---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Wed, 29 May 2002 12:23:54 -0700
From: radtimes <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: True glitter [Cockettes]
David Weissman and Bill Weber uncover a sparkling treasure: The Cockettes.
By Johnny Ray Huston
May 08, 2002
JUNE 21, 2001: A celebratory sneak preview of David Weissman and Bill
Weber's The Cockettes at the San Francisco International Gay and Lesbian
Film Festival. Before the lights go down, I sneak out to the Castro
Theatre's side alley, hoping to get high enough to grasp at the glittered
heels about to dance across the screen. When the film begins, it doesn't
seem like a projection so much as a flaming, sparkled gateway into a
fantastic world ruled by always-bejeweled and sometimes-bearded beautiful
ladies in velvet and satin.
One hundred minutes later, that gateway closes and a standing ovation
begins, continuing as many of the Cockettes featured in the documentary
take the stage together, some for the first time since the group disbanded
nearly three decades earlier.
Bill Weber remembers the night. "My parents came out from Kansas, and it
was the first time they were in the Castro Theatre," he says. "My
boyfriend's family was there, and it was the first time my family met his."
David Weissman remembers the night too or at least some of it. "My
experience of getting there in this outfit that I had cobbled together the
day before, getting out of a Checker cab that someone had hired it was
like an instant peak acid trip," he says. "There were cameras everywhere
and a billion people I knew yelling, "David! David!" I was immediately
transported to this weird reality that pervaded the whole night. I only
really know what happened through other people's stories because I was so
The glamorous life
Weissman and I have discovered a bond: an insane love for Andrea Feldman,
the inimitable blond star of Andy Warhol's Heat. "Ma! All I want is your
money!" he bellows, invoking one of Feldman's signature screeching demands
from that film. We've reached the topic of Feldman via Sylvia Miles, her
Heat costar. In The Cockettes, dedicated hat-wearer Miles recalls the
group's infamous off-Broadway stint in New York. "I love Sylvia Miles,"
Weissman says. "She's one of the smartest, wackiest people, and she has an
"And she's known everybody," Weber adds wryly. Seated at a meeting table in
Weissman's informal business office on the second floor of a church near
Dolores Park, the duo are a study in complementary contrasts. Weber is
soft-spoken, while Weissman has a booming voice. Throughout the interview
they pass a cell phone to each other with Olympic-relay speed and efficiency.
Miles is just one eccentric to testify in Weissman and Weber's documentary.
With typical quick wit, John Waters outlines the Cockettes' links to his
and Divine's mayhem. Society dame Denise Hale, in fur and pearls, attests
that the troupe put on the show to see in early-'70s San Francisco. But the
film's most colorful talking heads are the Cockettes themselves. Rumi,
Marshall, Jilala, Dusty Dawn, and Kreemah Ritz. Sweet Pam, glowing with
health as she claims that the Cockettes practically brushed their teeth
with LSD. Fayette, her voice so sultry she makes the phrase "go west"
sound hot. Scrumbly, an old-fashioned gentleman with comic Chaplinesque
style. Goldie Glitters, still the proud possessor of "a face that sunk a
thousand ships." And Reggie, who hurls disdain at the wars and banks and
malls of today, then issues an invitation:
"Just give me a torn dress and a hit of acid and let's go to the beach."
There's an ironic contrast between The Cockettes' DVD-ready formal
structure and the antinarrative, anarchic spirit of its subject matter. But
the movie transcends packaged nostalgia partly because Weissman and Weber
make still photos come to life through pans and dissolves, partly because,
during four years of research, they've uncovered a bedazzled treasure chest
of rare film footage. Clips from the act of artistic terrorism Tricia's
Wedding (a twisted sister of Waters's Diane Linkletter Story) are
outnumbered by scenes from an unreleased movie about the Cockettes'
tragicomic escape to and from New York.
