The Cockettes: Tinsel Tarts to Hit Big Apple

Original Publication: Village Voice 9/17/1971

San Francisco, California – The Bay Area, which has given America hippies, student revolt, Black Panthers, acid rock, George Blanda, and Vida Blue, now offers the Cockettes, the double reverse twist of Gay Liberation, about to embark on their first tour to New York and Europe, thereby vacating their place as San Francisco’s most outrageous freaks.

The Cockettes – scheduled to open in New York sometime in October – are gay male actresses who live with women, practicing sexual role confusion out of a third hand fantasy trunk of glitter, feathers, food stamps, and funk.  Early Haight-Ashbury costume-freak leftovers, who first danced and sang in Golden Gate Park, at the Krishna Temple and on the streets of North Beach, the Cockettes are now a communal “circus family” of 28, including five women and two-and-a-half babies who perform together in wacked out musical parodies with comic strip titles: Hot Voodoo, Tinsel Tarts, Hell’s Harlots, and Hollywood Babylon.

Remarkably unselfconscious and California innocent, the Cockettes are committed to trucking their fantasies from the street to the stage – the performance is continuous – their usual style being stoned Busby Berkeley emerging from Khubla Khan’s tent.

“Where we can handle the real world we incorporate it into what we do.” Says a female Cockette. But reality intrudes only to the point of collecting welfare or having a phone listed under Joe R. Cockette. Beyond that, fantasy or nostalgia takes over.

The night “Hollywood Babylon,” an early Cockette hit, had its premier opening, the entrance to the theater was roped off, a huge searchlight shone, and a bright red carpet extended from the theater lobby to the street outside where mobs of shrieking fans – some with hairy, oversized feet stuffed into rhinestone pumps – watched google-eyed as Rolls and Bentleys suddenly began pulling up, and amid the crush out stepped the Cockettes, all Betty Booped, Harlowed, and Hedy LaMared with glitter pasted on their eyebrows and sprinkled in their beards.  That night the Cockettes really were those Old Hollywood stars. They believed it, and so did the autograph seeking fans.  Insanity became reality and the fantasy became truth.

The impact of Hollywood Babylon was such that the group began to set style, first for the freaks in the audience and later for “turned on” socialites who enjoyed patronizing the arts.  The Cockette’s trademark of wearing glitter in their hair crowned by wreaths of fresh flowers began being seen in fashionable store windows (many window dressers were avid Cockette fans), hip weddings, and “amusing” gallery openings. Their everyday street drag, heavily influenced by the ‘30’s and ‘40s, anticipated St. Laurent’s collections by several years.

The Camp Coup of the Year came recently, however, when Truman Capote and Rex Reed showed up in tandem to lean an entourage of nine, including Mrs. Johnny Carson, to a sellout performance of “Tinsel Tarts” instead of the opening night of the San Francisco Opera.  Mrs. Carson spent most of the show covering her face with her hands.  Can New York be far behind? 

“So many people are afraid of being first, but we’re not,” explains male Cockette, Pristine Condition, speaking in a thick southern drawl. “You just put on everything you love. First, we put it on our walls, then we started wearing it. You know, garbage yoga.”

All forms of yoga appear when the Cockettes perform at the Palace Theater – a Chinese Opera House which usually features filmed Taiwanese romantic epics.  Their midnight shows are San Francisco’s most popular underground entertainment and pull in an audience which belies the fact the Haight is dead.  The crowd looks like a gathering of Woodstock and Satyricon with Satyricon winning.

First, middle-aged Chinese people come streaming out of the theater, eyes downcast, stepping   carefully to avoid touching the dreaded freaks outside.  The Chinese man who runs the Palace is solemnly flipping an enormous wad of dollar bills.  His son is filling the popcorn cartons and grinning.  “Ha ha ha, in this day and age anything goes.”

As the crowd fills the lobby, five Mick Jaggers materialize, one escorting a Bianca, but alas she doesn’t appear enciente.  Seated in the front row are the Cockette groupies, male and female, in full adoration – imitation feather glitter drag, with 30 bracelets up one arm and purple painted toenails protruding through red suede wedgies.  They got in free.  At any given performance, about 300 in the 1200 seat theater do.

The rinky tink piano starts, the curtain goes up on a deliberately cardboard-clever set, and “Pearls Over Shanghai” by Cockettes Link and Scrumbly – the Rogers and Hart of the peer group – begins.

