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A Cross-Dressed Counterrevolution

Movies* Two filmmakers reconnect with the '60s as they document the rise and fall of the glittery drag performers the Cockettes.

July 24, 2002|ANNE VALDESPINO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

November 1971. A packed house at the Anderson Theater in New York, strewn with celebrities and socialites, waited to see the latest San Francisco sensation, the Cockettes. But when the curtain rose, the show didn't live up to its hype.

A grossly under-rehearsed, elaborately overdressed collection of hippies, drag queens and acid freaks ran through a loosey-goosey musical of their own trippy invention. They could feel themselves bombing as audience members left in disgust. "No talent is not enough!" said Gore Vidal. "WHAT A DRAG," screamed the headline of a scorched-earth review.

An agonizing night off-Broadway? Yeah. A great subject for a documentary? Oh, yeah. Directors David Weissman and Bill Weber devoted two years to chronicling the formation and dissolution of the Cockettes, a cult act from the City of Love. Their film, "The Cockettes," opens Friday in Los Angeles. It received its premiere at the San Francisco International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival in 2001 and was shown after the awards presentation Sunday at Los Angeles' Outfest. It also was broadcast on the Sundance Channel in June and will repeat in June next year.

"It's really about the counterculture of the '60s and how that blended with the beginnings of the sexual revolution," said Weissman. "The Cockettes offered an opportunity to tell that story."

The tale steered Weissman and Weber straight into a big, messy zeitgeist stew: gay liberation, freedom of expression, countercultural lifestyles, gender bending, free love, drugs, communal living and politics.

Their approach to the tangled subject was to show all points of view. "I'm always struck by how five people can be at the same event and have differences about what happened," said Weber.

"History becomes mythology, and we were comfortable with that," Weissman said.

The film's strength, writes Jeffrey M. Anderson of the San Francisco Examiner, is that "it leaves certain details purposely--tantalizingly--misty." "The Cockettes" captures a delicate point in time and holds it like a butterfly in a net, say most of the critics. It brings the era "triumphantly to life," A.O. Scott writes in the New York Times.

Weber and Weissman got a jump-start on the research from Martin Worman, a former Cockette who died in 1993, but not before beginning a dissertation on the group. "He had 100 interviews, 30 to 40 hours already transcribed. We had a tremendous history that was a huge help," said Weber.

A treasure trove of archives included costumes, scrapbooks, photographs and films as well as interviews with a range of subjects, from the theater owner who gave them their first break to director John Waters, a fan of the troupe who introduced them to Divine, the star of his film "Pink Flamingos." But most of it is straight from former Cockettes, whose names seem lifted off a Jefferson Airplane lyric sheet: Scrumbly, Sweet Pam, Hibiscus, Jilala, Goldie Glitters, Dusty Dawn, Ocean Michael Moon and others.

The Cockettes--many still wearing outrageous hats and too much mascara--relive the halcyon days of the troupe founded by George Harris, a young actor who left New York, changed his name to Hibiscus and moved into Kaliflower, a San Francisco commune. Rock-star handsome, with silky, shoulder-length hair fit for an Herbal Essence shampoo commercial, Hibiscus was described by one Cockette as "Jesus Christ with lipstick." Where he led, they followed.

"He was gorgeous and inspirational and charismatic and totally visual," said Fayetta Hauser, an art student who attended Boston University at the time Timothy Leary conducted acid experiments at MIT. She hitched a ride out West with no less than Nancy Gurley, wife of James Gurley, a guitarist for Janis Joplin's backup band, Big Brother and the Holding Company.

"A lot of things I learned in school were in theory only, so between the acid and life in San Francisco and Hibiscus, it all started bursting out of my head," Hauser said.

Their first performances started as group dances in public spaces. Later the shows took on titles: "Hot Greeks," "Gone With the Showboat to Oklahoma" and "Journey to the Center of Uranus." Dressing up was a signature. The Cockettes raided thrift shops and donned headdresses, boas, heels and layers of glittery makeup until they looked like Mardi Gras in search of Bourbon Street.

Some were gay. Some were straight. Some took acid. Some took their clothes off. Rehearsals were a zoo.

"It was a big psychodrama, like an insane asylum," said Hauser. "Sometimes I would just sit back and watch what was going on; a lot of drag queens would be vying for the same role and throwing tantrums, and people would be singing and playing the piano--how we ever did a show is beyond me."

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