The Cockettes were a “hippie theater group” formed in 1969 and based in and around Haight-Ashbury. The group was comprised of artists, performers, singers, dancers and “freaks” inspired by The Living Theater, John Vaccaro’s Play House of the Ridiculous, Jack Smith’s films, Kesey’s Merry Pranksters and the Diggers. Fayette Hauser was part of that group. She shares her memories of a time when the Cockettes warmed up the stage of a pre-punk CBGB. Fayette’s memoir, The Cockettes; Acid Drag & Sexual Anarchy, 1969-1972, is now available from Feral House.
We Cockettes had been blasting away onstage for two years when one night in late summer of 1971, while doing our latest show, Tinsel Tarts in a Hot Coma, and unbeknownst to us, our audience contained Rex Reed, Truman Capote, Joanna Carson and a few other Knob Hill types who had slipped away from a high fashion post-wedding party to slum it up. They headed out to the back end of North Beach and into the Palace Theatre.
It was Truman Capote’s idea. He said, “There’s a show going on there that is the wildest thing I’ve ever seen.” And Truman had seen some wild things, I’m sure. They found themselves among the great gaggle of freaks and hippies of the Haight, dressed appropriately for a Cockettes show. They somehow fit right in and sat among the crowd getting the joints and booze passed to them just like everyone else, hooting and hollering.
They were flabbergasted. Riveted by the show, onstage and off. The next morning Rex Reed called Sebastian, the manager of the midnight shows at the Palace through his Nocturnal Dream Show. He met Reed at the Fairmont Hotel. Sebastian gave him some details and Rex devoted his entire nationally syndicated column in the Chicago Tribune to The Cockettes. Prior to this, the Cockettes had been heavily featured in the Underground press since we began in 1969, but by 1971 we had also been written up in Rolling Stone and a beautiful full-color mag called EARTH.
When Rex Reed’s column hit the street, we were essentially outed to the nation and most especially to New York. Reed wrote the greatest, most detailed description of a Cockettes show that I’ve ever seen; it’s hilarious. Here is an excerpt:
“It was Friday night at midnight and in the streets bewildered police tried to control 2,000 screaming, romping, bumping, grinding, flaunting, swishing, writhing and staggering fans in front of a Chinese temple that looked like Kublai Khan’s opium den. Nobody paid any attention to the ‘sold out’ signs. They broke down the exit doors and 300 more friends of The Cockettes stormed in, free-jamming the aisles and sitting on floors covered with chewing gum, pistachio nut shells, cigar butts, candy wrappers and Styrofoam teacups-a floating carnival of freaks in sequins, feathers, skirts, mesh hose, cowboy hats, bras and pasties.”
“I hope it’s not like ‘Oh, Calcutta!’ said Mrs. Johnny Carson in tennis shoes.
“There were street violinists, spare change freaks, Mrs. Sam Spiegel in a purple feather boa, chanting monks, black-tie socialites who had just come from the opening night of Beverly Sills in ‘Manon’, speed freaks, Hell’s Angels, hairdressers, Chinese coolies playing flutes, babbling children in Shirley Temple curls, holdovers from Denise Minnelli’s wedding in $28,000 Adolfo gowns. Even Denise Minnelli herself showed up in emeralds but left when the cops told her there might be a raid. ‘Dahling, I’ve seen The Cockettes already anyway,’ she said, stepping back into her limousine. Inside a rainfall of rolled joints showered down upon the orchestra seats and there was so much smoke in the air you could get high just by taking a breath.”
“The show began amid a colossal stampede of applause, screams and foot-stomping. Onto the stage trooped The Cockettes-a spangled mass of lurching bodies in lavish hock-shop costumes, doing their thing for freedom.”
It goes on.
After this column appeared, Harry Zerler, a producer, met with Sebastian who took him to a show, getting him appropriately stoned, of course. Whether he remembered what he saw or not, Harry decided to produce the show in New York. We went into high gear, higher than usual, shopping and packing trunks full of our multitudinous drag. We each had our own steamer trunk with COCKETTES sprayed on top in neon yellow.
