In an era of free love, psychedelic drugs and radical self-expression, one group of “hippie acid freak drag queens” skyrocketed from San Francisco’s underground art scene into the global spotlight.
They called themselves the Cockettes, and word of their gender-bending, glitter-encrusted, nudity-laden musical stage shows spread like wildfire, permeating discourse among all walks of life, from commune dwellers to high-society socialites.
Although their troupe disbanded after only a couple of years, their legacy continues to influence and inspire creatives today, especially those with affinity for Theatre of the Ridiculous.
Now, a group of local actors and original members of the Cockettes will take an audience back in time to “an era that was uniquely San Francisco” in a one-night-only celebration of the Cockettes’ 50th anniversary.
Titled “Cockettes are Golden,” the sold-out event will be held at the Victoria Theatre on Saturday, Jan. 4 at 8 p.m., and will feature live performances and renditions of classic Cockettes numbers, a film screening and a Q&A with original members.
“We’re going back and celebrating that era,” said Dan Karkoska, a disc jockey who goes by DJ Dank and producer of the event. “It’s an era that was uniquely San Francisco. And here was this group — all of the flowers and the sex and the orgies and the nudity and the drugs, and then they just took it on stage.”
The Cockettes performed their first show on New Year’s Eve 1969 at the now-demolished Palace Theatre in the North Beach neighborhood. Back then, people into the underground scene would frequent the theater’s Nocturnal Dream Shows, midnight showings of experimental and vintage films.
To get out of paying for tickets, the first 13 men and women who christened themselves Cockettes made a deal with the theater’s impresario to perform in exchange for free admission. According to original Cockette Richard “Scrumbly” Koldewyn, the group of exuberant, “androgynous freaks” on stage had no idea their short chorus kickline would lead to a standing ovation and encore. By the end of the performance the audience had rushed the stage and was dancing with the Cockettes, most of them in the nude by this point.
An instant hit, the Cockettes began performing before midnight movie screenings at the Palace Theatre every month. Some members were tone deaf, forgot lines or were drugged out of their minds, but that didn’t matter. These artists were bringing their lifestyles onto the stage, and audiences loved it.
Though their shows grew in scope and sophistication, structure was never as important as raw self-expression and “stickin’ it to the man.”
“We were sort of like in between hippies and punk because we were so like, you know, ‘tear down the establishment, tear down the sacred cows.’ If you know how to carry a tune, or even if you don’t, just get up there on stage and do it — very punk,” Koldewyn said.
During the 50th anniversary celebration, original Cockettes Fayette Hauser and “Sweet Pam” Tent will provide commentary during a screening of “Palace,” the only film made of any Palace Theatre performance, about the 1970 Cockettes Halloween show, “Les Ghouls.” They and other original members will field questions during a Q&A session and a slideshow of historical Cockettes photos from the ’60s and ’70s will be shown, Karkoska said.
That’s all in addition to a group of local actors performing tributes to the Cockettes and portraying original members in recreations of their most renowned musical numbers.
“We are recreating all these great Cockettes moments, the ones that our audiences loved,” said Koldewyn, who composed all of the Cockettes’ music and will be playing piano during the show. “We’ve got some amazing performers doing it, trying to get it close to the way the Cockettes did it. However, it’s not like scripture that we’re adhering to — we’re also taking spins on it, just like how the Cockettes would have taken spins on things.”
And spin and spoof things they did.
In 1971, the Cockettes released the short film “Tricia’s Wedding,” which lampooned the wedding ceremony of then-president Richard Nixon’s daughter. In true Cockettes fashion, Tricia Nixon and other women were played by men and the ceremony turns to chaos after the punch is spiked with LSD.
Their 1972 original musical “Hot Greeks” is a loose adaptation of the ancient Greek comedy “Lysistrata,” in which women withhold sex from men to stop war. And one of their most acclaimed musicals, “Pearls Over Shanghai,” is a parody of Hollywood storytelling that takes place in the “mysterious East” — spoofing all the ways American film distorted the reality of China, according to Koldewyn.
In 2009, a San Francisco theater troupe called the Thrillpeddlers worked alongside Koldewyn and revived “Pearls Over Shanghai” to much acclaim. Russell Blackwood, who directed the Thrillpeddlers before the company lost its SOMA theater, The Hypnodrome, two years ago, is acting in the anniversary show alongside 25 others who once performed with the Thrillpeddlers. Blackwood is also emceeing the event.
“For me, working on this material and with these people was one of the most exciting times of my life,” he said. “So, to be able to revisit that now that the theater is closed is a great, great joy — not only for me, but I think for a lot of the other people that are involved.”
“It’s important to celebrate this, especially when you look at the culture we’re living in right now that’s tending to kind of wash away what was left of older San Francisco quicker than usual. Gentrification is pushed through,” Karkoska said.
“The songs haven’t aged in a way that they’re archaic or aren’t important to where we’re at today and how we’re all feeling in our culture. I also feel like, back in that era in 1969, we had a government we didn’t trust, we were at war … people were protesting, people were upset,” he said before letting out a laugh. “Is that kind of similar to what’s going on right now?
“They were protesting through their art, and you can still feel that now,” he said.