The Cockettes (November 27, 1996)

Hallowe’en, 1969. The Bitches’ Christmas. Before a midnight showing of an old movie, Hibiscus, Tajara, Sandy and a few others get up on the stage at the Palace Theater near Washington Square in San Francisco’s North Beach. They danced around to the music of the Rolling Stones and camped it up for the audience. Steven Arnold, manager of the Nocturnal Dream Shows, always claimed The Cockettes appeared to him fully costumed in a dream. Actually, The Cockettes appeared on Haight Street along with thousands of other drop-outs and freaks during that period when free acid was plentiful courtesy of the CIA’s covert MK-ULTRA program. They didn’t think of themselves as Cockettes anymore than anyone thought of him or herself as a hippie or flower child or any other media label. Mostly artists and actors and musicians and people searching for roles and identities, these people found theirs in old second hand stores and dimestore basements. It was a time when people were throwing off the restraints of parents and authority figures, growing their hair long, listening to music soon to be labeled acid-rock, and spending a great deal of time in meditation and contemplation and very little time doing any actual work.

Hibiscus and his friends were street queens, out there, not in the closet, overtly gay. Hibiscus went around giving head onstage that night at the Palace. He was public at a time when San Francisco’s gay community was still covert. If you wanted to see traditional drag, the standard transvestite show wherein men dressed up like Judy Garland or Marlena Deitrich and sang their hit songs, you went to Finocchio’s on Broadway; you didn’t go to a Nocturnal Dream Show. The straight gays had their Hallowe’en party at Bimbo’s, mock couples, evening gowns and tuxedos, wigs, all very conservative and quite well-to-do. Further down the street, The Cockettes were beyond drag, living pop art, dimestore hip, multiple images. Hibiscus might toss off a Bette Davis line, but he would be wearing a gold evening gown with a bosom created by a pair of giant golden balloons as he camped it up. Drag singers did their best to look exactly like Marilyn Monroe or Mae West, but from the beginning The Cockettes designed new images for themselves. 

The Nocturnal Dream Shows continued for a couple of years, but competition developed in the ranks of the players. Steven Arnold pushed for more organized shows and when Sebastian, manager of Secret Sinema on Seventeenth Street in the Mission District, took over, he tightened things up; His Cockettes would become a regular feature at the Palace and the movies would be dropped. The musical shows were modeled on old movies from the 40s, the dance numbers a simplified version of Busby Berkeley’s complexly choreographed works in films like THE GOLDDIGGERS OF 1933. It was, with a few talented exceptions, still amateur night every Saturday at midnight at the Palace, but now there was more pressure on the people collectively known as Cockettes, named after the New York City Rockettes, and some handled it well, but most didn’t.

In that strange group, some were educated, some weren’t, Some had day gigs and did the shows as a lark; others lived on welfare and hung out in the Haight. Marshall owned the Third Hand Store on Haight and many of the costumes in the shows were compiled from the antique clothes hanging on the racks in his place. Everyone hip wore those old clothes during the sixties. They were still very cheap, only a few bucks if that; the antique hustle had not begun. Copies of MODERN SCREEN still sold for a dime at Peggy Caserta’s In Gear. Remember Peggy? She wrote that book about her affair with Janis Joplin and called it GOING DOWN ON JANIS. Today, all that second hand junk sells for collectors’ prices. What wasn’t found at Marshall’s was available in Woolworth’s basement down on Market Street. For less than a dollar, Wally got all the glitter and face paint he needed as well as a few little pink and blue plastic baby rattles to jazz up his costume. Wally was an ex-cheerleader from the University of Wisconsin, a verbose witty gemini who always had a fast comeback. The drag competition between him and Hibiscus was one of the highlights of the various Cockette reviews. Hibiscus came on in gold and Wally walked down the aisle of the Palace as the Red Queen of Mars. Both had headdresses over a foot high. Wally’s giant nipples were red flashlight bulbs built into a light balsa wood frame. They flashed on and off alternately, powered by a built in battery. For a Christmas show, Wally turned himself into a Christmas tree and came down the aisle with a set of colored lights wrapped about him. On Hallowe’en, he used two little toy Jack o’lanterns for breasts and for a fifties parody he cut a football in half and made it into a pair of bullet breasts reminiscent of those deceptive falsies so popular with the flatter of chest circa 1951. 

