The Thrillpeddlers revivals of Cockettes musicals from the early 1970s occasionally included a few of the original performers who had managed to survive the ensuing four decades, including left to right “Sweet" Pam, Rumi Misabu, and Scrumbly Koldeywn who reunited in 2013 for Tinsel Tarts in a Hot Coma. Photo by Dan Nicoletta.
The original Cockettes would just sing whatever copyrighted song they wanted to warble within a show, but that wasn't possible for The Thrillpeddlers so Scrumbly was forced to write new songs to fill in and many were wonders, including a few he wrote for Jewels in Paris, a review of songs and skits set in Gay Paree.
Koldewyn is an accomplished musician who not only composes and sings professionally, but also musically directs actors who are not trained singers in wise fashion. As Russell Blackwood, the Thrillpeddlers director told me in an interview, "Thanks to Scrumbly, we all really did get better musically over the years. Dancing, maybe not, but singing definitely."
The shows were also sensually daring in an interesting manner that usually felt less exploitive than genuinely sexy, especially since they involved bodies of all ages and genders that are still being invented.
In the ill-fated election year of 2016, they presented The Untamed Stage. The final Thrillpeddlers/Cockettes show was not a revival but a completely new show with music by Koldewyn set in Weimar Berlin. The composer noted that the musical inspiration was the songbook of Hollaender and Spoliansky, and since he wasn't able to get the rights to perform those originals for this show, Koldewyn decided to write his own new material in the style of the 20s Berlin songs. "Not to compete with Kander and Ebb's Cabaret, I chose to carry the irony and the explicitness a step or two further. However, the themes remain the same: man-devouring vamps, the blending of gender, social commentary, etc. These are songs intended to be performed with that certain Berliner attitude: "We are who we are."
The Thrillpeddlers troupe was an amazing collection of characters, and it attracted fearless young artists like Diogo Zavadzki above as a Hitler Youth who goes to the Magic Theater and transforms into a drag rock star.
The fabulous Bruna Palmeiro played The Existential Cow who is injected with an experimental Superman serum, grows phallic udders, and participates in an orgy with the Lost Boys.
Then the Nazis came in and machine-gunned the entire cast, a fitting ending for both the play and the Thrillpeddlers itself. The philanthropic owners of the small, two-story building which housed the Hypnodrome, announced the sale of the building after providing cheap rent for 13 years. (Note to arts philanthropists: Providing cheap rent is one of the greatest gifts any performing troupe can receive. If you have a favorite group of performers and some unused real estate, put them together for the good of all.)
In March of 2017, there was a huge rummage sale of wigs, costumes, props, and sets.
The sale was both a reunion of sorts and a bittersweet farewell for the troupe.
Russell Blackwood, the founder and general director of the troupe, who never asked local arts grants agencies for subsidies, announced his retirement at the sale and so far he has kept that vow. Recently I asked him what he missed most about the Thrillpeddlers and the simple answer was "the people." And what did he miss the least? "The liability," he replied. "What if somebody got hurt? What if we put on a show where nobody came and I was stuck with paying out of my pocket? It was always there at the back of my mind, and that weight has been gone for the last three years." However, after "sitting with my spouse through more hockey games on TV than you can believe," he was given permission to put together a 50th Anniversary of the Cockettes show, which occurred on the stage of the Victoria Theater in the Mission last Saturday. Stay tuned for a report on the show.