental hospital.”
Told by rare archival footage and interviews, their story begins in late-’60s San Francisco, an Oz for the oddballs of America. In the Haight-Ashbury, the commune Kaliflower was a particularly wild pad and the home of soon-to-be Cockettes like Rumi, Dusty Dawn, and Sylvester (who later became a disco sensation). Commune Kaliflower was also the crash pad for George Harris, a young, handsome actor from New York who transformed into Hibiscus, a glittery, bearded “Jesus in lipstick.” A mystical, enigmatic character, his spirit inspired the troupe.
North Beach’s Palace Theater was one of the favorite hangouts for the Kaliflower family. They’d check out the Nocturnal Dream Shows featuring midnight movies and ’30s musicals. On Halloween night 1969, as if inspired by some old Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland cornball flick, the Kaliflowers rallied “Hey! Let’s dress up and put on a show at the Palace!” They dove into their piles of thrift store threads, poured on the makeup, dropped acid and hit the stage: frolicking, fondling and cavorting. The Cockettes were born.
No one cared that they couldn’t formally dance or sing. There were no labels, no tags, and no taboos. To Marshall, a biker and one of the few heterosexual members of the troupe, wearing a gown on stage was no big thing. “It took more courage to drive a motorcycle on a wall!” Because they were always tripping, the stage shows often became three hour long free-form evocations of campy old Hollywood theatrics and hyperactive ritual. Friend and fan John Waters comments, “they were hippie freak acid queens, no one had done that yet. It’s still new! It was sexual anarchy, which is always fun!”
Most of the Cockettes lived in poverty. “Where could you work with shaved eyebrows? You look like you’re from Venus.” And, while most weren’t formally employed, the Cockettes worked hard on their musical extravaganzas, paying the bills with welfare and “Aid to the Totally Disabled.” Unknowingly, the Nixon and Reagan administrations subsidized their glamentia.
Each production was more lavish and more polished. “Madame Butterfly” was their first to use dialogue (albeit fake Cantonese gibberish dialogue). “Les Ghouls” was a Halloween pageant and black mass with vampires, dancing tombstones, and two Brides of Frankenstein making out. “Pearls Over Shanghai,” their first production to have a script and original songs, materialized after they stole a costume trunk from the Chinese Opera.
No longer were they just playing dress-up in front of their family of friends at their living room-away-from-home. These spectacles were must-see happenings for San Francisco’s hipsters and played to turn away audiences every weekend. They found themselves at a crossroads. Should their shows be free happenings or should they start making a living off them? For Hibiscus there was no choice and his vision of purity lead him to split from the group and form the Angels of Light Free Theater, an organic, cosmic collective.
It wasn’t long before the Cockettes made their way from stage to silver screen in oddball featurettes like Steven Arnold’s Luminous Procuress, Michael Kalmen’s Tree, Your Sap Beats Gently Against Mine, and Sebastian’s Tricia’s Wedding. The latter film had the troupe starring in a cinematic spoof of the Nixon White House event which concludes with “Eartha Kitt” spiking the punch with LSD and setting off a ball’s out mass orgy of food fights, nudity and destruction! Featuring footage from these films as well as other movies in which Cockettes members starred (such as Elevator Girls in Bondage), these clips will whet the appetite of any self-respecting cult film fan.
Following a rave review from Rex Reed (Mr. Myra Breckenridge himself!), the Cockettes were invited to the Big Apple for a major theater engagement at a 5,000-seater: three times the size of their cozy Palace. Opening night was the talk of the town and the in-crowd had assembled, including John Lennon, Gore Vidal, Allen Ginsburg, Tony Perkins and even Angela Lansbury. There was great anticipation but no sound checks, professional lighting or formal direction. Underwhelmed by what they saw as an amateur night in-joke, the dissatisfied Manhattan hipsters fled in droves! Were the Cockettes disappointed that their only real contact with legit show biz bombed? “No, we live in our own reality anyway.”
They returned to San Francisco for their last hurrah, with productions like “Journey to the Center of Uranus” featuring Divine. Some say this was their best period. However, things were falling apart and by 1972, it was over. As the decade dragged on, the Haight-Ashbury vibe turned sour and some Cockettes started dying from overdoses and disease while others moved on to bit parts or obscurity. In the late ’70s, Hibiscus decided to continue the Angels of Light in New York with his own family (featuring his mom in drag!) but a few years later the Angel had flown, dying from AIDS in 1982. And with that, their brief but colorful story is told.
As the credits rolled, the Castro congregation burst into thunderous applause and a sustained standing ovation. Some Cockette alumni took the stage to receive the crowd’s love and respect as trailblazers who flamboyantly waved their freak flags high. The film’s interviews with surviving members and associates shows that many of them have spent a lot of hard years aboard the drug train, while others have gone straight and switched over to the suburban side. Thus, it was nice to see them get this long-overdue recognition.
Weissman and Weber spoke proudly of their labor of love before and after the screening. You could tell they wanted to do the troupe justice. Both of them spent years scraping together the capital to see this project completed. I, for one, am thankful for this entertaining, insightful documentary, which keeps the right mood and attitude throughout.
I didn’t know much about this missing chapter of pop culture, but whether you’re into gay history, drag queens, glam rock, avant-garde theater, the psychedelic sixties, underground film, or San Francisco nostalgia, you’ll dig this flick!