As soon as The Cockette shows began to show signs of organization principles at work, Hibiscus and his friends left. They did not want to do what they considered commercial shows, or Establishment cop-outs. They weren’t into it for the money and they didn’t like what Sebastian was doing with the scene. Hibiscus renamed his group the Angels of Light and announced they would continue to do free shows around the Haight. Hibiscus simply didn’t want to rehearse. He hadn’t dropped out and left New York for the Bay Area to get back into another structured scene. He wanted a free form show where he could drop acid, make up an outrageous and ridiculous costume, go onstage, toss off oneliners, flash his cock at the audience or try to cop the joints of young boys onstage.

The organized Cockettes couldn’t operate like that under Sebastian. They had a script, lines to run, musical numbers to memorize and rehease, blocking to work out, stagecraft to deal with, and a sense of responsibility to each other. You couldn’t perform on acid. You couldn’t perform well on any kind of drugs, but most of the Cockettes were semi-stoned during the shows I saw and photographed. They routinely smoked joints in their dressing rooms before the show and a number were into qualudes. I saw various people do a line or so of coke, but I never saw anyone shoot up, though I know there were heroin addicts involved in the scene because Rumi died of an overdose of smack. Hash was common. A number of people had waterpipes in their pads and the joints that made the rounds at some of the parties were treated with hash oil. People discussed various drugs like Nepalese Temple Balls, Peyote, Mescalin, Psilocybin, even Yage which Allen Ginsberg talked about after William Burroughs had gone to South America to get it from a Shaman.

It was, for sure, a drug scene, and some Saturday nights it would be hard to tell whether the actors or the audience were higher. I watched gallon jugs of Red Mountain make their way up and down the front rows, joints being handed back and forth, people swallowing whites or whatever with swigs from their antique store hip flasks. I worried about those people who cavalierly drank after taking ‘ludes, because I had seen the result too many times. Methaqualone, followed by alcohol, often caused the sensation of suffocation and I remembered driving a student home one night in Fresno sometime in 1966 while a couple of people held her in the back seat as she freaked out at the top of her lungs. She had followed a couple of reds with a couple of drinks of some kind and blew her cranium totally. It took a couple of hours to calm her down and, of course, no one wanted to 911 her because that would have meant a bust for all concerned. Her freak-out started in the Caffé Midi and I was there that evening and I had my car so my help was enlisted. My inclination was to take her to Emergency, but her friends begged me to just get them to her apartment and they would cool her out and help her to come down. She was all right a couple of days later when I saw her on the Fresno State campus, but I always worried about all those drug combos my students were experimenting with. 

The early Cockette shows were not really shows at all, just people camping it up onstage. Those who successfully separated themselves from the audience and held the stage became the Cockettes, while the others who might hung around onstage for awhile then drifted back to their seats remained the audience, the chorus. As the shows gained form, they were more coherent, but they were less outrageous, and the people who had started to come to the Palace expecting to see a lot of nudity and sexual hi-jinx onstage quickly discovered Sebastian’s Cockettes were more Rockette than Cockette. The music improved and became quite good with the torch singing style of John Rothermel and the piano styling of Scrumbly and Peter Mintun. 

The problem with organization was the actors began to believe their own hype, to think they were talented in ways they were not. By the time a New York trip was suggested, many had talked themselves into believing they would be successful there. Cockettes with stars in their eyes. Well, everyone enjoyed the trip and had a good time at the Chelsea and they got lots of ink and attention, but the show was a total bomb and after their return the group drifted into obscurity. 

