They're all there: the strands of pearls and other beads, the diaphanous dresses, curiously applied makeup, capes, satin, lace, flowers and ribbons. And the music, and the dancing in the streets -- writhing more than dancing, as revelers fly their own little inner freak flags freely.
But it's not Mardi Gras. No, it's a Carnival of a totally different stripe. It's the Cockettes, a fluid amalgam of gay men, straight women and several points in between, but all of them hippies caught up in the swirl of the counter-culture scene of San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury in the late 1960s. The Cockettes were but one off-ramp on the hippie highway, dressing up in drag, forming communes and performing a kind of camp theater that could only be done in San Francisco.
It surely couldn't have been done in New York City, as directors David Weissman and Bill Weber so vividly portray in the 2002 documentary, The Cockettes. The film will be shown as the closing-night screening Sunday of this weekend's Reel Identities, the New Orleans Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Film Festival (sponsored by the Lesbian & Gay Community Center of New Orleans). The festival kicks off with an opening reception at 6 p.m. Thursday at Le Chat Noir, followed by a trio of films starting with Family Fundamentals. (For a complete schedule, visit www.lgccno.org.) One of the other screenings is Saturday's midnight showing of Rocky Horror Picture Show (ah, the good old days), and the connection between the gay/hippie sub-subculture of Haight-Ashbury and the West End/off-Broadway smash becomes crystal clear in The Cockettes. As one of the female members of the group, Fayette, points out: "People were allowed to live at the end of their imagination."
That's something you don't often hear these days, and if The Cockettes feels more like a nostalgia trip than anything else, that's fine. But it also provides a window into a subculture hell-bent on expressing itself in every way imaginable. Just like the bohemes of our own city, it's often hard to tell whether the denizens of the Cockettes scene are trying to find or lose themselves. The lines happily blur, but a road map to inner and outer expression emerges from the mayhem.
And make no mistake, it was sheer, utter, glorious mayhem in 1969. At the epicenter of the group was a man named George Harris, an aspiring actor and drifter who is also known as the anti-war demonstrator plugging a flower into the rifle of a National Guardsman in the now-iconic photograph. He wound up at Haight-Ashbury's KaliFlower commune, changed his name to Hibiscus, grew out his hair, put on dresses, and drew people around him just by his dancing and singing.
Gays and other societal pariahs also were drawn to the scene, and hippies and gays began mingling. The Cockettes sprang from this milieu (the name was a riff on the Rockettes), with Hibiscus surfacing as a sort-of spiritual leader. As the Cockettes formed their own house, Hibiscus was becoming a nuisance in the KaliFlower commune, so he switched houses and the Cockettes collective was solidified.
The fluidity of the place was amazing, especially the sexuality. To call anyone gay, straight or bisexual seemed a waste of time. One straight woman married a gay man and conceived a child by him. That fluidity spilled over into their dress and activity; by watching the endless archival video footage, the Cockettes' looked like a movable feast of dressing, singing, dancing, acid-dropping and screwing. People wanted to hop on the bandwagon and see where it rolled.
It landed one night on the stage of the Palace Theater, where they were essentially allowed to flop around for a few minutes before a midnight film screening. The crowd went nuts, and from there metamorphosed a camp theater inspired by everything from Busby Berkeley musicals of the 1930s and '40s, can-can dancing and opera. Shows like Paste on Paste, Madame Butterfly ("our first 'talkie,'" recalls one member with a laugh) and Tinsel Tarts in a Hot Coma were long on costumes and improv and short on script or any other structure. Still, they developed such a following they drew the interest of director John Waters and critic Rex Reed, whose support eventually led to a climactic appearance in New York. The show bombed, the troupe returned to San Francisco and, after some of their best shows, they disbanded by 1973 -- the victims first of '70s ennui and later AIDS.
Still, their legacy remains palpable, the spirit enduring. As Reggie, one alumnus, wistfully laments, "I feel that the world for the most part is shit. With the wars, and the banks, and the corruption, and the lies, and the mall... forget it. Just give me a torn dress, a hit of acid, and let's go to the beach. And that's enough. That's a lot."
- Cockettes spiritual leader Hibiscus gets ready for another night on the town during the Haight-Ashbury days of '60s San Francisco in the documentary The Cockettes.