The legendary campsters of the counterculture take a bow in this diverting documentary
The Cockettes – fondly, if sometimes barely remembered as curios in the camp canon – are reborn in David Weissman and Bill Weber’s long-awaited documentary. It’s more than a little surprising that they’re back at all. In existence for a mere 30 months from the late ’60s into the early ’70s, the Cockettes were the essence of the marginal and the ephemeral, too flighty for this world. Started by hunky George Harris, who redubbed himself Hibiscus and became a Total Mad Queen, the group lived hand-to-mouth in free-love communes, supported mostly by welfare, not always eating but always looking scintillating in their thrift-store rags and towering wigs and glitter-drenched dresses fabricated from anything at hand.
The Cockettes’ brand of drag, seen to splendid advantage in the film’s nonstop period clips, would be barely recognizable to the smart tranny of today. Their increasingly bizarre getups were both an artistic and a political statement, a kind of Pied Piper masquerade to lure as many potential “freaks and pervs” into their web as possible. And who could resist? The Cockettes had it all: glamour, frivolity, orgies, and no pesky jobs to get in the way. And they were much more open than some of the more insular queer groups then and now. Mostly male, they were welcoming to women, who were integral to the troupe’s existence and its shows. The women rubbed elbows and sometimes more with the queens (some of them had kids by their male “sisters”).
What brought them out of the commune and onto the stage were a series of theatrical events – mostly unrehearsed vignettes of song and carry-on, often little more than an impromptu display of sex ‘n drug culture abandon. These brief bits, rather woefully dated to modern eyes, at San Francisco’s freaky Palace Theater were expanded eventually into three-hour tableaux of hippie decadence, under such titles as “Gone with the Showboat to Oklahoma” and “Tropical Heatwave/Hot Voodoo.” And they were equal-opportunity offenders, totally un-p.c. with blackface characters and loads of nudity. In a typical effort, “Fairytale Extravaganza,” as one Cockette explains, “all the fairytale characters came together for the first time, on acid.”
Of course, it wasn’t all fabulous. The anarchic Cockettes were perpetually at war with their more sophisticated “Beat” counterparts in another commune who believed in being organized and more traditionally politically active. Both groups did share a penchant for highly theatrical drag, and a rather limited cuisine. Goldie Glitters, another survivor of the troupe, stoically recalls a typical meal: “What we had was . . . rice.”
Directors Weissman and Weber managed to get access to hundreds of hours of taped interviews and contemporary footage of the Cockettes in their glory, giving viewers a remarkable insider view of what the Cockettes’ daily life and haphazard career was like. So instead of merely hearing about Hibiscus, we get to see him, twirling in mountains of gossamer through the streets of San Francisco, his eyes festooned with glitter and bleary with acid. Of course, such reality checks have their downside – poor Hibiscus comes off as more self-consumed ditz than visionary, a view bolstered by references to his later career as a kept (aging) boy bragging about all the Armani suits his sugar daddy gave him.
Essentially a San Francisco phenomenon, the Cockettes weren’t destined to remain so, and a trip to Broadway, however ill-conceived, became inevitable. Rolling Stone magazine helped deify them when it covered a Cockette wedding. Their in-your-face attitude (which included lots of public nudity, nicely sampled in the film) helped liberate many a midwestern drag queen and gender eccentric puzzling over that first piece of chintz, or furtively eyeing that introductory push-up bra.
By the time the troupe was invited to do their shtick in New York, they were a genuine cause celebre, carrying with them the praise of such luminaries of the time as Truman Capote, Rex Reed, and Gore Vidal. But while their image was one of liberated sophisticates, New York audiences found them and their production “Tinsel Tarts in a Hot Coma” amateurish, indeed unbearable. Female Cockette Fayette and others who were there stoically recall the stampede out the theater. The brittle hauteur of the New York hip crowd gelled not at all with the mindless libertinage of the Cockettes. The troupe was happy to leave the Big Apple after what sounds – and looks, in the film’s “you-are-there” clips – like a miserable three weeks. Former supporters turned on them, with Gore Vidal nicely summarizing the East Coast view of the group: “Having no talent is not enough!”
This episode also spelled the end of the Cockettes, though it wasn’t the only problem. There were always internal rifts. Some of the queens wanted to become more professional, others insisted on spontaneity and fun. Some were junkies and acidheads, others steered clear of such indulgences. And many died, victims of overdoses in the early days and AIDS later. With the world a wretched mess, the resurrection of these merry pranksters, if only in this documentary, is timely and, in its own foolish way, fabulous.
Note: All photos by Clay and Ingeborg Geerdes.