Despite what you’ve heard, December isn’t really Jesus’s birthday; but it is the birthday of the Cockettes, and isn’t that worth celebrating, too?
Travel Back Half a Century
Cast your mind back to late fall of 1969, the waning days of the Summer of Love. Naturally, all of the weirdest art and culture was coming out of the Haight in San Francisco, and that included a psychedelic group of hippies led by a man named George Edgerly Harris who went by the name Hibiscus.
Their inaugural show was nearly 50 years ago this month: Dec. 31, 1969. It was part of a strange performance called the “Nocturnal Dream Show,” featuring a variety of underground films. The troupe, which included men and women, strutted out onstage in thrift-store drag designed to look like DIY glamour. The men had glittery beards, and the makeup was outrageous; essentially these were the foundational elements of the clownish drag we see all over the world today.
Big in San Francisco
Word of the troupe soon spread around the city, and the Cockettes began to perform every month before midnight movies. Their performances had raunchy titles that shocked the sensibilities of the time: “Journey to the Center of Uranus” was one, “Tinsel Tarts in a Hot Coma” was another. They were featured in mainstream publication like Life and Esquire, bringing national attention to the daring drag. At one point, they all boarded a plane to New York in full drag, which was covered by TV news cameras.
Tickets were generally cheap or free, in keeping with the hippie ethos that also informed the formation of the Radical Faeries.
As the group surged in popularity, there were disputes over money. Hibiscus wanted the performances to be free art projects, but other members saw the opportunity to make it a more sustainable endeavor with funding.
A Lackluster New York Debut
In November 1971, the Cockettes had their New York debut, attended by Liza Minnelli, Gore Vidal, Angela Lansbury and Andy Warhol. It was a huge flop; most of the audience walked out, accustomed to a polished Broadway experience rather than the Cockettes’ haphazard hippie style.
The disorganized, unrehearsed opening night doomed the Cockettes in New York, and they soon returned to San Francisco. Divine joined the troupe for a short time before they disbanded, with the members performing solo shows for several years. From there, they scattered to the winds, with many of the Cockettes winding up in Seattle and Los Angeles, and a handful remaining in their home city.
A Heavy Legacy
Interest was reignited in 2002 when a documentary about the troupe was released. But the true lasting impact of the Cockettes is in the theater troupes they influenced: the Angels of Light, which staged free shows in San Francisco throughout the ’70s; a glitter rock band called Hibiscus and the Screaming Violets; a Brazilian troupe called Dzi Croquettes; and the Seattle group Ze Whiz Kids.
And of course, drag queens everywhere can trace their history back to the aesthetic championed before the world in the brief years that the Cockettes existed. So the next time you attend a drag show, remember the scrappy San Francisco troupe of rabble-rousers who made it all possible.
(Featured photo: The Cockettes at the entrance of their Victorian home on Haight Street, San Francisco, 1971. Photo by Mary Ellen Mark)