The Cockettes, who made drag culture popular, get a show at the S.F. Public Library

Paying homage to a freewheeling, psychedelic hippy spirit that once defined San Francisco

By Cintra Wilson

Special to The Examiner

Whenever people lament the over-gentrification of San Francisco (or any other major city), what they tend to miss is the soul and/or the funk. What they feel is the absence of the bohemians and counterculture denizens who got priced out of their neighborhoods, and the art they made there. Those folks relocated to less urban locales with cheaper rents and the city became, well, more boring.

San Francisco’s famous bohemian counterculture has been mythologized by the face-painting, flower power, LSD-driven, sexual liberation and hippy spectacles of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Arguably, there was no group that lived and performed this tinselly state of mind quite as exuberantly or flamboyantly as The Cockettes, an avant garde, psychedelic theater troupe that lived communally in the Haight-Ashbury in what was known as “The Cockettes Freak House.”

Over three years, from 1969 to 1971, The Cockettes gained national recognition for their unrestrained will to fabulousness — and their signature look: men with glittery beards in tutus and tiaras and hyper-accessorized old Hollywood glamor costumes assembled out of thrift stores.

Founded initially by a man named Hibiscus (George Edgerly Harris III), The Cockettes created outrageous theater pieces, films and happenings with titles like “Elevator Girls in Bondage,” “Tinsel Tarts in a Hot Coma” and “Tricia’s Wedding,” which lampooned the wedding of Tricia Nixon. The price of admission for these sprawling, loosely organized performance events was usually two dollars. True to their hippy/artist/anarchist values, The Cockettes were not in it for the money — for them, it was an enlightened lifestyle.

An exhibition entitled “The Cockettes: Acid Drag and Sexual Anarchy” is at the San Francisco Public Library’s Hormel LGBTQIA Center through August 11, featuring period photographs, mementos, artwork, playbills, costumes and other curious Cockette memorabilia. (A poster for one Cockettes event promises “A registered nurse serving champagne, punch and nuts!”) A variety of live programs related to the exhibition are featured, giving the audience a solid injection of the freewheeling, communal, psychedelic hippy spirit that once defined San Francisco.

Many of San Francisco’s most beloved performers, such as the great musician Scrumbly Koldwyn, pianist Peter Mintun and the breakout disco singer Sylvester first sharpened their ruby slippers by performing with The Cockettes. John Waters star Divine was also featured in one of their more legendary musicals, “Journey to the Center of Uranus,” where the performer sang “A Crab On Your Anus Means You’re Loved” in a giant, neon red crab suit.

“That rocked the house right to the ground,” said author and archivist Fayette Hauser, one of the original Cockettes, who granted me an interview by phone.

It looks like being one of The Cockettes was to participate in a little slice of heaven.

It sure was. People should have listened to the way we lived. We were happy. It didn’t require a lot of money. Creativity, new ideas. Look what we did! A whole vernacular of fashion and wearable art.

What do you think was the recipe for uniting your group?

The main core thread was that we were all artists already. I was a painter, John Flowers was a painter. … We were all living together, doing individual art. Theater was the blood in Hibiscus’ veins. He moved in in the fall of ’69 and presented his idea, and we leapt at it. He was determined to present the new theater for the new decade. Hibiscus was the shaman but not the director — you could say whatever you wanted onstage, there were no scripts. Every time we did “Pearls Over Shanghai,” it was different. The shows grew as we grew. Our political core values were about tearing down boundaries that held people back from expressing themselves in a fabulous way.

Do you see anything in the present landscape that is keeping that exuberant hippy spirit alive?

It’s expressed in the fashion world and individual performance artists. But politically? Sadly, no. The political climate is so bound by money now that it is really sad. We were happy, joyous and free. We didn’t need to worry about making money, the rent was cheap. Now people have to think about money first.

How did Divine get involved with The Cockettes?

There were pockets of freak theater around the country — the Whiz Kids in Seattle, the Theater of the Ridiculous in New York (Charles Ludlum) and the John Waters family in Baltimore. Sebastian was a cinephile. … He was the first to show John Waters films outside of Baltimore — “Multiple Maniacs” in the spring of ’72. For “Journey to the Center of Uranus,” we met Divine at the airport and treated it like the queen was coming to visit.

What advice would you give to young people nowadays who want to engage in a colorful counterculture?

Start a group. It’s much easier in a group effort, group energy. It’s so difficult to do things on your own. We were so supportive of each other, and we loved each other. Together we can be way more creative. That’s why people like being in a band.

The zeitgeist was certainly on your side.

We were channeling the zeitgeist of The City. I’m always thrilled to talk about the era, because the message and the way we lived our life was wonderful. Young people need to know how we did it.

IF YOU GO:

“The Cockettes: Acid Drag and Sexual Anarchy”

Where: James C. Hormel LGBTQIA Center, San Francisco Public Library, 100 Larkin Street, 3rd Floor, S.F.

When: Sunday 12-6 p.m.; Monday 9 a.m-6 p.m, Tuesday-Friday 9 a.m.-8 p.m, through August 11

Contact: (415) 557-4400, sfpl.org

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