At the Pagoda Palace Theatre in San Francisco's North Beach neighborhood, impresario Sebastian (real name Milton Miron) let the Cockettes perform as part of his Nocturnal Dream Show, a showcase of underground films, in exchange for free admission. The posters for these performances were designed by Todd Trexler. The Futurama Costume Gala, a science-fiction themed New Year's Eve bash held by the Nocturnal Dream Show creators, drew a rowdy audience of around 600 people. The show soon became a "must-see" for San Francisco's hip community. Combining LSD-influenced dancing, set design, costumes and their own versions of show tunes (or original tunes in the same vein), the Cockettes took to the stage every month, performing prior to the Saturday midnight Nocturnal Dream Show. Show titles included Gone With the Showboat to Oklahoma, Tinsel Tarts In A Hot Coma, Journey to the Center of Uranus, Smacky & Our Gang, Hollywood Babylon and Pearls Over Shanghai.
Word of these shows quickly got out, and by September 1971, the Cockettes gained a reputation as pioneers of San Francisco's counterculture. After local press coverage and sightings of celebrities like fashion designer and socialite Gloria Vanderbilt and author Truman Capote, the Cockettes gained attention from culture and lifestyle publications such as Rolling Stone and Esquire and general interest magazines such as Look and Life.
In 1971, The Cockettes released the short film Tricia's Wedding, lampooning the wedding ceremony of Richard Nixon's daughter, Tricia Nixon; Nixon's chief of staff H. R. Haldeman arranged a secret screening of the film for White House staffers.
The Cockettes pioneered an eclectic style of dress and costume that had not been seen before. They drew inspiration from various sources such as silent film, Hollywood of the 30's and 40's, Broadway musicals and the art forms of surrealism and cubism. Using clothing and accessories from past eras found at flea markets, they incorporated these various disparate elements into a look that was unique and timeless, exploring their own personal fantasies by the use of the assemblage method, creating outfits that are now considered iconic within the Wearable Art movement. The Cockettes costumes were completed with the signature make up artistry, most famously the men having glitter in their beards and exaggerated eye make-up. On the stage their performances were initially ad hoc, unscripted and improvised, preferring an experimental and experiential approach to theatre where the outcome was unknown, reaching for a sense of Magic as a result. By their second year of performing on a monthly basis, scripts began to emerge, loosely based on certain themes with characters based on the personas of the individual players, including original songs and music. Their magnum opus was the three-act play Pearls Over Shanghai with story and lyrics by Link Martin and music by Scrumbly Koldwyn.
During their first year the Cockettes were not paid for performances, although tickets to the shows sold for $2.00, the proceeds going to the theatre owner (during the first year the Cockettes sneaked many audience members into the theatre free through the back door). The reason for the lack of interest in payment was that the group, having come out of the Haight Ashbury hippie community, was not then focused on money. Later, when Cockette audiences began to include celebrities such as Truman Capote and members of European royal houses, the group insisted on payment. Even so, the amounts eventually paid were minimal.
Once Hibiscus had left the group some of the members saw the departure as an opportunity to capitalize on the media attention from articles in The Rolling Stone and Maureen Orth's pieces in The Village Voice as well as Rex Reed's nationally syndicated column. Whereas Hibiscus was dedicated to anarchy and breaking down boundaries others in the group saw the potential of the efforts and they even hired a theatre director. Hibiscus was explicitly political and committed to free performances as a part of the hippie ethos. At the same time Sylvester was being noted as a stand out act for his singing. He was getting funding from Gregg Gobel, the son of George Gobel, and had started to grow into an accomplished singer even hiring the Pointer Sisters as his back-up singers. With Hibiscus, the de facto leader of the group now gone, plans for a New York City show that could catapult the group to even greater fame were set into motion and tied to a double bill of the Cockettes and Sylvester's new band. Although rock-promoter Bill Graham passed on the opportunity for a New York show he did connect the group with Harry Zerler, "a wealthy talent scout for Columbia Records" and booked Sylvester as the opening act.
News of the 47 Cockettes boarding the flight was covered by local television and the group took over the plane in full drag. Once in New York they were housed in a dingy hotel where heroin was easily scored but spent most of their time as celebrated guests at dozens of parties where they could eat and drink for free, running a tab at a local diner and getting free taxicab rides. Sylvester knew the Cockettes were not going to do well but he was determined to make his debut as a rock star and practiced with his band every day. The Cockettes were still transitioning from being "a happening" to actually doing structured performances. The group had one week to prepare but they had few resources and little energy after all the parties. They were however the talk of town and their show was the hot ticket.