The New York footage came from an unlikely directorial source:
Maureen Orth, a Vanity Fair senior editor who wrote disapprovingly and
cluelessly about Andrew Cunanan's druggy gay decadence in the recent book
Vulgar Favors. The Cockettes offers the strange spectacle of the
conservatively attired Orth happily reminiscing about an orgiastic,
gay-dominated clan who, in Fayette's words, "expressed themselves through
their look [because they were] so stoned they became nonverbal."
In a paradise ruled by but not restricted to the gay gaze, Cockettes
founder Hibiscus (a.k.a. George Harris III) has the aura of a silent film
star. On celluloid, his considerable allure which once tempted an avowedly
hetero Robert Altman, then a magazine photographer, into considering a
visit to what Altman calls "the lavender garden," according to commentary
on the wall of Weissman and Weber's Cockettes exhibit at Yerba Buena Center
for the Arts is both moving and fitting. The Cockettes drew inspiration
from pre-talkie motion picture glamour, twisting it into revelatory new
forms. When the documentary introduces Harris via an actor's head shot,
he's a twinkie, a teen Prince William. The very next still image of a
pre-Hibiscus Harris is iconic. He's sticking a flower into the gun of a
U.S. soldier at a protest outside the Pentagon. That flower soon bloomed
into the Dionysian antithesis of the Vietnam War: the Cockettes, an
outgrowth of Kaliflower, the San Francisco commune where Harris became
Hibiscus under the ever watchful eye of his mentor Irving Rosenthal, author
of the 1967 novel Sheeper.
The sad truth behind Hibiscus's silent-film allure in Weissman and Weber's
documentary is that it's a product of his death from an AIDS-related
illness in 1982. (The Cockettes does contain a few brief tape recordings of
his voice.) His final recorded performance might be on the printed page. In
an essay in the 1995 anthology Out in Culture, Mark Thompson interviews
Hibiscus a year before his then-undiagnosed illness proved fatal,
discovering a personality trapped between eras. "I'm afraid I'll slip and
say something that will outrage a million mad queens," he says, before
reaching the punch line with a grin. "But then, there aren't many mad
queens left anymore."
Faeries in the libraries
If Hibiscus is The Cockettes' silent film star, the movie's invisible hero
is the late Martin Worman, whose unpublished Ph.D. dissertation at New
York University (titled "Shamans and Show Queens") provided a glimmering
trail for Weissman and Weber to follow as they investigated the Cockettes'
explosive, scattered journey. "Martin had done about 100 hours of
interviews with key people," Weber says. "He also appreciated the spiritual
aspects of what the Cockettes were about, which helped influence our
Before last June an authoritative account of the Cockettes didn't exist.
The group rate an enthusiastic page or two in Waters's first book, Shock
Value. In The Irrepressible Bambi Lake, local self-made legend Lake takes
an occasional break from groupie catastrophe accounts to provide her own
skewed vision of the Angels of Light, Hibiscus's post-Cockettes theatrical
venture. In Flight from Neveryon, author Samuel Delany cites a Village
Voice obituary for Hibiscus as the first time he saw the term "gay cancer"
replaced by "AIDS." The most Cockettes-centric book to date is a paper-doll
collection published by Last Gasp in 1971. "When you cut out the dresses
and put them on the Cockettes, they don't fit," Weber says. "Which is
Though The Cockettes tells the story of the Cockettes, it doesn't have time
for their significant relatives. Photographer Steven Arnold is one such
figure. Arnold founded "The Nocturnal Dream Show," the midnight-movie event
at North Beach's Palace Theater, where the Cockettes debuted on New Year's
Eve of 1969. He went on to create the monographs Reliquaries and
Epiphanies, trinket-trimmed photographic tableaux that transform the
Cockettes' visual chaos into a classical aestheticism. The hallucinogenic
peak of The Cockettes comes from an excerpt of Arnold's film Luminous
Procuress. "Steven Arnold told a great story about the Cockettes," Weber
says. "They all were doing so much acid that they were impossible to
direct, and when they left, half of his costume collection, jewelry
collection, and a full-sized mummy sarcophagus left with them."
