Painting the White House red: The Cockettes' "Tricia's Wedding" (1971) put a new spin on the First Daughter's nuptials. (Photo by Scott Runyon; courtesy of Fayette Hauser).

The Cockettes' Celluloid Afterglow Still Strong at 40

Dennis Harvey December 3, 2009

As a performing ensemble, The Cockettes were relatively short-lived. (So, sadly, were many members due to the AIDS crisis a decade later.) But their influence has been large, and seems ever more recognized. At present next-generation alternative S.F. theatre troupe Thrillpeddlers is passing the six-month mark with its surprise smash-hit revival of the Cockettes’ camp operetta Pearls Over Shanghai, currently extended through January 23.

It now includes an "Afterglow Floorshow" reprising numbers from other original Cockettes shows to honor the 40th anniversary of the troupe’s founding. That same milestone is marked Thursday by a one-night-only SFMOMA program you might kick yourself from here to eternity for missing.

The Cockettes on Film, at 40! sounds as good as it could possibly get for those of us too young or geographically disadvantaged to have experienced the group’s heyday in the flesh. Surviving members (including Scrumbly Koldewyn and Rumi Missabu, both participants in the concurrent Pearls production) will be present. Likewise Sebastian aka Milton Miron and Syd Dutton, who directed two of the three original Cockettes movies being shown. Plus Bill Weber and David Weissman, who co-directed 2002’s award-winning feature The Cockettes, which is simply one of the best documentaries made within the last decade.

Plus the evening will be hosted—or something like—by latterday luminaries Justin Bond (of SF-launched cabaret phenom Kiki & Herb) and Lady Miss Kier (of Deee-Lite "Groove Is in the Heart" fame). The latter is an actual heterosexual female whose dance diva fabulosity could get her mistaken for a drag queen—like several women involved in the otherwise gay-male-dominated Cockettes.

What were The Cockettes? Neither an old-school "female impersonation" act (though crossdressing was frequent) or ’60s avant-gardism a la The Living Theatre, but a reflection of something almost unimaginable now: An intersection between gay culture and total hippiedom, long hair, communalism and participatory multimedia "Happening" meeting glitter, vintage Hollywood camp and full-on gender blur.

Before the Gay Power movement got more overtly political—as well as assimilationist and hyper-masculine in the ’70s "clone" style—there was a period of wild counterculture flowering. Particularly in San Francisco, natch.

(PS: We’re talking pretty much about gay men here. Lesbians also enjoyed a newfound communal identity then, but that story is a separate/often separatist one that has little bearing on The Cockettes and deserves its own telling.)

As the documentary (not on SFMOMA’s program) gloriously chronicles, it was a moment when expressive flamboyance wasn’t just tolerated but treasured. Founded New Year’s Eve in 1969, the troupe fast became popular with a stoned, mostly straight hippie crowd in a series of midnight spectaculars at the now-defunct North Beach Palace Theatre. Underground flame fanned so quickly that two years later The Cockettes came to Broadway—a much-hyped debut that attracted major opening-night celebrities (John Lennon, Truman Capote, Andy Warhol etc.) who distanced themselves when the under-rehearsed show got disastrously, perhaps deservedly bad reviews. (They replaced it with the more fully broken-in Pearls Before Shanghai, which by all reports was excellent…but came too late to undo the public-relations damage.)

Some original Cockettes had already jumped ship by then, including original driving force Hibiscus aka George Harris, who founded the like-minded but more spiritually focused Angels of Light. (It remains debated whether he is the blond "flower child" in that famous 1967 photo where a beautiful boy in a sweater inserts daisy into the rifle of a National Guardsman during an anti-Vietnam War protest.)

The last Cockettes show Journey to the Center of Uranus, staged in SF mid-1972, featured Divine—imported from Baltimore in the year of Svengali John Waters’ breakthrough Pink Flamingos. Other subsequently famous, variably short-termed Cockettes include 1970s disco superstar Sylvester and L.A. punk pioneer (via band The Screamers) Tomata duPlenty. The latter’s original stage-to-screen New Wave musical Population: 1 has recently been released to DVD, and he’s terrifically charismatic in it.

The 16mm films on the SFMOMA bill are equally rare in terms of original exposure and infrequent revival. The half-hour 1971 Tricia’s Wedding is a riotous parody of the Nixon White House’s nuptials for its First Daughter. As things rapidly degenerate from A to Bacchanalia—celebrity regime critic Eartha Kitt dumps LSD in the punchbowl—figures including Tricky Dick, Rev. Billy Graham, Indira Gandhi, Mamie Eisenhower, Mahalia Jackson and more are most outrageously caricatured. No wonder this camp orgy was an inspirational touchstone for Waters.

Its director "Sebastian" will be present at the SFMOMA event. As will Syd Dutton, whose 25-minute "Palace"(co-directed with Scott Runyon) takes a backstage look at the Cockettes’ Halloween spectacular "Les Ghouls." Not present will be Michael Kalmen, the late writer-director of final, most epic Cockettes screen endeavor Elevator Girls in Bondage. This 1972 near-feature (56 minutes!) features the familiar likes of Miss Harlow, Hibiscus, Rumi, Pristine Condition, plus Kalmen himself in a torrid tale of drag queens gone psychedelically, Marxist-pedagogically amuck.

Outrageousness that echoes through the ages—now that’s an artistic legacy the original Cockettes might’ve fantasized for themselves. Forty years later, their fantasy is reality.

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