November 1971. A packed house at the Anderson Theater in New York, strewn with celebrities and socialites, waited to see the latest San Francisco sensation, the Cockettes. But when the curtain rose, the show didn’t live up to its hype.
A grossly under-rehearsed, elaborately overdressed collection of hippies, drag queens and acid freaks ran through a loosey-goosey musical of their own trippy invention. They could feel themselves bombing as audience members left in disgust. “No talent is not enough!” said Gore Vidal. “WHAT A DRAG,” screamed the headline of a scorched-earth review.
An agonizing night off-Broadway? Yeah. A great subject for a documentary? Oh, yeah. Directors David Weissman and Bill Weber devoted two years to chronicling the formation and dissolution of the Cockettes, a cult act from the City of Love. Their film, “The Cockettes,” opens Friday in Los Angeles. It received its premiere at the San Francisco International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival in 2001 and was shown after the awards presentation Sunday at Los Angeles’ Outfest. It also was broadcast on the Sundance Channel in June and will repeat in June next year.
“It’s really about the counterculture of the ‘60s and how that blended with the beginnings of the sexual revolution,” said Weissman. “The Cockettes offered an opportunity to tell that story.”
The tale steered Weissman and Weber straight into a big, messy zeitgeist stew: gay liberation, freedom of expression, countercultural lifestyles, gender bending, free love, drugs, communal living and politics.
Their approach to the tangled subject was to show all points of view. “I’m always struck by how five people can be at the same event and have differences about what happened,” said Weber.
“History becomes mythology, and we were comfortable with that,” Weissman said.
The film’s strength, writes Jeffrey M. Anderson of the San Francisco Examiner, is that “it leaves certain details purposely--tantalizingly--misty.” “The Cockettes” captures a delicate point in time and holds it like a butterfly in a net, say most of the critics. It brings the era “triumphantly to life,” A.O. Scott writes in the New York Times.
Weber and Weissman got a jump-start on the research from Martin Worman, a former Cockette who died in 1993, but not before beginning a dissertation on the group. “He had 100 interviews, 30 to 40 hours already transcribed. We had a tremendous history that was a huge help,” said Weber.
A treasure trove of archives included costumes, scrapbooks, photographs and films as well as interviews with a range of subjects, from the theater owner who gave them their first break to director John Waters, a fan of the troupe who introduced them to Divine, the star of his film “Pink Flamingos.” But most of it is straight from former Cockettes, whose names seem lifted off a Jefferson Airplane lyric sheet: Scrumbly, Sweet Pam, Hibiscus, Jilala, Goldie Glitters, Dusty Dawn, Ocean Michael Moon and others.
The Cockettes--many still wearing outrageous hats and too much mascara--relive the halcyon days of the troupe founded by George Harris, a young actor who left New York, changed his name to Hibiscus and moved into Kaliflower, a San Francisco commune. Rock-star handsome, with silky, shoulder-length hair fit for an Herbal Essence shampoo commercial, Hibiscus was described by one Cockette as “Jesus Christ with lipstick.” Where he led, they followed.
“He was gorgeous and inspirational and charismatic and totally visual,” said Fayetta Hauser, an art student who attended Boston University at the time Timothy Leary conducted acid experiments at MIT. She hitched a ride out West with no less than Nancy Gurley, wife of James Gurley, a guitarist for Janis Joplin’s backup band, Big Brother and the Holding Company.
“A lot of things I learned in school were in theory only, so between the acid and life in San Francisco and Hibiscus, it all started bursting out of my head,” Hauser said.
Their first performances started as group dances in public spaces. Later the shows took on titles: “Hot Greeks,” “Gone With the Showboat to Oklahoma” and “Journey to the Center of Uranus.” Dressing up was a signature. The Cockettes raided thrift shops and donned headdresses, boas, heels and layers of glittery makeup until they looked like Mardi Gras in search of Bourbon Street.
Some were gay. Some were straight. Some took acid. Some took their clothes off. Rehearsals were a zoo.
“It was a big psychodrama, like an insane asylum,” said Hauser. “Sometimes I would just sit back and watch what was going on; a lot of drag queens would be vying for the same role and throwing tantrums, and people would be singing and playing the piano--how we ever did a show is beyond me.”
In the 2 1/2 years the group was together, all attempts to get them to behave failed miserably. Pianist Peter Mintun said that for a time he was the only professional in the group. “Very often a rehearsal would be called for noon and I’d arrive at 1 and be only person there. Finally one person would straggle in with a grocery bag full of secondhand clothes and rhinestone jewelry and another would come in with more stuff, and they’d all compare notes.”
Two or three stood out, but the rest weren’t fit for amateur productions, Mintun said. “I was trying to teach one of them a song and kept asking, ‘Why don’t you ever sing the words?’ And this person, who was 18, said, ‘I’m embarrassed to say this, but I don’t know how to read.’ And still, this person had dreams of being a performer,” Mintun said.
“A big part of the show was the audience, because they would come in costume and respond and overreact and encourage people who had no talent,” he said.
The drug thing held them back: At times, members of the Cockettes were so high they were tableaux rather than musical theater. And there was the free love thing. It would take a flowchart to track all the couplings and uncouplings. Sweet Pam and Scrumbly got married and had a son (Cactus). But they didn’t stay married because Scrumbly was actually gay. Dusty Dawn had a baby too. And weren’t Fayetta and Marshall a couple for a while?
“I don’t know anybody who wasn’t a couple for at least one night,” said Weissman.
As with many rock groups, “artistic differences” developed and the Cockettes split. Some wanted to become a real theater troupe with a board of directors. Hibiscus didn’t. He felt the performances should remain experimental and free of charge. He left the Cockettes to form the Angels of Light Free Theater Collective.
The documentary does not shy away from the bittersweet denouement of these stage-struck flower children.
Over the years they lost members to drug overdoses and AIDS.
Many simply moved out of the Haight and on with their lives. Hauser is now a photo stylist for glossy magazines such as Bon Appetit. Mintun went back to New York to resume his career as a pianist, specializing in playing vintage American songs in posh hotels. Even Hibiscus cut his hair and went back to acting, appearing in soap operas before he died of complications of AIDS in 1982.
Their spectacular flop in New York seemed prophetic. Freaky, fantasy-laden and laced with drugs and attitude, their act seemed untranslatable, tied to a time and place that was slowly fading into history.
So, the glory days--of being feted by Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg--may be gone, but the filmmakers and the remaining Cockettes hope that with the release of the documentary, their freewheeling spirit may live on.
“The ‘60s generation is responding in emotional ways,” said Weissman. “It’s giving them a renewed appreciation for something that has been repressed for years. For the anti-hippie younger generation, the movie gives them a new sense of what that time was about.”
In a three-week run at a theater in San Francisco’s Castro district, the crowds got younger, and Weissman said he found that gratifying.
“We wanted to make a movie about the timelessness of being a rebel.”