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[whitespace] Weissman and Weber

An interview with the makers of 'The Cockettes'

By Richard von Busack

David Weissman and Bill Weber are two longtime San Francisco filmmakers who have just collaborated on their first feature, The Cockettes, a documentary that rounded up the survivors of a very gaudy life onstage. The two have their office in the attic of a melancholy church on the border of Dolores Park in San Francisco. Without further ado:

Metro: I noticed that there were four films about the Cockettes: the farrago Tricia's Wedding and Elevator Girls in Bondage. What were the other two?

Weissman: The Palace is a film made by two guys named Scott Runyan and Sid Dutton, shot on Halloween, 1970. It's a kind of an expressionistic documentary of a Cockettes show; a lot of it [takes place] backstage and in the audience. The sound isn't synced, but it has sound from the event overlayed on the film. I'd seen it a number of years ago; it's very evocative.

Pickup's Tricks was a film I hadn't heard of. It was made by Gregory Pickup-an unusual name. So I did a national phone search on the Yahoo white pages and faxed him. It was a film that was made over a two-to-three-year period about the Angels of Light (a Cockettes spinoff group) and particularly about Hibiscus.

Weber: Pickup's Tricks is a wonderful, beautiful document of the time; we use a fair amount of it in our film.

Metro: Speaking of syncing, the post-synced sound in the sequences from Elevator Girls in Bondage and Tricia's Wedding was very evocative. Maybe that's what today's underground film is missing.

Weber: Bad dubbing! [Laughs.] The makers of Elevator Girls in Bondage didn't have enough money to record in audio, and they had a script, which they lost. About a year later, they finally had the money to do audio, so they got everybody to come back, and they lip-synced it without a script. But some people refused to come back, so they had other people dubbing in their voices.

Metro: I just saw Steve Yeager's film again, Divine Waters. Waters said that when he made Multiple Maniacs, it was the first time he had a synced camera.

Weissman: I love that film.

Metro: Me, too. it's not just the bad dubbing I love but also that extensive use of library music-the old public-domain strings-heavy classical music cheaply available for the commercial filmmaker. It's in Waters' and also George Kuchar's films. That music really lets you know you're watching a '60s movie. I noticed that Waters' film company is called Dreamland, and the midnight movie shows at the Palace were "Nocturnal Dream Shows." Interesting coincidence. Was it difficult getting Waters for The Cockettes?

Weber: John Waters was the first person I called after David and I decided to make the movie. I'd heard him say on a number of occasions, "Someone needs to make a film about the Cockettes." He was in the East Bay doing sound work on one of his films at Fantasy Studios, somebody gave me the number over there, and I called him up, and the first thing he said was "Great! What can I do to help!"

Weissman: He was our first interview.

Metro: Did you go back East or did you interview him here?

Weber: With John Waters and a handful of them, we did interviews in New York. Waters has an apartment in New York, and Hibiscus' mom lives in New York. Peter Mintun, their pianist, was there, as was one of the directors of their show, and Michael Kalmen, director of Elevator Girls in Bondage. So we went to New York to do those interviews. Most of them we did in the Bay Area; there were also a few in Los Angeles.

Weissman: Unfortunately, a lot of them had passed away. That certainly narrowed the field of people we could talk to.

Metro: As you note, you were helped by the archives of Martin Worman, the NYU grad student and ex-Cockette who had been doing a dissertation on the Cockettes before he succumbed to AIDS in 1993. What condition were his archives in?

Weissman: They were in amazing condition. He kept an amazing collection of newspaper articles, photographs, slides, taped interviews and the outline and the beginning of the written part of his dissertation. They're lovingly kept by his surviving partner, Robert Croonquist, whom David and I knew through different avenues.

Metro: One thing The Cockettes does is establish San Francisco as a catalyst for glitter rock. Most histories say it came out of London first. Have you seen Velvet Goldmine?

Weber: Yes. One of the Cockettes 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?" and Bowie said, "I want to see the Cockettes."

Metro: John Waters mentions how badly Divine went over in the drag scenes when he first started appearing in women's clothes; the more serious drag queens thought Divine was mocking them-and you can see how serious these 1960s drag queens were in the documentary The Queen. Were San Francisco drag queens similarly angry at the way the Cockettes started turning up in girl's clothes?

Weber: Yeah.

Weissman: Well, I haven't heard that.

Weber: I've heard they weren't embraced by the drag community.

Weissman: The Cockettes certainly didn't emerge from the gay scene; they emerged from the hippie scene. But I don't know if there was animosity. It would have been interesting to talk to some of the older people in the drag scene to ask them, "What did you think about the Cockettes?" But to some extent, they were an affront to conventions of drag just as they were to conventions of normalcy.

Metro: I've noticed that Goldie Glitters is the only one who says the Cockettes should have been all-male. Did any of the other surviving Cockettes feel that way and didn't want to say it on camera?

Weissman: Goldie said it to us.

Weber: And whether or not Goldie thought that at the time, who knows?

Weissman: And the women in the Cockettes love Goldie, and Goldie actually calls a lot of them. Goldie calls Fayette Hauser and Sweet Pam still. It could have just been bitchiness, and not really anything that was meant seriously-an affectation.

Metro: What did you most hate to leave out of the movie?

Weissman: That's a hard one. I think that mostly we hated to leave out the early stories of the people coming to San Francisco. These teenage kids, or very young kids, coming from all different parts, getting turned on somehow and coming to San Francisco. Hitchhiking here or coming in the back of a van. Some of those stories were so colorful and heartfelt-so adventurous-and trusting! Trusting that you'll just give everything up and arrive, no job, no money, and you'll find a place to live and everything will be OK. And we could only keep a handful of those stories in and we had to tell them quickly.

Metro: It's strange because I do feel that this film follows one group, but it also follows the cultural evolution-how a kid named George could become a freak named Hibiscus and eventually become a very blow-dried-looking actor in '80s New York.

Weber: The task was "How do we not tell the '60s story by telling the '60s story but by telling it through people's individual lives. But it's absolutely our objective to give a sense of the larger context of the counterculture through the movie. [That's] very important to us, maybe because the movie offered the opportunity to tell the two great San Francisco counterculture stories: the story of the gay liberation movie 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 the houses and parties and shows-and it was so unbelievably wild. It's just 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.

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

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