When Rex Reed’s column hit the street, we were essentially outed to the nation and most especially to New York.
In 1971 the 747 jet was the streamlined version of a modern luxury ocean liner, all tricked out with a bar and lounge on the second level, accessed via a spiral staircase in the center of the plane. We thought this was tres chic and perfect for our style of high glam hippie as we embarked on our excursion to New York. When we arrived at JFK, we were met by photographers, filmmakers and David Peel’s Lower East Side Band, all arranged by our sterling press agent, Danny Fields.
However, the more sobering elements were yet to come. Our group had been booked into the Albert Hotel for the duration, several people to a room. At the time, the Albert Hotel was an SRO and the state of the place reflected this status. There were so many cockroaches in there that for the finale of Tinsel Tarts In A Hot Coma, Link Martin devised an homage drag of an enormous cockroach shell adorned with shiny satin colors that he accentuated with a Carmen Miranda look. He stood on the front runway platform of the stage that rose up from the basement, wildly shaking his maracas and singing “La Cucaracha”.
The Anderson Theatre was even worse. Aside from being three times the size of our home theatre, the Palace, there was no AC electrical current and no sound system. The place was a dinosaur. Our D.I.Y. sets were cardboard flats painted by John Flowers. We had shipped them from San Francisco only to find they were dwarfed by the size of the stage. John, myself and a few others became the crew to remake the sets for both of the shows that we brought with us; Tinsel Tarts In A Hot Coma and Pearls Over Shanghai. For the Tinsel Tarts set, John designed an enormous Martini glass, tilted to spill out the gin in glistening sheets of cellophane, ala Claus Oldenburg. Our set design with its nod to Art Deco, provided inspiration for the production designer of The Boy Friend starring Twiggy and Tommy Tune. The similarity is obvious when you see the film.
From our arrival, we were the Toast of the Town and the New York parties flowed like fine French wine. No one could resist these fabulous invitations from the likes of Diana Vreeland, Alejandro Jodorowsky and Robert Rauschenberg. And then, of course ,there was Max’s Kansas City, on a nightly basis, into the wee hours. How could we possibly have time to rehearse?
All of a sudden, Opening Night was upon us and “everyone who was anyone,” according to Sylvia Miles, stood in line to get in. For my stage number I had decided to fashion a long boa made entirely of colored balloons. We had so many “admirers” hanging out in the dressing rooms that I gave them something to do. Rows of boys sat on the floor of my dressing room blowing up balloons as I did my maquillage. Several Cockettes were stationed at the stage curtain peeking out to see who had arrived. Every few minutes, Dusty Dawn would pop in to announce “John Lennon is here!”, it went on and I got exceedingly more nervous as there really wasn’t much to this particular show, Tinsel Tarts, not our best by far. Even though our entire ethos was anti-theater tradition, our shows were complex layers of ideas done in rapid-fire absurdist satire. And we had no shaman-director-knowledgeable person to whip it into any reasonable shape whatsoever, as our brilliant shaman, Hibiscus, had been tossed out by the non-psychedelic love contingent of the group one week before we left and never joined us in New York.
But on we raged, flinging ourselves onto the New York stage. However ,we neglected to transport our fabulous San Francisco audience to New York with us so here we were, facing the cold hard looks of the jaded New York crowd. They didn’t get it. Not any of it. And it was not our best effort to boot. Boot is the proper term here. The audience fled and we got the Big Boot from the press all over town. Undaunted, we immediately switched to our best, all original musical, Pearls Over Shanghai. Then we were a hit with the underground artists and their crowd, but the press never returned.
When we opened, Sylvester, who had been a member of our group from the beginning, decided to take this opportunity to form his own band and become our opening act, billed as ‘Sylvester and his Hot Band’. The audience loved him, as we all did. Sylvester was a beautiful presence on our stage especially when he channeled Billie Holiday and sang the blues in drag. Now he became a hot glam rocker, equally fabulous.But the bad reviews got under his skin, so he picked up his hot pants and left.
