Film and TV

Free Willies

The past is a foreign country -- they do things differently there." So goes the immortal line from The Go-Between. And in the brilliant new documentary The Cockettes, that "foreignness" comes through stronger than ever, even for those who lived though the fabled and reviled 1960s. The film, by David Weissman and Bill Weber, charts the era's most signal exponents: the Cockettes, a raggle-taggle group of gay hippie "acid freaks" and their acolytes who put on makeshift shows in San Francisco's Palace Theater, then tried -- and failed -- to duplicate their success in New York. But "success" and "failure" are relative terms in this context. For while not exactly Shakespearean, the Cockettes took the Bard's famous decree "all the world's a stage" completely to heart. And the film, which in addition to lively interviews with surviving Cockettes features a dizzying array of vintage footage of the troupe in action, shows precisely what that means.

As with all personal and public histories, telling the story of the Cockettes and their era requires stepping back a bit further into the past to dig at its roots. And there we find not the hippie 1960s, but the beatnik '50s, for the story begins not in San Francisco but Chicago, where a considerable stink was raised in 1958 when the University of Chicago's Chicago Review tried to publish some excerpts from something called Naked Lunch. Student editor Irving Rosenthal left in protest to found a magazine called Big Table, offering more of this Lunch, written by an ex-boyfriend of his named William Burroughs. The authorities confiscated the magazine, an obscenity trial took place, and Burroughs's future fame was sealed.

Rosenthal went on to further infamy as one of the stars of Jack Smith's classic "underground movie" Flaming Creatures. But his most important artistic achievement was his book Sheeper (Grove Press, 1967, and, sadly, long out of print), a part essay, part roman à clef about Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Alexander Trocchi and a host of other louche literary lights. By then, Rosenthal had fallen in love with an incredibly beautiful young man named George Harris, and they moved to San Francisco. On the way, they stopped in Washington, D.C., to attend an anti-Vietnam War rally, resulting in one of the key images of the era -- a man with long, blond hair placing a flower into the barrel of a National Guardsman's rifle. That blonde was George Harris. In San Francisco, Harris rechristened himself Hibiscus. But then he and Rosenthal had a parting of the ways and Hibiscus moved from the commune they'd started -- "Kaliflower" -- to another of the city's communes, which eventually became the home of the Cockettes.

What were the Cockettes? They're still trying to figure it out. As the story is recounted by such group members as Dusty Dawn, Goldie Glitters, John Flowers, Marshall, Scrumbly, Rumi, Jilala, Kreemah Ritz, Sweet Pam and Fayette, it began as a Hibiscus creation and grew into a many-tentacled creature of its own device. Inspired by Warner Bros. musicals seen under the influence of copious doses of LSD, Hibiscus thought it would be a good idea to put on shows at the Palace Theater along with the old films they showed there -- much the way James Cagney created "prologues" in Footlight Parade. But instead of Busby Berkeley chorus cuties, the Cockettes offered bearded drag queens in tattered thrift-store finery. Singing old Broadway show tunes and tagging on suggestions of plot and character, the troupe made shows whose titles say it all: "Tinsel Tarts in a Hot Coma," and "Journey to the Center of Uranus." The city -- gay and straight -- loved it. And part of that is because the Cockettes, while gay, were not exclusively so. Sweet Pam, Dusty Dawn and Fayette were (and still are) females. And Marshall was and is gay in every way but one: He sleeps with women. "It was total sexual anarchy -- which is always a wonderful thing," says John Waters, who first found a home-away-from-Baltimore at the Palace when it played Multiple Maniacs, his precursor to Pink Flamingos. It's a measure of the group's effect that Waters's star, drag legend Divine -- still plain old Glenn Milstead at the time -- decided that he wanted to be Divine 24/7 after meeting the Cockettes.

But by then the big question was, as one San Francisco headline put it, "Will Success Spoil Mediocrity?" Hibiscus wanted free shows; other troupe members wanted to be paid. Then one night, Rex Reed, Truman Capote and Lee Radziwill saw the show, and Reed, who had a nationally syndicated column, hailed the Cockettes as the Next Big Thing. So entrepreneur Earl Weston decided to bring the gang to New York. Hibiscus was against it and quit the troupe, which opened without him at the Yiddish Anderson Theater in New York in 1971, playing to an audience that mixed uptown and downtown in an unprecedented way that Studio 54 would later try to duplicate. It was an unforgettable night, with Helmut Berger, Robert Rauschenberg and an endless parade of luminaries that included Leonard Bernstein and John Lennon making its way through a crowd of gay Lower East Side hippies.

The audience loved the opening act: disco legend-to-be Sylvester, already a Cockettes superstar. But the show itself laid the proverbial egg -- multicolored as it was. The Cockettes came home and continued as before, but things were different. Individual troupe members started their own shows. Hibiscus moved to New York to continue his spontaneous acid-fueled performances before passing away in 1982 from what was then called "gay cancer." AIDS has since claimed more group members. But as the film shows, their spirit lives on not only in the lives of survivors, but in generations that followed. While Weissman and Weber don't mention it, it's plain that the Cockettes legacy can be found in the Rocky Horror Picture Show cult, whose watch phrase "Don't dream it -- be it!" is pure Cockettes.

And I, for one, have little doubt that even in 2002, where certain "gay leaders" push the notion that the same-sex-oriented should be the best imitation heterosexuals they can be and vote Republican -- the Cockettes spirit is destined to live on as well. After all, Irving Rosenthal, now in his seventies, is still among us -- running a homeless shelter and free food-distribution service for the poor in San Francisco. Yes, I know it's all "just so '60s" -- but what are you going to do with someone like Irving?