In November 1971 the Cockettes who had not left to become the Angels of Light, were booked for performances at the Anderson Theater in New York City. The venue had no sound or lighting systems and needed a curtain. The stage was also twice the size of the Cockettess' usual one so all the sets had to be rebuilt from scratch in six days. They opened with "Tinsel Tarts In a Hot Coma", a send-up of films about Broadway in the 1930s. According to accounts of the time, "Everybody who was anybody" came to the Cockette's New York opening, including such celebrities as John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Liza Minnelli, Truman Capote, Gore Vidal, and Angela Lansbury. Also attending were Andy Warhol and his own infamous gender-bending drag performers Holly Woodlawn and Candy Darling. But with the Cockettes' loose San Francisco magic, the opening night was a disaster (New Yorkers expected a tightly performed show). And in the theatre things went from bad to worse when Angela Lansbury walked out on the show, soon followed by Andy Warhol and most of the rest of the audience. After the show Gore Vidal quipped, "Having no talent is not enough." Apparently the New York professionals did not view the group as talented.
What had seemed so fabulous in San Francisco did not translate well in New York City. Also, the group did not have enough time to rehearse, so their performances in New York were not their best. Of course, no one told New Yorkers that the Cockettes were rather anti-rehearsal. For the Cockettes, the idea was to have a blast onstage with the true spirit of Hollywood. For San Francisco, the Cockettes, in the late 1960s, were beautiful, funny, liberating, psychedelic messengers from the gods. For most New Yorkers, it was "You've got to be kidding!," and the celebrities the Cockettes had so wanted to impress were not impressed. Later, the Cockettes tried to explain their New York failure by commenting "the New York audiences did not understand us," (although it appeared perhaps New York had understood them). After a week of disastrous "Tinsel Tarts..." playing to empty houses, they performed their original musical "Pearls Over Shanghai" for the remaining 2 weeks of their contract, and the Village Voice gave it a rave. But it was too little too late. Sylvester and his band was the lone exception but he disassociated himself after several nights on advice from his business friends.
After the New York run at the Anderson Theater, the Cockettes returned to San Francisco and performed Les Etoile Du Minuit, the final version of Pearls Over Shanghai, Journey to the Center of Uranus and their final show, Hot Greeks. Divine, star of films by noted filmmaker John Waters, joined the group in Journey to the Center of Uranus thus making her San Francisco debut. In that show Divine performed the Cockette song "A Crab On Your Anus Means You're Loved" while dressed as a big, red lobster.
After the group disbanded in the spring of 1972, various Cockettes continued to perform, often as solo performers (John Rothermel, who was often cast in a lead role due to his excellent singing voice and knowledge of 1920s/1930s music, had a successful cabaret career in San Francisco), but more often as a group, although no longer billed as The Cockettes.
In the fall of 1972 Fayette Hauser, Tomata du Plenty, Link Martin, John Flowers and Sweet Pam moved to New York City to perform in underground theatre. They lived on the Bowery and performed at the Cafe Cino, The Bouwerie Lane Theatre in the Palm Casino Revue, Club 82 and CBGB's with other groups such as the Ramones and Blondie. Later a few Cockettes formed the group Paula Pucker and the Pioneers.
In 1975 Tomata du Plenty and Fayette Hauser moved to Los Angeles and continued to perform in small theatre venues like the Anti-Club and Al's bar.
In 1970 Tomata duPlenty, inspired by early Cockette shows, went on to create a spin-off group in Seattle, Washington called Ze Whiz Kidz. He also created the seminal L.A. electropunk band, the Screamers, and he was the lead singer. Du Plenty went on to play a Cockettes-inspired lead role in the punk rock musical Population: 1.
Fayette Hauser was the lead singer in the L.A.-based New Age band Interpol with Jeff McGregor and Chuck Ivey.
Sylvester's rendition of torch songs by the likes of Etta James, Shirley Bassey, Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters, Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, and Lena Horne during his solo spots were always a highlight. After the demise of the Cockettes, Sylvester became one of the most prolific singers of the disco era.
Other core members of the Cockettes were Link (aka Link Martin, aka Luther Cupp), Gary Cherry, Rumi Missabu, Tahara (whose parents had been rodeo clowns), Goldie Glitters, "Johnny Cockette", Sweet Pam (aka Pam Tent), Martin Worman, Scrumbly Koldewyn (who wrote tunes to Link's Martin's lyrics), Fayette Hauser, Daniel Ware, Dusty Dawn, Linden, Brent Jensen, Pristine Condition (aka Keith Blanton), Reggie (aka Anton Dunigan), Miss Harlow (who had been an original Plaster Caster) and Kreemah Ritz (originally known as Big Daryl) and Chris Kilo who produced a few of the early shows after the Angels/Cockette split. Many other people too numerous to mention performed in only one or two shows.
In its history numerous performers and performing groups have spun off from the Cockettes, including, among others, the Seattle Ze Whiz Kidz (including actors Tomato Du Plenty and Screaming Orchids; the first Whiz Kidz show was a musical based on the life of Yma Súmac), The San Francisco Angels of Light, The New York Angels of Light and The Assorted Nuts. Many Cockettes also continue to perform in the theatre world today.
A 2009 revival of Pearls Over Shanghai (the screenplay was originally written by Link Martin) in San Francisco included the participation of Rumi Missabu and piano accompaniment by composer Scrumbly Koldewyn, with Tahara one of the costume collaborators.