Rosenthal is even closer Cockettes kin, an unconventional father figure
whose spiritual and political beliefs the troupe adhered to and rebelled
against. His elfin intellectual presence hovers at the edge of the
documentary's narrative, shrouding secrets. As an editor at the Chicago
Review, Rosenthal published the first excerpts from William S. Burroughs's
Naked Lunch, and he is one of the flaming creatures in Jack Smith's 1962-63
movie of the same name, which was banned as "obscene" in New York and
denounced in the U.S. Senate. He is also the instigator of what The
Cockettes deems "the Philosophy of Free": a belief that food, theater, and
other art shouldn't cost anything.
"We met with Irving, which surprised a lot of people because he's reclusive
and not very enthusiastic about journalists or filmmakers," Weissman says.
"He declined to participate for a variety of reasons, some of them
predictable given his philosophical history." Noting that Rosenthal
attended the Castro preview, Weber draws a connection between the
Cockettes' and Smith's revolutionary drag:
"The drag for the first Cockettes show came from Kaliflower. Why Irving had
a room full of drag is good fodder for speculation I'm sure some of it
came from Jack Smith."
"There's influence that's direct and influence that is ephemeral," Weissman
adds. "In a sense Flaming Creatures was a Cockettes movie eight years
before the Cockettes began. Whether the other Cockettes saw [Flaming
Creatures] well, it did play ^A'The Nocturnal Dream Show' once." Smith's
movie isn't explicit so much as convulsive; politicians saw porn in it
because it takes gender and sexuality and detonates them. The Cockettes
moved that detonation from the movie screen to the stage a few feet below
it, changing two dimensions to three. Or four or five or six, factoring in
the drugs of the day.
At the tail end of the Cockettes' story one finds Sylvester, a dead ringer
for Tina Turner at her prime (though cast as Coretta Scott King),
serenading the newlyweds of Tricia's Wedding. "We came across early
recordings of Sylvester in 1970, on the piano at home, singing blues
standards like "Stormy Weather" and show tunes," Weber says. "He does a
version of "God Bless the Child" that sends chills down my spine."
The Cockettes begins and climaxes with the fateful November 1971 trip to
New York set in motion by an ecstatic nationally syndicated Rex Reed
review. A variation of the review can be found in the 1974 essay collection
People Are Crazy Here; Reed quotes Truman Capote to add authority to his
rave, so perhaps it was inevitable that Gore Vidal would criticize the
Cockettes so loudly that others could record his wrath in New York on
opening night. Far from home, the Cockettes had become the ball in a
literary grudge match between bitter elder statesmen. Once upon a time they
were a ball of a different sort a celebration that didn't need the status
of an East Coast invitation.
Folies de San Francisco
Today, at the corner of Powell Street and Columbus Avenue, the metal
skeleton of the Palace Theater still stands, shabbily attired in chipped
drywall and random sheets of cheap pulpy wood. The marquee of the
Cockettes' old theatrical home is blank. Where once there was a dramatic
entrance, now there are posters advertising Deuces Wild and the latest
album by Fat Joe. "Someone bought [the theater] and without any permits
totally gutted it," Weissman says. "The owners were going to make it a Rite
Aid, but they were stopped by the neighborhood. Why can't North Beach have
a movie theater, with the kind of people who live there?"
Their performance mansion is in disarray, and many of its original
inhabitants have died, but in the decades since the Cockettes' final
performance, their spirit has been renewed in myriad forms, big and small,
global and local. Glam rock borrowed their glitter, and the Radical Faeries
continued their tradition of queers with beards. Here in San Francisco,
Klubstitute and the Sick and Twisted Players have allowed the show to go
on at least sporadically. And the most renowned S.F.-native drag
performer of recent years, Justin Bond (a.k.a. Kiki) is accompanied on
piano by a Scrumbly-esque sidekick, Herb.
The Cockettes are history. But there's a sweet justice to their Castro
homecoming, the second installment of which begins this Friday, when the
finished version of Weissman and Weber's documentary commences a three-week
run. The craziest theatrical troupe in San Francisco's history gave their
first performance at a movie theater in the city. This week, thanks to The
Cockettes, they'll be invading a local movie palace again.
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