On this day December 31 1969: The Cockettes’ first show


the cockettes december 31
Cockettes Goldie Glitters, Dusty Dawn, and Jonnie by Bud Lee. Credit: David Weissman Films

On December 31 1969, the Cockettes performed their first show at San Francisco’s Palace Theatre. The troupe of male and female performers would make a lasting impact on fashion and drag. Singer Sylvester and movie actor Divine both performed with the Cockettes early in their careers.

The fame of the troupe grew, especially following a review from nationally-syndicated columnist Rex Reed. He reported that at the performance he attended, ‘bewildered police tried to control 2000 screaming, romping, bumping, flaunting, swishing, writhing, and staggering fans’ out front of the theatre.

“Nobody paid attention to the ‘Sold Out’ signs. They broke down the exit doors, and 300 friends of the Cockettes stormed in free… A floating carnival of freaks in sequins, feathers, skirts, mesh hose, cowboy hats, bras and pasties.”

Among the great unwashed, Reed also noted the presence of celebrities and local society figures.

“Inside, 200 transvestites in the balconies screamed ‘We love you, Truman’, as Truman Capote entered in an orange sweater.”

Mrs Johnny Carson attended. And also guests from the wedding of Liza Minnelli’s stepmother to a multi-millionaire. However, the bride fled after hearing cops might raid the shindig.

“Dahling, I’ve seen The Cockettes already,” she purred as she clambered back into her limousine.

“The show began amid a colossal stampede of applause, screams and foot-stomping. Onto the stage trooped the Cockettes. A seething mass of lurching bodies in lavish hock-shop costumes, doing their thing for freedom.”

Tinsel Tarts in a Hot Coma

The show Reed reviewed, Tinsel Tarts in a Hot Coma, featured outlandish costuming, parody, song and dance. As a bonus – and no surprise given the troupe name – lots of cock – often glittered or rhinestoned.

A later review in the New York Daily News credited the Cockettes for their influence on fashion. It acclaimed their aesthetic as ‘a landmark, a visual treat’ already ‘filtering through to rock and roll’.

“Whenever you see a sequin too many, or a rhinestone where you didn’t expect one, a feather or some glitter, that’s the Cockettes’ influence.”

(Sadly, bedazzled genitalia never really took off.)

But back in San Francisco, Rex Reed watched the original revue in delighted astonishment.

“Vetta Viper… delivered campy patter while doing a reverse strip, naked from the waist down, squeezing hairy legs into a floor-length formal [gown].”

A subsequent production featured “a prancing holocaust of cigarette holders, mascara, wedgies and see-thru chiffon gowns with sex organs exposed. A photographer from Vogue fell out of her seat.”

Meanwhile, around the theatre, “all sorts of unprintable sexual activity occurred on platforms, stairways and the bare floor.”

The Cockettes celebrated something Rex Reed described as ‘sexual role confusion’, a print-friendly rephrasing of the term ‘genderf_ck’.

the cockettes december 31
Hibiscus by Joshua Freiwald. Credit: David Weissman Films

Sylvester

The black members of the troupe called themselves the Chocolate Cockettes. During 1970, Reggie Dunnigan, one of the Chocolates, met up-and-coming singer Sylvester and invited him to join. Sylvester’s hard work and continual rehearsing contrasted starkly with the original member’s more spontaneous ethos. However, the Cockettes allowed him his own solo spots.

In November 1971, 47 members of the Cockettes filed onto a jet plane in full drag and flew off for a New York season.

But the highly anticipated New York performances were a decided flop. Seduced by the free drugs and drinks on offer, the cast dedicated their free time to debauchery. Sylvester proved the exception, rehearsing every day with his band.

The opening night show attracted the likes of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Liza Minnelli, Truman Capote, Gore Vidal and Angela Lansbury. Andy Warhol also turned up, along with Holly Woodlawn and Candy Darling. But the Cockettes were exhausted from partying. They also embraced spontaneity over rehearsed setpieces. But Big Apple audiences favoured the latter. The show was a disaster. Walk-outs began early and, by the finale, the theatre was almost empty.

The reviews were scathing, except for Sylvester. He subsequently distanced himself from the rest of the show.

“I apologize for this travesty that I’m associated with.”

The sex and nudity also proved a little much in a town still more staid than liberated California.

cockettes december 31
Cockettes in the Park by Bud Lee. Credit: David Weissman Films

Tedious, offensive and unspeakably vulgar

Newsday clutched its pearls.

“Goldi Glitters dropped her gown to reveal male genitalia covered with glitter. Sweet Pam, one of four real girls, looks about nine and a half months pregnant. She sang ‘I Want Some Sugar In My Bowl’ while a bearded man performed what is legally described as an unnatural act on her.”

That’s an awful lot of words to say oral sex.

Lillian Roxon, who penned the Daily News review, took the outraged to task.

“A show came to New York this week that many people found tedious, offensive and unspeakably vulgar. I want to remind all those people so totally outraged of one thing. When Elvis Presley first did his act, his pelvic movements were considered lewd and vulgar. His greasy hair and sideburns were the targets for a million sniggers…

“Now, it’s all good clean family entertainment. Elvis, God bless him, made vulgarity respectable. ”

God bless Lillian, the Nostradamus of her age. She obviously gazed into her crystal ball and foresaw the future. That half a century hence, drag would become so banal that queens would call bingo at suburban bowls clubs.

The 2002 documentary The Cockettes is available for hire on Vimeo.

 

Read more: December 30 <— On this day —> January 1

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2 Comments

  1. Mark K.
    3 January 2022
    Reply

    We called it genderfuck back in it’s day, as well.

    Also, the rest of the New York run was a success, as all of our freaks came out to welcome the Cockettes.

  2. Andrea
    5 January 2022
    Reply

    Hooray for the Cockettes!!! We need more of that these days!

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