The Cockettes were born on stage on New Year’s Eve, 1969 at the Palace Theatre in North Beach, San Francisco. The troupe emerged out of a group of Acid Freak artists and hippies that were living communally in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco in a Victorian flat on Bush St. We were all intent on re-creating ourselves in the way of a New Myth, expressing our deepest Fantasies, Dreams and Desires on our bodies. Dressing as outrageously as possible, we tripped around the city in a large pack, going to concerts at the dance halls; The Fillmore, Winterland and The Family Dog on the Great Highway, thus attracting even more like-minded Freaks.
Into this wild bunch came Hibiscus, the biggest Freak artist of them all. He had been an actor named George Harris III and had come from New York City where he performed with his theater family in avant garde productions such as the seminal play Gorilla Queen by Ronald Tavel. He was brought to San Francisco by Alan Ginsburg, his lover who led him to Kaliflower, a commune run by the Beat author and gay guru Irving Rosenthal.
After much LSD, George changed his name to Hibiscus and rebelling against the restrictive atmosphere of Kaliflower, presented himself to the house at Bush & Baker, announcing that the glory and beauty of our outrageous lifestyle should be on the stage. His dream was to create an avant garde theatre troupe similar to what he had experienced in New York with John Vaccaro’s Play House of the Ridiculous and the films of Jack Smith but to now include the bright and shining zeitgeist of the culture of LSD. The original name for the troupe was The Angels of Light Free Theatre.
Everyone at Bush & Baker was enthralled and leaped at the idea. We had all attended the iconoclastic theater experience presented by The Living Theatre with their show Paradise Now where they completely dissolved the invisible “fourth wall” of the stage to encompass everyone in the moment. Experimental and experiential theater, real, no bullshit. Absurdist and Surreal, in life and on the stage.
Hibiscus brought in an old velvet scrapbook and began filling it with pictures that represented ideas for the stage. He included all of us in the creation of this fantasy filled dream of a new theatre vision. The book held many ideas and became the basis for all performances in the first year. Hibiscus was determined to have the first performance on New Years Eve 1969 in order to proclaim the New Theatre for the New Decade.
He found an old theater on Fillmore St., a very run-down place that showed porno films. The owner seemed amenable to the idea until Hibiscus showed up with our entourage from Bush & Baker, to perform a wedding ceremony for Teena and Boop. We were naked wearing only great floral head wreaths and a few scarves. While everyone was dancing ceremoniously on the stage, the owner burst in shrieking, “I can’t allow a live sex act here! Get out!”
Now there was no theater and it was already well into December. Link knew Sebastian who ran the Nocturnal Dream Show, the first midnight movies, at the Palace Theatre on Powell St. in North Beach. Sebastian, a filmmaker and film connoisseur, found obscure films of every variety making his weekend shows the place to go. Link approached him with the idea of us coming on stage with a preview of our future vision on New Year’s Eve, which was always a special show. He said, “Of course you can.”
Since we couldn’t do an entire show, Hibiscus decided we would only do one of the acts, a can-can take-off of the Rockettes called the Cockettes, a name penned by our great family wordsmith and artist Ralph Sauer. Ralph, called Ralif, was still living at Kaliflower so to celebrate he invited us over for dinner and a visit to their drag room. The photo of that event was the first photo of our group and became the cover of the next issue of the Kaliflower magazine.
We dressed for the show like we dressed every night that we went out, to look fabulous and to make a statement. This night seemed no different. And we were only planning on being onstage for a moment, to announce our future vision. We were all very excited as we were going to be onstage, not just on the street. Hibiscus was so happy that it was definitely going to happen. He whipped around the house like a dervish, stirring up the energy, helping everyone with their drag.
Big Daryl who became known as Kreemah Ritz, had the truck and we all scrambled in, drag and all. I was wearing so many skirts and feathers that I had trouble climbing on, Link had to boost me up. For our music, Hibiscus brought his little wooden portable record player and an old 78 rpm French recording of the music of the Moulin Rouge, a real French can-can.
The Palace was packed, even more so than usual, everyone ready to ring in the new decade in true San Francisco Freak Style. The stage curtains were closed so that the actual stage space was quite small. When it came time for us to appear, Sebastian announced us as The Cockettes and we piled onto the stage lead by Hibiscus and the little wooden record player. Somehow he plugged it in and cranked it up. I watched him bend down to place the needle on the record. There was a moment of breathless anticipation, both with us and with the audience. When the scratchy 78 came on with its small, low shrill-ish mono, tinny old French music hall sound, the audience was momentarily held spellbound by the out-of-time, other worldly-ness of the old music.
Then Hibiscus grabbed my hand and we rushed forward to the front of the stage. There was nothing demure or polite about this can-can. We got wild, led by our Shaman Hibiscus, who was kicking, shaking and flinging his beautifully bedecked body everywhere. We followed his lead. The energy skyrocketed. The Palace was on it’s feet, screaming.