“My Life” – Sylvester and the Hot Band (1973):
He was replaced by an equally magical and, to me, mystical creature in the form of a Russian czarina named Larry Ray. Larry in the day was a very tall, well-built man but at night she became a Russian countess encrusted with jewels and crown, velvet cape and gloves, the essence of Russian aristocratic glamour of the Belle Epoque. She emerged onstage costumed in white tulle and feathers to dance the Dying Swan from Swan Lake. Every night I would run up from the dressing room to the opera box on stage right to watch this incredibly moving and graceful balletic performance. The transformation was epic and dazzling. I was transported nightly. Larry Ray’s Dying Swan of the 70’s became the inspiration for the all-male troupe Ballet Trocadero de Monte Carlo which, in turn, inspired the magnificent Matthew Bourne all-male production of Swan Lake.
However, we neglected to transport our fabulous San Francisco audience to New York with us so here we were, facing the cold hard looks of the jaded New York crowd.
Our New York voyage was brilliant for all of us. We experienced what it was like to be the Talk of the Town in Manhattan, truly something unique. We were able to hone our performances, our drag and our play Pearls Over Shanghai to a level that made us all proud. We deepened our pioneering psychedelicized aesthetic of a cubistic vision of life and drag which went on to influence many artists, then and now.
In 1972, Tomata Du Plenty and I transported ourselves to New York to continue our fabulous stage lives and art. We ensconced ourselves in a flat on 2nd Street & Bowery in a city-owned building that overlooked the men’s shelter across the street. The rent was $50 a month, so we took two adjoining apartments on the top floor with a view downtown. We broke through the common wall to form a door which remained unfinished but decorated with a lovely 40’s floral bark-cloth drape.
We were soon joined by John Flowers of the Cockettes and Screaming Orchids of Ze Whiz Kidz, the troupe that Tomata founded in Seattle after first being transformed in early Cockette shows. Later, Sweet Pam also came along. In the fall of 1972, Tomata and I began searching for small venues with a space to perform. We found a poet’s cafe that had a separate performance room so our first show was called There’s Egypt in Your Dreamy Eyes. We were joined in the show by Michael Gilman and Linda Olgierson of the John Waters family.
Half a block away, on the Bowery, was a bar called Hilly’s that had been closed but just re-opened with an awning that read CBGB. We met the owner, Hilly Kristal, out front as he was sweeping the sidewalk. He showed us around the bar that had a neat small stage in the back. In the spring of 1973, we performed our show Savage Voodoo Nuns there. Our show was a success and the bar gained an instant popularity with the downtown artists. Hilly encouraged everyone to perform there and soon the bands came in. We did Savage Voodoo Nuns several times at CBGB with bands as the openers. We met the Ramones when they opened for us and we loved them.
Tomata and I stayed in New York until 1974, when I headed off on a South American adventure and he headed back to Seattle. We rejoined in Los Angeles in 1975 and continued performing as the burgeoning Punk scene evolved and flourished.
We did Savage Voodoo Nuns several times at CBGB with bands as the openers. We met the Ramones when they opened for us and we loved them.
Our pioneering aesthetic of psychedelic gender-fluid time-warp absurdism has seen a long road, influencing all aspects of the arts from stage to fashion to streetwear and more. Now, 50 years later, the younger generation sees photos of us and thinks the pictures were taken today. We had an ethos of individuality and total personal freedom, our self-expression was highly personal and meaningful but we all brought the best of ourselves into the group which formed a powerful group consciousness. We created a specific visual language, and we all knew its vocabulary, complex and joyful. We were channeling the great spirit of the counterculture, a spirit that is currently having a renaissance, hopefully to reform and rebirth our idea of how we live today.
Our society had a long visionary view that was all inclusive, equanimous and self-sustaining. We respected the uniqueness of others and found joy in sharing, because we knew that when you put it out there, you have a hand in forming the expansion of the Universe, so you’d better choose well. Only through sharing can we come to a place of Joy once again and we had a rockin’ good time, that’s for sure.
Trailer for The Cockettes (2002), a documentary:
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