As the psychedelic San Francisco of the ’60’s began evolving into the gay San Francisco of the ’70’s, The Cockettes, a flamboyant ensemble of hippies (women, gay men, and babies) decked themselves out in gender-bending drag and tons of glitter for a series of legendary midnight musicals at the Palace Theater in North Beach. With titles like “Tinsel Tarts in a Hot Coma” and “Pearls over Shanghai”, these all singing, all dancing extravaganzas featured elaborate costumes, rebellious sexuality, and exuberant chaos.
The Cockettes were founded by “Hibiscus”, a member of a commune called KaliFlower that was dedicated to distributing free food and to creating free art and theater. They first performed as an informal group of friends in wild costumes doing a chorus line dance to “Honky Tonk Woman” at The Nocturnal Dream Shows, a weekly midnight eclectic film series at The Palace.
The chorus line quickly evolved into bigger, wilder, and more lavish productions, and the Cockettes’ shows fast became not-to-be-missed events for the hippest of San Francisco’s free spirits. The audiences were often as wild as the shows, generating tremendous energy. New shows were created every few weeks – “Paste on Paste”, “Gone with the Showboat to Oklahoma”, and “Tropical Heatwave/Hot Voodoo”, were some of the early titles. The early shows were mostly non-narrative revues, with everybody making their own costumes, and creative spontaneity reigning supreme. But with “Pearls Over Shanghai” the Cockettes produced their first show with all original script, music and lyrics. Combining grand spectacle with the endearing awkwardness of a high school operetta production, The Cockettes thrilled the audiences as much with their unpredictability as with their triumphs.
In anticipation of the televised wedding of President Nixon’s daughter Tricia, The Cockettes made a film called TRICIA’S WEDDING, featuring a transvestite Tricia, a drunken Mamie Eisenhower, a party crashing Lady Bird Johnson, and a drag Eartha Kitt spiking the punch with LSD, resulting in a mad orgy. The Cockettes also appeared in the films ELEVATOR GIRLS IN BONDAGE, and LUMINOUS PROCURESS.
Truman Capote and Rex Reed attended a San Francisco performance of “Tinsel Tarts in a Hot Coma”, and Reed wrote a glowing review in his nationally syndicated column, calling it “a landmark in the history of new, liberated theater…” “The Cockettes are where it’s at!” raved Capote. The Cockettes became national media darlings and were invited to perform what would turn out to be a tumultuous 3 week run in New York.
Reed’s review had New York buzzing in anticipation, from upper east side society to the lower east side underground. Diana Vreeland and Oscar de la Renta greeted the Cockettes on arrival and Robert Rauschenberg threw them a party in his loft. The opening night audience included John Lennon, Gore Vidal, Angela Lansbury, and Anthony Perkins.
But the freewheeling, anarchic, atmosphere that so electrified the San Francisco shows didn’t carry over to The Big Apple, where the opening night throng of celebrities and socialites were bewildered by The Cockettes’ seeming indifference to “professionalism”. The press hated them, and the audience walked out in droves. But after the Society crowds disappeared, the underground scene continued to attend, and the shows ran for three weeks with small but highly enthusiastic crowds.
The Cockettes returned to San Francisco to put on some of their most successful shows (“Journey to the Center of Uranus”, “Les Etoiles de Paris” and “Hot Greeks”) . They gave their last performance in the autumn of 1972. Some of them continued to perform together in other contexts, some began solo careers, and others departed from “show business” entirely.
The Cockettes inspired the glitter rock era of David Bowie, Elton John, and The New York Dolls, and the campy extravaganzas of Bette Midler and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. “Their influence will be felt years from now,” wrote Lillian Roxon, in her Top of the Pops column during the troupe’s New York run. She proclaimed The Cockettes 15 years ahead of their time, and predicted, “Every time you see too much glitter or a rhinestone out-of-place, you (will) know it’s because of the Cockettes.”