When the record ended the audience was shrieking, stomping and not about to stop. Amazed, I looked at Hibiscus as if to say, “What now?” Without a moment’s hesitation he bent over and played the record again. This time we got even more crazy, wild frenzied mad colorful, thrashing about, dancing with each other, ripping off our clothes until we were naked.
The audience stormed the stage. They climbed on, stripping off their clothes until there was no difference between the stage and the audience. An enormous sea of celebration. From the sound booth Sebastian opened the curtain and put on the Rolling Stones’ Honky-Tonk Woman and the whole place shook with frenzy.
From then on we were known as The Cockettes and our group was catapulted into a new life. We embraced this new dimension with full power. We had succeeded in channeling the fantastic energy, the Zeitgeist that abounded in San Francisco at that moment, an energy that had grown from the Beats in North Beach, through the Diggers in the Haight, Owsley with his pure Acid and all the disaffected children that had come from everywhere in the country to form something new with Life.
We put image to the energy with our sense of boundless drag abundance, our fertile imaginations and our no-holds-barred stage presence.
This then became the total focus of our life in the Cockette house at Bush & Baker. More people moved in, the walls became loaded with drag and stage ideas in progress. Scrumbly built lofts in every room to accommodate the overflow. Our Cockette House became the chic place to be. Nightly guests included Rock Stars such as Iggy Pop and Alice Cooper who said, “I have to up my stage game and give them more for their money!”.
We shopped constantly for the items to create our palette of fantasy and absurdity. We were fully committed to our newfound stage experience and we did shows on the average of once a month. The ideas for the shows during the entire first year came out of Hibiscus’ Magic Book.
We maintained this sense of absolute freedom on stage, having been inspired by The Living Theatre as well as adhering to the ethos of our San Francisco culture where we respected our individuality, celebrated it and nurtured it to new heights. We shared everything.
To me that first year was complete and true Magic as we had no expectations, we evolved as we experienced each show. We brought all our best ideas, full of Truth and Beauty, as well as our finest drag to the stage and let it all happen, fully experiencing the moment. Rehearsals were minimal. Hibiscus fully embraced this evolution and nurtured it as well. Each stage experience for me was a total catharsis, I was different after each show. I lived on stage and was then changed by the experience. There was nothing like it.
After the first year our stage ideas took on more form as certain concepts were shared and developed. Everyone had their own look, with lots of variations of course. But there was Trouble in Paradise as Hibiscus was committed to the idea of Free Theatre ala the Diggers and Kaliflower. Sebastian charged $2 for the Nocturnal Dream Shows and we came under that umbrella as the Palace became our home theater. We rebelled by letting in people for free. It was a conundrum as the Diggers’ Philosophy of Free was an abiding ethos of the city yet the theater space had to be paid for.
As we entered the second year, we had moved to a new house, a bigger Victorian flat on Haight at Divisadero. Actual scripts began to emerge. The best one of them all is Link Martin’s masterpiece Pearls Over Shanghai, a tribute to the Sin City of Shanghai 1937 and to the work of Joseph Von Sternberg and his film Shanghai Gesture, a story of white slavery, miscegenation, opium and high style. In other words, when we thought fabulous, we thought forbidden and alluring, ripe for absurdist homage. Nothing was sacred.
We rehearsed more but still kept the innate sense of freedom onstage. Link created characters that were tailor-made to the personalities of each one of us. Our own interpretation of the script allowed room for change with each performance. Hibiscus was Lili Frustrata, the shy, forlorn girl who had been abandoned but eventually finds her Transcendent Eternal Love. Goldie Glitters was Mrs. Goldberg, the formidable chaperone who transforms to become Madame Fu, the Evil Madame of the opium den, the Palace of Sin. Daryl was Chang, her henchman. Into this forbidding landscape comes the Wobblin’ Robin Sisters, chorus girls fresh off the boat from Broadway, played by John Flowers, Pristine Condition and Johnny. Scrumbly was Sebastian, an Ivy-Leaguer who goes astray and falls in love with Petrushka, the Chanteuse, played by Sylvester. Fayette was Lotte Wu, the Town Whore and Daniel Ware was Hank, her Sailor Man. Sweet Pam, Harlow and Dusty Dawn were the chorus of Lotus Blossoms and Temple Bells.
Pearls Over Shanghai is an original musical with Lyrics by Link Martin and Music by Scrumbly Koldwyn.
We always sought to maintain the fluidity of our original concept in keeping with the latest avant-garde theater ideas as well as the ethos of San Francisco. This became another source of contention as some of the newer members wanted to appear “perfect” onstage. In the beginning gender identity was not a specific issue with the Cockettes in that we had fun with it, we wanted to fuck with people’s idea of sex and gender along with any other category of human behavior that required some solid unleashing. If anything, it was our politic to be as omni-gender as possible. Our members were of every persuasion so there was no specific “agenda”, the stage was an open free space for us to express all that mattered to us.
