On Saturday, January 4th, there was a line stretching for a block to enter the Victoria Theater on 16th Street for a 50th anniversary celebration of The Cockettes' first show on New Years Eve at the Palace Theater in Chinatown/North Beach in 1969.
The audience turned out to be half the fun just as they were at the original midnight movie Cockettes shows, including my friend Dionysio above who was one of the original gay hippies of San Francisco before becoming a Muni mechanic for decades. He recently retired and has made a full-blown return to the mystical Fairy fold.
The show started 30 minutes late because everyone in the audience refused to sit down while catching up with old friends who hadn't ventured out of their apartments for years. The complex stage set-up with a large video screen overhanging the physical performers also had technical problems, so the emcee Russell Blackwood had to improvise brilliantly at the beginning. He introduced the surviving Cockettes in attendance who were stationed on either side of the stage in front of the proscenium. Pictured above, left to right, are Tahara, Ocean Michael Moon (the literal grown-up baby who used to wander the stage in the early 1970s as an infant), the costume designer Bill Bowers, and Scotty Tissue.
Technical issues solved, Russell wound back into his stemwinder speech about New Years Eve 1969 at the Palace when a half dozen stoned, glittery, bearded characters jumped on the stage to dance around and sing to a Rolling Stones song, and suddenly the aisles at the Victoria were filled with performers jumping onto the stage, recreating the historical moment in a joyful burst of energy.
Excerpts from Palace, a 1970 silent film by Syd Dutton and Scott Runyon, documenting backstage and onstage antics of a 1970 Halloween show, Les Ghouls, was shown.
Fayette Hauser and Pam Tent offered a running commentary onstage while the film was playing, telling one crazy anecdote after another. "Remember that woman from The Committee in North Beach who liked to join us and get naked onstage? Somebody gave her a mega dose of MDA that night and she ended up passing out onstage and had to be taken off on a wheeled stretcher up the aisle. The audience thought it was all part of the show."
The filmmaker John Waters was next and upstaged everyone by offering a brilliant, rousing testimonial. "I moved to San Francisco in 1970. I didn't know anybody. I didn't know who the Cockettes were. I wanted my gutter film, Mondo Trasho, to be shown. I read about the Palace and they were talking about Nocturnal Dream Shows. And I thought, wow. Underground movies and Busby Berkeley musicals, drag shows and the Cockettes. Who in the hell were they? I went to the show but before the show even started, I was so amazed at the audience which was as shocking as the show. Hippie gay guys, finally! It was so great to see them, you know. And drag queens with beards reading Lenin. They thought the revolution really was going to happen. I knew it wasn't but I liked watching. These drag queens didn't want to be Miss America or Bess Myerson. They wanted to be Janice Joplin with a dick. And girl Cockettes. So great. Ruby Keelers on acid. Female female impersonators with full pussy power."
Waters continued: "I was in cinema heaven. You know, people think the Cockettes were noncommercial. But when I finally played the Palace, as Judy Garland used to sing, I made some money. And it helped pay back my dad who backed these movies and attracted future pot dealer financial backers. And Sebastian (pictured above, offering his own memories). I really salute you. I really, really do. Because this so-called show businessman behind the Palace shows, if you could call that showbiz, a $2 admission and half the audience sneaking in for free. And I wouldn't be here today without Sebastian's help when I first got here. He had the Secret Cinema that many people have forgotten which was another showcase, probably completely illegal theater in an old loft that showed crackpot double bills every day for the cinema insane. He's the one who booked Mondo Trasho and Multiple Maniacs. He's the one who paid for Divine to fly out in full drag on the airplane to appear at the Palace. The day the Cockettes all met Divine at the airport in full drag. Can you imagine that today? "Is it Liberace?" the flight attendants are screaming. Imagine today if hundreds of drag queens showed up at the airport. It would be a terrorist alert. They would be locked up in a second...The Cockettes were hippies. I thought Divine would scare hippies, really. Divine was hardly a hippie. He wanted to be Liz Taylor and Godzilla in one person."
"And let's not forget drugs. "Oh, let's leave out drugs. The Cockettes were more than that," I read recently. You've got to be kidding. Not mentioning the drugs when you talk about Cockettes is like talking about New Year's Eve without liquor. We were all on drugs. And it was fun! So much so that Mink Stole and I celebrated our 50th anniversary of knowing each other by taking LSD again last year. Not those pussy micro doses you all take. This was twelve hours of hallucinations. My Mom says, "Don't tell young people to take drugs." I'm not. I'm telling old people to. If you took LSD back in the old days when you were watching the Cockettes and liked it, do it again. They can't say you're having a senior moment, you're trippin'...The Cockettes have withstood the test of time. Their legend is cemented in America's lunatic history. We all deserve ATD. Cockettes then, Cockettes now, and Cockettes forever."
Following another film with outtakes from The Cockettes, a 2002 documentary by David Weissman and Bill Weber, the live theatrical section of the show resumed with dozens of performers from the recently disbanded Thrillpeddlers troupe recreating musical numbers from the original Palace shows and their own revivals at the Hypnodrome. This included a few numbers from the fabulously successful Pearls Over Shanghai with Steven Satyricon and Ruby Vixen above...
...and Birdie-Bob Watt with Earl Alfred Paus.
Jef Valentine channeled the late Divine who performed A Crab on Uranus (...means you're loved) at the Palace 50 years ago.
A Thrillpeddler favorite, Eric Tyson Wertz, sang the lead on No Nose Nanook...
...and the entire cast assembled for a tribute to Hibiscus, the LSD infused theatrical golden boy who was one of the presiding spirits of the Cockettes before returning to New York and an early death from AIDS. There were many more musical numbers over the course of the long night, but I didn't stay for them all because the first intermission was at 10:30, and like many of the survivors of that era, I'm old and wanted to sleep. Also, I knew the deplorable California Assemblyman Scott Weiner was going to be onstage in the second half handing out a proclamation and I didn't want to create a scene.
I am sorry to have missed Thrillpeddlers director and founder Russell Blackwood stepping out of his suit and into a dress for The Hot Twat of Tangier number from the musical Hot Greeks. Blackwood has been retired for over two years now, and his leadership and theatrical spirit are sorely missed in San Francisco. Together with composer, singer and Music Director Scrumbly Koldewyn (who I somehow failed to photograph on this evening), they created more than a rehashed revival of The Cockettes, forming a rowdy, sexy, funny, semi-professional theatrical troupe that had its own gestalt. It was lovely and a bit melancholy watching a tribute to the end of two different eras, and I felt lucky to have experienced a bit of both of them.