The Cockettes: Rise and fall of the acid queens

For a few glittering years, they were the world's most celebrated gender-benders. In his forthcoming film about the legendary performers, David Weissman tells one of the West's wildest stories.

Published August 23, 2000 7:44PM (EDT)

It began almost by accident, as a lark dreamed up by a man named Hibiscus. From 1969 to 1972, the Cockettes -- an outrageous theatrical troupe comprising gay men, women and babies -- used their LSD-infused exuberance, imaginations and a gift for dressing to the nines in thrift-store drag and glitter to illuminate a series of funny, flamboyant and utterly unprecedented midnight musicals performed at a run-down San Francisco movie theater.

The live shows, with names like "Tinsel Tarts in a Hot Coma," "Pearls over Shanghai" and "Journey to the Center of Uranus," were chaotic and witty costume extravaganzas featuring singing, dancing and in-your-face sexuality. As the Cockettes' legend grew, they attracted fans such as Truman Capote ("The Cockettes are where it's at!") and Rex Reed who, in his nationally syndicated column, called the performances "a landmark in the history of new, liberated theater."

Inevitably, the Cockettes became media favorites, showing up everywhere from Rolling Stone to Paris Match. They made a film, "Tricia's Wedding," a transvestite send-up of then-President Nixon's daughter's nuptials, and appeared in other films --"Elevator Girls in Bondage" and "Luminous Procuress." When they were invited to bring their stage shows to New York, the cream of the city's art and culture scene -- Oscar de la Renta, Diana Vreeland, Robert Rauschenberg, John Lennon, Gore Vidal and Anthony Perkins -- partied with them and showed up in force for the opening night performance. And that was when the party ended.

San Francisco filmmaker David Weissman and his partner, editor Bill Weber, are now in the final stages of completing "The Cockettes," a feature-length documentary on the theatrical troupe that Weissman credits with, among other things, inspiring "the glitter rock era of David Bowie, Elton John, the New York Dolls, and the campy extravaganzas of Bette Midler and 'The Rocky Horror Picture Show.'"

"Their influence was enormous," Weissman remarked during the following conversation about the ebullient acid queens of his documentary. "Their whole presence was completely new and garnered a lot of attention. Drag had not received anywhere near that degree of visibility, particularly in a cultural context, outside of the gay community, prior to the Cockettes." And during their star-crossed New York debut, columnist Lillian Roxon, commenting on the troupe's impact on pop culture, wrote, "Every time you see too much glitter or a rhinestone out of place, you [will] know it's because of the Cockettes."

David, can you describe the San Francisco scene that gave birth to the Cockettes?

It was almost perfect -- the Cockettes' first show was New Year's Eve 1969-70. So, symbolically, they defined the cusp -- from the 1960s to the '70s, from the Haight-Ashbury psychedelic, hippie era into the beginnings of the sexual revolution and gay liberation.

How were things changing then in the San Francisco counterculture?

The Haight-Ashbury scene was going through a decline that had started about 1968, which was due to the influx of millions of people from all over the world and enormous media attention, along with an increase in crime and the use of bad drugs -- speed, cocaine, heroin. All those elements combined to degenerate the spirit of what the Haight had been before. But there were still a lot of interesting, creative people living in the Haight, and it remained a counterculture epicenter for the world. Of course, there had long been a gay scene in San Francisco.

Yes, since the 1930s or '40s, perhaps earlier.

Absolutely. But the Cockettes didn't really come out of the traditional gay scene. They emerged largely from the hippie, counterculture world of the Haight-Ashbury. But there was a pretty broad range of gay life here then. Remember, it was before Stonewall, although San Francisco had had its own gay activism -- as early as the mid-1960s there was a lot of activity here. So, in a way the community was already much more receptive and more progressive in relationship to gay issues than most anywhere else in the world, or at least anywhere in the United States. Yet, it was before the official beginning of the gay liberation movement, which theoretically started with New York's Stonewall riots in 1969.

How did the Cockettes begin? Who was the main creative force behind the group?

There was a magic moment when a lot of things came together. It all coalesced at the Pagoda Palace Theater on Washington Square in North Beach, which at the time was running a series of midnight movies every weekend called the Nocturnal Dream Shows. This was started by a filmmaker named Steven Arnold and a guy named Sebastian. They would show very eclectic screenings ranging from Betty Boop cartoons and Busby Berkeley movies to you name it. The audiences were these crazed hippies on acid who dressed up in costumes to attend.