Near the end of its run, John Waters came to the Bay Area with some of the people from his Baltimore theater company. Waters was interested in making films, but many of his people were into theater. Babs Johnson, best known as Divine, was his star. She guested in a couple of the Cockette shows, Vice Palace, and Divine Saves the World. Sylvester was on the scene by then and while she was never a Cockette, she put on a concert or two at the Palace and got the same audience. From L. A., Sylvester James soon had a record contract, singing with the Hot Band. By the time of these concerts the lobby of the Palace had become a scene, hence record company promoters tried to book their new acts in to get them exposure. It was a strange trip. During the evening, the audience was all Chinese, and sometimes when we sneaked onto the balcony shortly before midnight we saw the students from a Chinese high school demonstrating their martial arts routines as part of their graduation ceremonies. By the time the Chinese audience began to file out, the lobby was filled with Cockette groupies, many of them well-to-do women from the peninsula. I say women, because that’s how it was. For some reason women liked to hang around the gay scene. They were often referred to affectionately as ‘fruit flies.’ Others who might be in the lobby were actors from various North Beach shows like The Committee or dancers from clubs like the Condor. Carol Doda came over some evenings. She was the first dancer to become a local star by dancing topless. In June of 1964, she put on designer Rudi Gernreich’s topless bathing suit and did a little dance at the suggestion of promoter Davey Rosenberg. Before long, she became the first to have silicone injections and implants, blowing her breasts up from 32s to 44s. There were jazz musicians from various clubs, poets, pizza makers, bakers, drug dealers, pimps; the Palace lobby was a place to be around midnight and if the show was good, that was all right; if it was shitty, who cared? There were as many people in costume in the audience as there were onstage and it all seemed like a fantasy continuum, no restraint, the responses unrepressed, everyone laughing and having a good time. Well, not everyone, there was always that silent steely-eyed military contingent near the back, furtive, watching, misinterpreting, perhaps hating--after all, any Cockette show was a tweak of the cock at the straight world and that world didn’t like it. 

To promote one of the shows, I was hired to do the photos for a COCKETTE PAPERDOLL book. John Flowers did the minimal text. We did the shoot at Sebastian’s Secret Sinema one afternoon. I shot the actors against plain backdrops and during the whole thing we hung out in the alley. Well, people passing along at either ends, the Latino and black folks who live in that area around Valencia Street, began to notice this weird group and a few of them came down the alley to confront us. I anticipated trouble, but nothing happened. They were just curious. There I was taking a series of shots of Goldie Glitters in a pair of panties and a dress of some kind for a paperdoll page and I had been shooting theatrical photos for so long I was jaded. Drag queens, topless dancers, strippers at the O’Farrell, political activists, it was all focus and click to me. The reactions of the locals gave me some perspective on the gig and I had to laugh about it all. Inside, we were cracking up. People would stop at the end of the alley and stand there with their mouths open. There was Wally in a pair of giant red balloon tits and people couldn’t even figure out what he was. Out of make-up Wally looked like any other gay boy on Polk Street, but when he was in full drag there was nothing to match him. He liked patriotic colors. In several shows he put red, white, and blue glitter in his beard. He never stopped improvising. Wally turned himself into living art, walking collagerie, a pin cushion of pop art. 

People tried to define the Cockettes, to pigeonhole them, but it was impossible. In some of my own articles I referred to them as a gay theater commune, but that wasn’t true. The majority were gay, but there were straight men and women in the group. There were married men and women in the group. There were more or less married or committed gays and lesbians in the group. There were blacks and whites. There were young people and older people. There were people who sang well and others who were tone deaf. Some lived communally with groups, while others shared apartments or had their own rooms. Dusty Dawn had a child, Ocean Michael Moon, and Scrumbly’s Pam was pregnant; indeed, one of the more outrageous skits in one of the shows had Pam singing a song while several other Cockettes tried to undress her. Some of the people were handsome or pretty, while others were pockmarked and homely. Like any theater company, there were Cockettes who were anorexic and bulimic, others who over ate and ballooned beyond their costumes. It was an up time for gays. Gay liberation had been around for several years. The Folsom baths were flourishing. There were dance contests on the bar at The Stud. There was artistic activity from the San Francisco Art Institute to San Francisco State College. Among the Cockettes were people who considered themselves painters, poets, abstract expressionists, happeners, lyricists, and there were parties all the time. In spite of the rivalries, I remember a lot of cameraderie. There was a whole different consciousness in that period before AIDS and I hope I’ve been able to preserve some of the spirit of that time here. Hibiscus, Sylvester, Divine, and Johnny Rothermel are all dead now. I was told Martin Borman died this year in New York. Blithe spirits all. Well, it was the best of times. May they all rest in peace.

2 Responses to "The Cockettes (November 27, 1996)"

  1. Betsy de Fries   March 3, 2020 at 7:50 am

    Thank you for this excellent trip down memory lane!

    Reply
  2. Eldon Allison   March 3, 2020 at 7:03 pm

    And don’t forget Lily Rose….

    Reply

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