There is a moment in the new documentary “The Cockettes” when co-director Bill Weber edited a montage sequence of several former members of the legendary drag theatrical troupe remembering when their first show took place. Some are certain it was on Halloween. Others are absolutely sure it was on New Year’s Eve. The jovial moment of memory discrepancy laughs at a central question posed to the craft of historical documentary: if all the participants were too stoned to remember, do details matter?
The moment is also one where the otherwise formally crafted film loosens up a bit.
Filmmakers David Weissman and Bill Weber have tried to construct a film that would make sense of a group of people who celebrated chaos. Their subject – a band of hippie freaks and drag queens in San Francisco circa 1970 who put on stage shows using cabaret-style music and dance numbers to catapult an anarchy of off-key notes, thrift-store dresses, a cacophony of gender-bending free love, and more than their fair share of psychedelics into a moment of national fame that tweaked the hypothalamus of pop culture to come – had all the structure of a love-in.
But for most of the Cockettes, once dizzy with spontaneous creativity and energy, the party couldn’t last forever.
Watching the film, one is struck by the difference between the Cockettes now and then; between the straight-looking homeowners with haircuts and tailored clothes alongside archival images of Dionysian, grease-painted, Salvation Army nymphs with glitter in their pubic hair.
One of the principal songwriters and arrangers, Scrumbly (aka Richard Kolewyn) still remembers the Cockettes songs. Sitting at the piano of the music room of his home on 59th Street in North Oakland, surrounded by bookshelves filled with sheet music and Cole Porter books, he accompanied Sweet Pam (aka Pam Tent) doing “Divorcee’s Lament.”
Scrumbly is now a professional musician performing in local cabaret and musical theater shows. Sweet Pam, who once opened for the New York Dolls and the Ramones, now works at a local lumber company, and she can still sell a lyric (“…Reno, I want to be free!”).
Even if they don’t sport vintage 1930’s costumes discovered in diligent thrift-store expeditions, once a Cockette, always a Cockette. “I still like to troll thrift stores, and I don’t need to shop there anymore,” said Sweet Pam, who attended the premier of “The Cockettes” at Sundance with a suitcase full of second-hand clothes. “Now it’s difficult. But here in Oakland you can still get good deals. It’s amazing. Even go further, go to San Leandro.”
“But you can’t get anything from the 30’s,” said Scrumbly.
“Oh, yes you can,” Pam corrected him.
“Well," sneered Scrumbly, “I guess I haven’t been to San Leandro in a while.”
“Exactly. The dear ladies at the Treasure Hospice.”
The film is now enjoying its premiere engagement in Bay Area theaters and will have an exclusive broadcast on the Sundance channel on June 21 before its national theatrical release. It is chock-a-block with dazzling archival footage of the Cockettes in full fabulous regalia, but the Cockettes would not take pictures of themselves.
“Everyone was so in the moment we didn’t think to record for posterity,” Sweet Pamsaid.
Instead, photographers of the day sought them out. Annie Liebowitz, Mary Allen Mark, Bud Lee and others donated their 30 year-old negatives to the filmmakers. What developed was more than an homage to the free spirit of makeup and tattered dresses; the film delivers an image of alternative living in 60’s San Francisco that is rarely seen, one made up of serious revolutionary fervor alongside the pursuit of unmitigated joy bordering on insanity. It has been described as the plaids versus the sequins.
“The plaid meant you were the unadorned individual, like no lipstick for women. No lipstick, no bra. Back-to-nature and paring everything down to the simplest things,” Scrumbly explained. “The idea that you could dress up and not spend any money was what a few people discovered. It was like discovering glam all over again.”
When the Cockettes started taking their wardrobe to the stage in 1970, the people came. The in-crowd crowded the Palace Theater in San Francisco’s North Beach to watch their overwhelming energy transcend theatrical chaos.
“We were not against traditional theater,” said Scrumbly. “What we were doing was to be in the moment.”
“The audience was our peers. Half of them were stoned,” Pam remembered. “They didn’t come to see a professional show. They came to have a party.”
“Yeah, it’s like a big party and a few brave souls get up there in front of everybody and do some crazy, funny things. And sometimes it was really good funny, and sometimes it was just stupid. And that was good, too.”
Their shows caught the attention of the national media, and eventually the hipster glitterati of New York. They were invited to perform a three-week run in New York and they were the toast of the town, until the night of the first show. The theater was too large, the songs were unrehearsed, and the previously adoring audience turned away from the ragged San Francisco hippies.
“The hype was unsurpassed,” Scrumbly said.
“And some people believed the hype,” added Pam.
“It was easy to believe because we were being treated like royalty, like only New York can when they think you’re the new thing.”
But New York didn’t want what the Cockettes were offering. The Cockettes’ Big Apple run eventually found the audience it needed, but the initial flop highlighted the difference between counter-culture living in NY versus that in SF.
“One was heroin and one was LSD,” laughed Scrumbly. “Hippie was meaningless in New York at that point.”
“They were a tougher stock. We were very much a family,” Pam said. “Despite our differences we were a family of freaks. They were very much individuals and glamour queens.”
“Certainly a lot of people gravitated with us. It was a great party with the NY freaks. It was really fun.”
“We were so happy. We were just idiotically happy,” Sweet Pam chirped. “It didn’t translate well. That joie-de-vivre from the West Coast somehow fell flat on the stage. It wasn’t professional enough.”
“Well, of course,” Scrumbly assented.
After the New York debacle, the film’s enthusiasm for the Cockettes diminished, setting up the viewers for the coming dissolution of the group, and the film’s final act. In reality the Cockettes returned from New York rejuvenated by everything they had experienced there. They continued to put on sell-out shows in San Francisco with no less energy and revitalized creativity.
“The first show after NY was “Les Etoiles de Paris,” which was one of the most artistically gorgeous shows,” said Sweet Pam.
“The stage was the top of a vanity,” Scrumbly said, remembering the oversized perfume bottles, combs, and other objects d’toilet. “I sang ‘Jewels of Paris’ and out came bathing beauties with gigantic jewels on their heads. And we had 5 Edith Piafs. 5 Maurice Chevaliers.”
“And the shows were still selling out,” Sweet Pam recalled. “The last show was at the House of Good, Jim Jones’ temple – way before the massacre. We did the Miss Demeanor Beauty Pageant. Divine was there [the famous corpulent drag queen from Baltimore featured in John Water’s films] and she won.”
“No, she was last year’s Miss Demeanor,” Scrumbly corrected.
“That’s right. And Goldie won.”
Scrumbly corrected again. “No, China White won.”
“I don’t remember that.”
“Well, I was on less drugs, I guess.”
Eventually the Cockettes ended. Key people left and others continued performing together under different names. Although they may be somewhat less glittery than they were, filmmaerk Bill Wever said the personalities of the former Cockettes were amazingly intact.
“There is only no Cockette left if you deny ever being one,” Scrumbly beamed.