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[whitespace] Scene from 'The Cockettes'
Photograph by David Wise

Glitter Men: The Cockettes infused Busby Berkeley with acid dreams.

Lipstick Traces

In the 1960s, the Cockettes brought gender-bending to the hippie generation

By Richard von Busack

AT THE MOMENT when the 1960s slammed into the 1970s, a group of gender-bent psychedelic layabouts began staging midnight performances at the Palace Theater, a San Francisco second-run house in North Beach. In honor of the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes, these rowdies called themselves the Cockettes. This group is now the subject of David Weissman and Bill Weber's new documentary.

Onstage, the Cockettes drew the attention of director John Waters, as well as culture-vultures like Rex Reed, Gore Vidal and Truman Capote. For two-plus years, they performed in a midnight floor show that became so well known it led to a show off-Broadway in New York, where they flopped like a mackerel on a slab.

The Cockettes' routines were modeled on the surreal Busby Berkeley musicals being shown to a chemically altered audience at the Palace. The star of the show--"He looked like Jesus with lipstick," claims a Cockette--was George Harris, later known as "Hibiscus," who had escaped from a politically correct commune for a looser, better time with a hedonistic crowd.

One can be all for sexual freedom and yet uneasy with the aesthetics of lipstick clashing with a beard. Still, the Cockettes represented a brief moment when gay and hippie identities weren't separate things. This group of transsexual jesters weren't all male; they weren't, in fact, all gay. ("If I had my life to live all over again, I might be gay," says Marshall Olds, one of the troupe. "I have had my troubles with women.")

While the Cockettes stole costumes, took drugs ("We practically brushed our teeth with LSD!") and performed onstage, trouble loomed. Success led to the disastrous New York foray. In New York, they got hold of some of the latest drugs. "Cheap good heroin," Olds says. "Not like this brown misery they've got out here."

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Weissman and Weber: Richard von Busack interviews the makers of 'The Cockettes'

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Heroin moved through the Haight-Ashbury like a scythe, and AIDS followed 10 years later, picking off members of the Cockettes. But there are enough old members left to remember and celebrate, and there's a surprisingly large record of the small but beloved phenomenon.

Directors Weissman and Weber are two longtime San Francisco filmmakers, and The Cockettes, a favorite at this year's Sundance Film Festival, is their first feature together. The two had some of the Cockettes films to use for excerpts, especially the troupe's most noteworthy effort: the severe prank on Richard Nixon's daughter, "Tricia's Wedding." There was also a Cockettes archive assembled by Martin Worman, an ex-Cockette who succumbed to AIDS. His partner, Robert Croonquist, allowed the filmmakers access to the material.

Locating the surviving Cockettes was easier than it might seem. "Most of them we were able to find numbers for fairly quickly, and it was, like, 'Where do I come for my interview?'" Weber says. "Unfortunately, a lot of them had passed away."

The film follows one group of performers, but it also follows the cultural evolution that changed them all. For one thing, the Cockettes established San Francisco as a catalyst for glitter rock. "One of the Cockettes," Weber says, "told us a story of hearing David Bowie on the radio here, and the interviewer said, 'What do you really want to do when you're in San Francisco?' Bowie said, 'I want to see the Cockettes.'"

The documentary shows how an era changed drastically and in so little time. "We asked ourselves," Weber explains, "how can we tell [the '60s story] through individual lives? But it's absolutely our objective to give the larger context of the counterculture through the movie. It's very important to us because the movie offered the opportunity to tell the two great San Francisco counterculture stories: the story of the gay liberation movement and the story of the hippies. The Cockettes embodied that--they were that junction.

"I do think the film is rich and multilayered, and yet I do feel we only scratched the surface. These ex-Cockettes would talk about their houses and parties and shows, and it was so unbelievably wild. It was a level of wildness and experimentation that's almost incomprehensible. I lived in those days, and even my jaw was still hanging open. The movie could have gone on for weeks."


The Cockettes (Unrated; 99 min.), a documentary by Bill Weber and David Weissman, opens Friday at the Towne Theater in San Jose.


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From the May 9-15, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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