Towards the end of the second year we had moved again to the third Cockette House at 1965 Oak Street, the former residence of James Gurley and Richard Hundgen of Big Brother and the Holding Company. We called it The Chateau as it was such a fabulously appointed Victorian flat.
At this point certain members had some very specific ideas as to how the shows should be structured along with how they themselves should be presented. Egos reared their barbarous heads and just before we were to go to New York, Hibiscus was violently extracted by the more heavy-handed members of the troupe. It broke his heart that he was unable to go to New York. I thought this was a crucial mistake as he was the only one then that had any real theatrical experience along with a solid vision and always knew what to do to make the stage energy thrilling and successful. I also loved him and felt for him and I wanted him there with us, his wildness was fabulous and his artistry so unfettered. He was our Magician, our Shaman, our Visionary and they threw him down the stairs. It proved to be our undoing.
Egos came crashing down to earth when the critics slammed our opening night. And the whole town was there, thanks to our great PR man Danny Fields. He brought 3000 people to the Anderson Theater on the Lower East Side for the opening, which broke a record for Off-Off Broadway.
We managed to knuckle down and re-open with our best piece, Pearls Over Shanghai which we played to packed houses for the rest of the run. When we returned to San Francisco we played again at the Palace with Les Etoile Des Minuit, the last Pearls Over Shanghai show with a third act and new songs and Journey to the Center of Uranus featuring Divine’s SF debut singing “A Crab On Your Anus Means You’re Loved”. Our final show as a group was Hot Greeks.
The last afternoon when we gathered together onstage, the energy seemed dissipated. I think we all knew it was over; we were going in different directions. I had been invited to come to Seattle by Tomata du Plenty to perform with Ze Whiz Kidz, a spin-off group that he had created and I was eager to go. John Rothermel wanted to go solo, Sweet Pam was practicing her tap dancing, Rumi was making his film Elevator Girls in Bondage and Sylvester was well on his way to becoming a star. We all had other ideas so on we went.
From that time on our influence has been widely felt in many areas of culture worldwide. Our sense of total personal freedom allowed us to unleash our imaginations to generate ideas that were way ahead of their time. Ideas that became well honed by those that succeeded us, such as The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Glam Rock and Glitter-Punk Fashion. Our particular visual language is now seen everywhere, having influenced an entire generation of gay entertainers and fashion designers and continues today with current trends such as Steampunk.
The life and work of The Cockettes has been featured in films and museum shows worldwide.
Film & Theater
“The Cockettes”, a feature film documentary by Bill Weber and David Weisman, 2002 (link to page)
“Summer Of Love, Part One: Free Love” MME Film Production, ARTE Channel, Europe, 2007
HOWL Festival, Lower East Side Arts Festival NYC, First Revival of Pearls Over Shanghai with Cockettes and Thrillpeddlers of SF, produced by Fayette Hauser, directed by Russell Blackwood, music by Scrumbly Koldwyn, choreography by Teddy Kerns of Dance Manhattan, 2008
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Fortieth Anniversary Film Night, 2009 (link to page)
Subsequent revivals of Cockette pieces, Hot Greeks, Vice Palace, and Tinsel Tarts in a Hot Coma by the Thrillpeddlers of San Francisco 2009-2013
Most recently The Cockettes have been included in the Walker Art Center exhibition; Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia which opened in November 2105. The exhibition featured The Cockettes as pioneers of avant garde performance in the Counter Culture movement. The Hippie Modernism exhibition will travel to the Cranbrook Museum, June 19 - Oct. 9, 2016 and to the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, Feb. 8 - May 21, 2017 http://www.walkerart.org
Also costume work of The Cockettes was included in the Bellevue Arts Museum exhibition Counter Couture: Fashioning Identity in the American Counter Culture. The Wearable Art work of Scrumbly, his Doily Suit and Fayette Hauser's Cosmic Gypsy outfit are featured in the Performance section of this exhibition which focuses on the significance of the Wearable Art Movement in America in the 1970's. This exhibition will travel to the Museum of Arts and Design, New York City, Feb 2017 http://www.bellevuearts.org
West of Center: Art and the Counter-Culture Experiment in America, 1965-1977 Curated and exhibited by the Denver Museum of Contemporary Art in Oct. 2011 The exhibit has traveled to:
Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art 2012
Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, Feb. 2013 (link to page)
Mills College Museum of Art, June-Sept 2013 (link to page)
State of Mind: New California Art, Circa 1970, Berkley Art Museum Glam! (link to page)
Glam! The Performance of Style/ Tate Liverpool, 2013 (link to page)
Schirn-Kunsthalle, Frankfurt, 2013 (link to page)
Fayette Hauser extensively photographed The Cockettes and her work has been exhibited in Los Angeles and San Francisco in her traveling show:
Children of Paradise: Life With The Cockettes (link to page)
The 2002 documentary film, The Cockettes by David Weisman and Bill Weber was featured at the Sundance Film Festival and has won numerous awards. Currently seen streaming on Amazon.com, from http://www.cockettes.com..
New Year's Eve: 1969/ 1970