This article by Robert Heide is from the October 2020 issue of New York City’s WestView News, The Voice of the West Village. All rights reserved.
JOHN ROTHERMEL, NY cabaret singer and Cockette star, was an avid collector of 1930s 78 rpm records—here on the cover of Zoom magazine, 1971. Photo courtesy of Fayette Hauser.
By Robert Heide
2020 is the 50th anniversary of the famed Cockettes, who made an acid drenched splash in San Francisco while living commune style shortly after the Summer of Love in the Haight-Ashbury, with their thrift shop vintage, fabulously collaged and assemblaged outfits barely covering their nudity with a profundity of accessories, including bakelite bracelets and jewelry, immense headdresses, manly beards and tons of glitter pasted all over themselves. The group performed their way-out musical extravaganzas at the North Beach movie theater, the Palace, and were a midnight sensation for several years from 1969 to 1972. A big, glossy, and exquisitely put together art book entitled The Cockettes with the subtitle Acid Drag and Sexual Anarchy by Fayette Hauser, a photographer as well as a member of the tribe has just been published to celebrate the activities and lifestyles of the psychedelic gay liberation theater collective known as the Cockettes. The extraordinary photos by Ms. Hauser and a flurry of others including Peter Hujar are augmented with essays by some of the Cockettes themselves and interviews with filmmaker John Waters, whose star Divine performed with the Cockettes on several occasions, and American history documentarian Ken Burns’ narrator Peter Coyote, a hippy himself back in those days, living in a commune in Olema in Marin County who befriended the group’s leader Hibiscus.
The book is dedicated to Hibiscus, the Shaman of the Cockettes, and the chief director of the group’s musical theatricals in North Beach. His past experience in Greenwich Village theaters as George Harris III in the burgeoning off off Broadway scene qualified him for the job, and his prodigious usage in San Francisco of windowpane acid, pot, peyote mushrooms and other drugs fueled his imagination without limit. The Harris family consisted of six children and they were all in demand in downtown New York theater. Michael Walter had a big role in the Broadway show Hair, and the girls, Jayne Anne, Eloise, and Mary Lou formed a singing act based on the Andrews Sisters, specializing in World War II hits like Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy and Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree with Anyone Else But Me. Ann Harris, the mother, was a star in the cult film Honeymoon Killers (she’s the one that got away) with Shirley Stoler the buxom award winning actress who later had a recurring role in Pee Wee Herman’s television show, and the father, George, who appeared in The Great White Way on Broadway and was featured in dozens of movies including Superman. I met George III at the Caffe Cino on Cornelia Street (now a New York City historical landmark) where my plays The Bed and Moon were initially staged. The Cino was the first to present what is known as theater of the absurd, plays that went against the naturalistic realism of Broadway plays at that time, presenting what was called ‘super-realism.’ Tom Eyen, who later wrote Dreamgirls, a Broadway musical hit about The Supremes, staged several of his early works there, including Why Hannah’s Skirt Won’t Stay Down which starred Helen Hanft, known as ‘the Queen of Off Off Broadway,’ as a woman who acted out her sexual fantasies in a mirrored fun-house at Coney Island where she stood over a breeze hole, the air blowing her skirt up around her head. Nearby a sexy narcissistic muscleman played by Steve Van Vost in a red, white, and blue speedo stared at himself in a mirror while watching Helen’s orgasm over the breeze hole. In Jeff Weiss’ That’s How the Rent Gets Paid, the protagonist, played by the author, returns home from a sanitarium supposedly cured of his psychosis, only to rape both his mother and father, as well as his little brother—a part played by the blonde, young, and handsome George Harris III.
Not too long after the Caffe Cino closed (in 1967) George III met Allen Ginsberg and the two went off on a road trip to California, stopping along the way long enough for George to stick a sunflower in the barrel of a Marine’s rifle at a Vietnam War protest at the Pentagon. A photo of the event by Bernie Boston is included in the book and has become a symbol of the counterculture of that era. George was just George then, but after dropping acid in San Francisco, he shed the name forever and became Hibiscus. In the book Peter Coyote said of Hibiscus and the Cockettes “to them sex was like a handshake! I liked them because they were not trying to be girls, only instead showing off their feminine side with exaggerated hairdos and wigs, garish make-up and gobs of glitter.” Chief among Hibiscus’ followers was John Rothermel, a 78 rpm record collector who became the music director of the Cockettes introducing such classic 1930s Depression era songs as I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise, Hot Voodoo, By a Waterfall, Lullaby of Broadway, and Cooking Breakfast for the One I Love to fellow record collector and the group’s piano player Peter Minton who banged out the songs at the Palace as the boys and girls of the Cockettes romped and cavorted. They included Sebastian (a black singer who later pursued a solo career with a group called Sebastian and His Hot Band), Gary Cherry, John Flowers, Scrumbly, Rumi Missabu (who recently presented an extravaganza at the Judson Church in the Village where I ran into drag superstar Rollerina), Goldie Glitters, Harlow and others in shows with titles like Pearls Over Shanghai (their greatest hit inspired by San Francisco’s old Chinatown), Hollywood Babylon, The Rise and Fall of the World As Seen From a Sexual Position, Tropical Heat Wave, and Tricia’s Wedding (also made into a movie.) Campy movies shown at the midnight frolics at the Palace included 1930s classics starring Mae West and Joan Crawford, as well as John Waters’ hits Multiple Maniacs, Female Trouble, and Pink Flamingos. It was Waters who came up with the term “sexual anarchists” stating in his essay in the book, “bearded drag queens, freaks in vintage costumes, glitter scattered everywhere, sitting partially nude reading Lenin—they were hilarious!”
John Waters also makes the point that the Cockettes reminded him of the theater of cruelty, Artaud, and the Living Theater, incidentally pointing out that not only were the performers high (on acid) as a kite, but so were the audiences screaming enthusiastically every night throughout the crazy, far-out performances. When the group, changed their name to ‘The Angels of Light,’ (sans Hibiscus who advised against it) and decided to take a new show Tinsel Tarts in a Hot Coma for a three week run at the Anderson Theater on Second Avenue in the East Village, they were eagerly anticipated by all of New York’s hoi polloi as well as uptowners and celebrities like Bianca Jagger and Truman Capote. They were axed by the press, and people stormed angrily out not getting the drugged absurdity at all. They were probably on very different drugs, or none at all. Waters concluded that in San Francisco “It was such a radical audience because it wasn’t just gay people. It was a complete mix of men and women that didn’t fit in anywhere, not even in the Hippie movement.” Many people in the Village will remember the glittering billboard over United Cigars in Sheridan Square, advertising ‘Hibiscus and the Screaming Violets,’ a hilarious club act with his talented sisters which sadly turned out to be Hibiscus’ swan song. He became one of the first 100 people to die of AIDS, and passed away in 1982.
I bought my copy of The Cockettes—Acid Drag & Sexual Anarchy by Fayette Hauser, published by Process Media in 2020 at BookMarc on Bleecker Street. Related books are: Flower Power Man by Mary Lou, Jayne-Anne, Eloise Harris and Caravan to Oz—A Family Re-Invents Itself Off Off Broadway by the Harris Family, both published by Eldorado Books USA. My latest book is Robert Heide 25 Plays, published by Fast Books Press. All are available on Amazon.