What took place at the Pagoda Palace before midnight?

It was a Chinese movie theater showing Chinese-language films. The Chinese audience would file out at midnight into this massive crowd of crazed, decked-out hippies waiting to come into the Nocturnal Dream Shows. Now, the Dream Shows started as just a movie series, then the Cockettes, whose live performances became part of the after-midnight entertainment at the Pagoda Palace, emerged from the imagination of a man named Hibiscus, who died in 1982.

What was his background?

Hibiscus was from a New York theater family. He came to San Francisco in 1967. He was a very flamboyant character, very theatrical and charismatic. Over a period of time he got connected with people who shared an interest in a flamboyant street presence -- in dressing up, wild costumes and street theater. And on that particular New Year's Eve, a whole group of them got together and -- there are a lot of different stories as to how it actually happened -- apparently Hibiscus had asked Steven Arnold and Sebastian if he could bring a bunch of friends, men in dresses and beards and also women, and do an intermission act at the New Year's show. It wasn't on the program or anything. The Cockettes came up on stage and they did a can-can dance to the Stones' "Honky Tonk Woman." Everybody wound up with half of their clothes off -- it was this wild bacchanal. Nobody had ever seen anything like it. There had never been bearded hippie drag queens before.

In traditional drag performances a man would impersonate a woman, but this was something different.

Right -- this was not about female impersonation. This was what came to be known as gender-fuck, but it had not been done before. And everybody was stoned out of their brains and they had a ball. That's how it happened. That first night was just a one-time idea to do a can-can during intermission.

Then they actually started writing scripts?

No, that took a while. For the early shows, Hibiscus, who was sort of the leader of the group in the sense that he was the charismatic one, would draw people together and come up with themes, but the themes were very loose for the few months the shows were just casual reviews. It was anarchic -- everybody making up their own parts. It was very much about costume, dress-up and a theatrical attitude. Then, over time, the Cockettes started to become a big draw for the Palace and the show started getting a little more structured and developing in ways that had not been anticipated at the beginning. This was great, but it also started to cause problems.

What do you mean?

Hibiscus always had this idea of doing a free theater company. And while he loved the Cockettes, the fact was that they were doing this as part of a commercial endeavor. That was problematic because he believed that if you're going to perform it should only be for free. Hibiscus had a more anarchic vision of what the Cockettes should be.

Did they get salaries?

They got a little money. Everybody has different memories of how much money they got, but it was not much. Sebastian became their manager and the whole issue of money started to stir things up. But the show started getting bigger and better -- more structured, scripted -- and they became quite popular.

What gave you the idea to do the documentary?

It's funny, I never really thought about making documentaries before, but this movie is something that I was born to make. I've always had an interest in the world of drag as subversive, political humor. And for a long time I was interested in trying to do a book about the Angels of Light, the group that Hibiscus started after the Cockettes, but that never worked out. One day, I happened to be sitting at a cafe talking to a friend about the Cockettes and I said, "You know, somebody really needs to make a film about them, because they define such an incredible, historical moment." That's where I started. Then I asked Bill Weber, who is an extraordinary editor, if he might be interested in participating as my partner.

How did you go about raising the money?

Raising money is an ongoing process. First we had to determine whether or not the surviving Cockettes were willing to participate. And from the beginning we got a great reaction from them. They understood that we were serious and that we were going to approach this with integrity, respect and the appropriate amount of irreverence. Secondly, we needed to get a sense of whether or not there was enough material out there to allow a movie to be made. And we very quickly determined that there was -- a lot of material: news articles, photographs, film, audio interviews, etc.

How close is the film to completion?

We've done about 90 percent of our shooting. And we've interviewed a number of Cockettes and other people, like John Waters. A lot of Cockettes have died. Starting in the early '70s there were many deaths from drug overdoses. And then, beginning in the early '80s and going all the way through to the present, there have been a lot of deaths from HIV, AIDS. But, amazingly, there's still a solid core group of key Cockettes who have been interviewed for the film.

Were the Cockettes simply a long-running, theatrically tinged party or were they serious artists -- or a little of both?

A little of both -- or rather, a lot of both.