Soon, the oriental-elaborate costumed chorus line parades down the aisle to the stage, waving huge golden fans and preceding an enormous dragon head.  The chorus is led by Sweet Pam, Scrumbly’s 85-pound wife, who’s obviously pregnant and dressed as a man.  Next comes Dusty Dawn, with her year-old son, Ocean Michael Moon, strapped on her back.  Ocean, who has a remarkably world weary expression for a one-year-old, has been performing from his perch on his mother’s back since he was three weeks old.  (“I would never take an infant on the stage before three weeks”, Dusty explains, “he wouldn’t be used to the air.”)

As the plot of Pearls unfolds, three little virgins from Iowa in 40s drag get shanghaied in Shanghai by Madame Ginsling, portrayed by six-foot-three-inch Goldie Glitters, a former hairdresser from Hollywood, with the aid of her faithful servant, Chow Chow, actually 250 pound “Big Darrell” who in “real” life is an accountant for a refrigeration firm.

Every five minutes or so there’s a big production number with incredible costumes and headdresses beautifully made by the Cockettes inexpensively from cardboard, glitter, mylar tape, junk store rejects, and garage sale give-aways.  It doesn’t take long for the singing to get flat, the actors begin delivering lines upstage into oblivion; pretty soon the story line is lost, and everybody gets together for the next big number. But that’s not the point, because by now the audience and the Cockettes are in some kind of spontaneous play world.  The audience is hooting, screaming, laughing, aisle bobbing, and the Cockettes, completely wound up in the schtick of it all, bump, grind, get torchy, and tap dance.  The three ‘40s girls are down to matching black lace panties and bras.  Others are doing Carmen Miranda, Billie Holiday, and Tina Turner, remembering every once in a while to keep it oriental.

Abbie Hoffman, wearing a turquoise windbreaker that features a large Duncan Championship Yo Yo Badge was there, attempting to get the Cockettes to appear at the opening of the Kennedy Center and also arrange a benefit performance of their film, “Trisha’s Wedding” for Trisha and Eddie Cox’s favorite charity.

“We saw the wedding on tv,” Pristine said. “It was tackier than our film.  We’re not into political satire – just extending sexual and creative boundaries, but I am Rose Kennedy.”

To the Cockettes, young artistic middle class dropouts who dabble in eastern philosophy, everyone is both yin and yang, a perfect balance of masculine and feminine.  Eastern deities like Bhudda are sexless, they point out, and people should be whatever sex they want to be rather like magical hermaphrodites.  “If you see someone who’s hot, it really doesn’t matter if they’re male or female.”

The Cockettes have always included females like Harlow, one of the original Plaster Casters, in their troupe, some as sexual partners, some not. But the male members of the family consider themselves liberated enough to live happily with women – two male Cockettes even married women and those two couples live with several male Cockette couples and singles in an old Victorian on the edge of the Haight in an environment that resembles a Dali-Duchamps acid trip.

“Most of the guys here really want to be attractive chicks,” says Diane, a Cockette wife and mother of two-year-old Magic, “so it’s really an advantage to already been one.”

Many straights of San Francisco’s reputed 90,000 gay population consider the Cockettes – whom they see hitchhiking around town in full drag, their beards inevitable sprinkled with glitter – hard to take.  Cockettes area regularly asked to leave gay bars, particularly when they show up with women.

“They explain us away as the generation gap,” says Big Darrell. “We’re freaks. These people want to be discreet, but as you can see, discretion’s not our thing.  We’re a bunch of misfits that have gotten together like magnets.”

With a solid freak base like the early Haight, misfits or gay hippies like the Cockettes could get away with outrageous dress and behavior and be thought of as just another group of flower children.  If they were hassled it was because they were freaks, not transvestites.  In the society of the dispossessed, all were friends, including women.  And when the Haight turned into a receptacle for junk and scuzzies, the Cockettes took their rejection of middle-class America to its logical conclusion.  Instead of heroin they Oded on fantasy, transforming themselves full circle from society’s aberrations to style setters and clowns. 

But there’s more than one explanation: “Blame it on the Boy Scouts,” says Pristine Condition. “They got me into drag for the first time. I was Mrs. Casey Jones for my Cub Scout troop when I was eight.  I’ve liked dresses ever since.”

This article is typed from the original material.  Please excuse any errors that have escaped final proofreading.

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