On December 3, 2009 several members of the Cockettes (Fayette Hauser, Scrumbly Koldewyn, Rumi Missabu, Sweet Pam, Tahara) came together at SFMOMA for a rare screening of the films Tricia's Wedding, Palace, and Elevator Girls in Bondage followed by discussions and memorable Cockettes moments. There was an afterparty at the Cafe du Nord on Market Street near Noe Street at which the Cockettes-inspired New York drag troupe the Dixie Chicks performed.
The Cockettes were the subject of a 2002 documentary, The Cockettes, directed by Bill Weber and David Weissman. The film debuted at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival. It went on to a limited theatrical release and to play the film festival circuit. At the premiere at San Francisco's Castro Theatre many of the surviving Cockettes attended in genderfuck drag. The Cockettes received the LA Film Critics Award as Best Non-Fiction Film of 2002 and the Glitter Award for Best Documentary of 2003.
In early 1971 a few members of the original group broke away from the Cockettes and formed their own theatre group, The Angels of Light. The Angels became a well-known and highly creative San Francisco theatre group during the 1970s. Angels performances were free, with no admission charge. The Angels lifestyle included communal living in an old three-story Victorian house in San Francisco on the north side of Haight Street just west of Divisadero Street. Within the Angel commune house meetings were held every morning, all personal money was pooled into a communal treasury, meals were bought and eaten communally, and a form of complex marriage where each member was married to each other member evolved (all sexual preferences included). During the early 1970s, Martin Wong involved himself with The Angels of Light by designing sets and painting scenery for their performances.
In 1972 Hibiscus, the founder of the Cockettes and of the Angels of Light, left the Angels and moved back to New York City. There he formed his own group also known as the Angels of Light. The troupe included his parents and five siblings all actors and musicians as well as performers from all walks of life. In 1978, Hibiscus started doing more organized shows, including the fairly popular off-off-Broadway show, "Sky High" (performing under the name of Brian O'Hara). In the early '80's, Hibiscus formed the glitter rock band "Hibiscus and the Screaming Violets" . A five piece band included his brother Fred as an arranger, keyboardist, his mother Ann wrote all of the original lyrics and music collaborating with her son Fred on a few tunes. Hibiscus's sisters Jayne Anne, Eloise and Mary Lou were The Screaming Violets. They played in many of the clubs of the era. Lewis Friedman's SNAFU was their artistic home. On May 6, 1982 Hibiscus died of AIDS in New York City (supposedly the 224th person to die in that epidemic).
Jack Coe (aka Angel Jack) was another renowned member of the Angels of Light. He was seen later on as a regular performer at Studio 54 in NYC. In the 1990s, he moved to his mother's home in Gulf Port, FL. to help care for her. While in Florida, he would make random appearances and do occasional solo performances throughout the club circuit. In his final years, he befriended multi-media performance artist Mikee Plastik, whom he did his final work with (costume design and photo shoot). Coe died of an AIDS related illness in 2001 in St. Petersburg, FL. at St. Anthony's Hospital (the same hospital where famed beat poet Jack Kerouac died). Several books and documentaries about Studio 54 and its legendary scene have featured and paid homage to Angel Jack.
In 1977 the Angels of Light San Francisco commune disbanded, although the group continued to perform until 1980. At present many of the male members of the Angels of Light have died of AIDS, while other members, still living, have moved on and currently live all over the world.
In 1978, John Rothermel (who had had a successful solo cabaret career in San Francisco, after leaving The Cockettes) moved to New York, after a year-long stopover in his home town of Minneapolis, MN. He had always been a junk shop shopper and had become a collector of Art Deco while still in San Francisco. Later in New York, he became an early collector of Mid-Century Modern/post-WWII furniture and decorative arts. After he initially worked in New York as stage manager for Hibiscus' most successful New York off-off Broadway show "Sky High", he developed into one of the most knowledgeable collectors of Mid-Century Modern. He worked at the Greenwich Auction Room, and independently bought and sold furniture and decorative arts before dying of AIDS on 4/21/94. (Among his most important finds was a 20" high wood and metal model designed by William Lescaze as one of the finalists for the New York Museum of Modern Art building. Certainly worth $10,000.00 or more, John's mother, Della, donated it to the MOMA after John died.)
Another interesting member was Frank Bourquin, using the name Inez Paloma. Frank was John Rothermel's roommate on Market Street. Frank was deeply into 1920's history and was friends with a bunch of Palo Alto record collectors centered around Ed Linotti, who was director of the Stanford University music archives. Frank was working at the Post Office, but developed an ulcer and left on disability. He was featured in a number of the post-Hibiscus shows; one where he sang Happy-Go-Lucky You (and Broken-Hearted Me), a tune from 1932. Apparently, he later moved from San Francisco to Petaluma and was driving a cab, and died in the late 1980s.
The Cockettes inspired a Brazilian drag troupe "Dzi Croquettes," which are the subject of a 2009 documentary film Dzi Croquettes.