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The Cockettes were a psychedelic drag queen troupe founded by Hibiscus, aka George Harris. The first performance of the Cockettes took place on New Years Eve, 1969 (December 31, 1969) at the Palace Theatre in San Francisco. After the first performance, the group was asked to perform again. Soon thereafter combining LSD-influenced dancing, set design, costumes and their own versions of show tunes or original tunes in the same vein they soon became a "must-see" for San Francisco's hip gay community. Initially, shows were performed about once every six weeks, performing on stage prior to the Saturday midnight Nocturnal Dream Show of underground films at the Palace Theatre on the corner of Columbus and Union in the North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco. Some show titles were, "Gone With the SHOWBOAT To OKLAHOMA", "Hollywood Babylon" and "Pearls Over Shanghai". Word quickly got out that nothing like these shows had ever been seen before, and within a few months the Cockettes were getting enormous attention from the media. Not only hippie magazines, such as EARTH and ROLLING STONE, wanted stories on the Cockettes, but also mainstream magazines such as LOOK, LIFE and ESQUIRE were anxious to do features as well.
During their first year the Cockettes were not paid for performances, although tickets to the shows sold for $2.00, the proceeds going to the theatre owner. (It must be added that during the first year the Cockettes sneaked many audience members into the theatre free through the back door.) The reason for the lack of interest in payment was that the group, having come out of the Haight Ashbury hippie community, was not then focused on money. Later, when Cockette audiences began to consist of celebrities such as Truman Capote and members of European royal families, the group insisted on being paid by the theatre owner. Even so, the amounts eventually paid were minimal.
In early 1971, over differences in philosophy, the group split into two separate groups, the Cockettes and The Angels of Light. The Cockettes continued to work as professional performers while the Angels of Light chose to do free theatre without admission charge.
In November 1971 the Cockettes, minus former Cockettes who were now the Angels of Light, were booked for performances in New York City. They performed their original musical "Pearls Over Shanghai." According to accounts of the time, "Everybody who was anybody" came to the Cockette's New York opening, including such celebrities as John Lennon, Truman Capote, Gore Vidal, and Angela Lansbury. But without the magic of Hibiscus (who had left the Cockettes to form a free theatre group, The Angels of Light), the opening night was a disaster. And in the theatre things went from bad to worse when Angela Lansbury walked out on the show, soon followed by most of the audience. After the show Gore Vidal quipped, "Having no talent is not enough." Apparently the New York professionals did not view the group as talented. Sylvester, a member of the group who later went on to become a 70's disco star, had often sung either before or after the Cockette shows in San Francisco with his own band, but after the opening night fiasco in New York, he decided to distance himself from the Cockettes and demand separate billing. So much for professional dreams.
After the New York bomb, the Cockettes came back to San Francisco and performed their final show in the summer of 1972, "Journey to the Center of Uranus". At this time Divine, star of films by noted filmmaker John Waters', joined the group, thus making her San Francisco debut. In that show Divine performed her song "The Crab at the Center of Uranus" while dressed as a lobster.
After the group disbanded in 1972, various Cockettes continued to perform, often as solo performers, but more often as a group, although no longer billed as The Cockettes. Later a few Cockettes formed the group Paula Pucker and the Pioneers, among others.
Among the more famous people of the Cockettes... Tomata duPlenty, an early member, who left the group and went on to sing in the seminal L.A. synthpunk band, the Screamers. Also 70's disco diva Sylvester. In Cockette shows, Sylvester's incredible singing and rendition of Billie Holiday songs were always sure to get a standing ovation. After the demise of the Cockettes Sylvester became a well-known disco singer during the late 1970s. During the groups last year, John Waters screen diva, Divine became a member and performed in the final show of the Cockettes.
Other core members of the Cockettes were Link (aka Luther Cupp), Gary Cherry, Rumi Missabu, Tahara (whose parents had been rodeo clowns), Goldie Glitters, John Rothermel, "Johnny Cockette", Sweet Pam (aka Pam Tent), Martin Worman, Scrumbly Koldewyn (who wrote tunes to Link's or Martin's lyrics), Fayette, Daniel Ware, Dusty Dawn, Linden, Brent Jensen, Pristine Condition, Reggie (aka Anton Dunigan), Miss Harlow (who had been an original Plaster Caster) and Kreemah Ritz. Many other people too numerous to mention performed in only one or two shows.
Currently only twelve members of the Cockettes are still living. Twenty-three members have died, most of them from AIDS.
The Cockettes were credited at the time with being a huge influence on gay liberation: The term "genderfuck" was coined about them to express what one might make of a drag queen with a beard.
In its history numerous performers and performing groups have spun off from the Cockettes, including, among others, the Seattle Ze Whiz Kidz (including actors Tomato Du Plenty and Screaming Orchids; the first Whiz Kidz show was a musical based on the life of Yma Súmac), The San Francisco Angels of Light, The New York Angels of Light and The Assorted Nuts. Many Cockettes also continue to perform the theatre world today.
The Cockettes were the subject of a 2002 documentary, also called The Cockettes.
(Note: More on the Angels of Light..... In early 1971 a few members of the original group broke away from the Cockettes and formed their own theatre group, THE ANGELS OF LIGHT. The Angels became a well-known and highly creative San Francisco theatre group during the 1970s. Angels performances were always free, that is with no admission charge. The Angels lifestyle included communal living in an old three-story victorian house in San Francisco. Within the Angel commune house meetings were held every morning, all personal money was pooled into a communal treasury, meals were bought and ate communally, and a form of complex marriage where each member was married to each other member evolved. The group also had a form of ritual criticism in which members could ask for "a criticism," the purpose of which was to help members deal with personal problems and personal growth. At it's peak the San Francisco Angels consisted of sixty people, including women and children.
In 1972 Hibiscus, the founder of the Cockettes and of the Angels of Light, left the Angels and moved to New York City. There he formed his own group also known as the Angels of Light. The focus of his group was mostly drag revues in which members wore heavily sequinned costumes and did Jayne Mansfield style parodies of women. (In 1984 Hibiscus died of AIDS in New York City, supposedly the 224th person to die in that epidemic.)
Jack Coe (aka Angel Jack) was another reknown member of the Angels of Light. He was seen later on as a regular performer at Studio 54. He died of an AIDS related illness in 2001 in St. Petersburg, FL.
In 1977 the Angels of Light San Francisco commune disbanded, although the group continued to perform until 1980. At present many of the male members of the Angels of Light have died of AIDS, while other members, still living, have moved on and currently live all over the world.
In 1976 a short lived group, known as The Assorted Nuts, was formed by Tahara, former Cockette/Angel of Light San Francisco. This group consisted mostly of institutionalized mental patients who performed in shows written by themselves. Among Assorted Nut shows were an anti-nuclear energy performance called "Atomic Testes", and a show on discrimination against mental patients called "Transcendental Medication." The Assorted Nuts stopped performing in 1981.)
See also: Tent, Pam (2004). Midnight at the Palace: My Life as a Fabulous Cockette. Los Angeles:Alyson Books. ISBN 1-55583-874-X
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