Their New York debut was something of a disaster, wasn't it?

Yes, that was quite a fiasco. It all got started because there was a performance here in San Francisco that was attended by Rex Reed and Truman Capote. Reed wrote a wildly raving article about the Cockettes being the greatest thing that was happening in the world culturally. That started a big stir in New York and the Cockettes got very excited about going to New York and performing. What wound up happening was an incredible culture clash that was a disaster for the group. You see, the Cockettes really existed in the reality of the Palace Theater and that reality encompassed the audience and San Francisco.

The expectations of the San Francisco audience were completely different from those of New York audiences. The New Yorkers expected a high degree of professionalism and sophistication. The Cockettes just weren't thinking in those terms, so you had a clash of East Coast and West Coast cultures. To some extent it brought out all the contradictions of what the Cockettes were. They were basically a ragtag group of hippies acting out their imaginations on stage.

They'd taken street theater indoors, but in New York they were seen as just amateurs?

Yes. The New York disaster was primarily opening night, which, of course, is the worst night to have a disaster in the theater. But there were a lot of reasons why opening night went wrong that probably could have been avoided. They took two different shows to New York and opening night they did the much weaker, less interesting, less original of the two -- "Tinsel Tarts in a Hot Coma." And they also didn't have time to rehearse, really.

And expectations were very high.

The Cockettes were wined and dined and partied all over town by people like Robert Rauschenberg, Diana Vreeland and the Warhol folks. They were treated like royalty at the same time that they were being put up in this roach-infested hotel and not being paid anything really. So they were running around getting free food at parties, along with lots and lots of drugs. Consequently, when it came time to perform, they were a mess. They were tired from partying too much. The sound was bad in the New York theater, and their sets for the Palace Theater, which they brought with them, were just cardboard. The stage in the New York theater was more than twice as big as the Palace's, so their sets looked like little rinky-dink things. There was just not a lot of advance thought put into bringing the show from San Francisco to New York.

The Cockettes apparently felt, "Well, we've done these shows 50 times. We know the material; we're not big on rehearsing anyway, because our whole thing is about spontaneity, freshness and whatever happens, happens." I think it says a lot about the Cockettes story: People had very grand delusions that often produced good results, but New York wound up being a big disaster.

They came back to San Francisco and continued for some time, but the luster was gone. In New York they hit both the top and the bottom.


You see their impact on pop culture as being quite broad. How were the Cockettes influential?

It's hard to differentiate the Zeitgeist from specific performers. Clearly, a lot of the glitter-rock stuff came very shortly after the Cockettes. Also there were Bette Midler's big extravaganzas -- she was performing at the Continental Baths in New York at the time the Cockettes performed in the city, and I know she went to see them. And Elton John's glitter phase came very shortly after the Cockettes. Did the Cockettes make glitter rock happen? It's hard to say. But they unquestionably created quite a stir in terms of their gender-bending, their campy, glittery presentation and just in terms of the drag. Drag had not received anywhere near that degree of visibility, particularly in a cultural context, outside of the gay community prior to the Cockettes.

I think it is impossible to deny that their influence was enormous. They were featured in Paris Match. They were in Rolling Stone all the time. Their whole presence was completely new and garnered a lot of attention. People loved photographing them. And when Diana Vreeland met them in New York, she was completely wowed by their costumes which were 50-cent thrift-store clothes. I think that their influence was significant in that they created a whole new genre of performance and visual presentation.

When will the film premiere?

I hope to have it done by the beginning of 2001.

You'll be able to do that?

I think we will. It depends on fundraising -- always a slow process. Documentaries raise their money through contributions from foundations, government and individuals. Because of the subject matter, we're not going to get any NEA money for "The Cockettes." We have received a number of foundation grants and we're working to get individual donors. But this is an unusual project. It's not a sober, social-issue documentary about the Holocaust, poverty in Latin America, abortion or something of that nature. The people who donate to documentaries based on specific social issues are not likely to fund a film about the Cockettes. On the other hand, this is going to be an extremely fun movie and I believe that it has an important, historical and social story to tell, but in a very entertaining context. I think that will work in our favor over the long run. It will give the movie more visibility than most documentaries get because it's a very wild story.

By Douglas Cruickshank

Douglas Cruickshank is a senior writer for Salon. For more articles by Cruickshank, visit his archive.

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