by Charles Kruger
If you were to visit musician Richard “Scrumbly” Koldewyn (as I did recently) at his tastefully appointed home in the Piedmont section of Oakland, you would not likely suspect that this conservative-looking debonair cabaret performer had once, back in the 1970s, had an eccentric hippie wedding featuring drag queens and assorted San Francisco freaks photographed for Rolling Stone, back when he was performing with the legendary Cockettes, and living the high life in a Haight/Ashbury commune. (Scrumbly identifies as Gay, but, back in the day, the watchword was “anything goes.”)
Ah, “The Cockettes.” In case you didn’t know, the Cockettes were a wildly bizarre collection of San Francisco counter-culture performers and drag queens, who deconstructed the Broadway musical theatre in a series of spoofs that brought them a brief window of stardom and a respected place in the history of American theatre under the descriptive category, “Theatre of the Ridiculous.” They were founded by a handsome young New York actor named George Edgerly Harris III, who had performed off-Broadway in a company that included Al Pacino and James Earl Jones before he came to San Francisco and re-invented himself as a drag queen named “Hibiscus.” The Cockettes were San Francisco’s answer to Andy Warhol’s Factory, the heart of New York’s counter culture in the 1970s. If the aesthetic of the New York Factory was angry, street-smart, raunchy, and rough, with an emphasis on personal fame (even if only for 15 minutes) and high society connections, the hippies who made up The Cockettes were life-affirming, happy-go-lucky, partying flower children who envisioned themselves as angels spreading love and peace and show tunes and saving the world from itself. It all began in the early 1970s, when The Palace Theatre in North Beach, which featured midnight movies, invited Hibiscus and fellow commune members to throw a dance party/show on the stage one night.
Scrumbly describes that first night:
Well, we had a group that liked to dress up and go out, and we’d go out as a group to The Stud, which was THE place. And there were lots of communes, and ours was sort of a center. We all hung out together, and went to movies. Our commune at Bush and Baker was a big party house, and one night Hibiscus was approached by a guy named Steven Arnold who was one of the producers of the Nocturnal Dream Shows held at midnight every Friday and Saturday night at the Palace Theatre in North Beach. Arnold asked Hibiscus to bring some friends to dance on stage at a New Year’s Eve show and that was our first performance. It was just a bunch of us dressing up. We stopped at Hibiscus’s commune where there was a drag room and we just dressed up and piled into some cars and went to the Palace and danced on stage to the Rolling Stones’s “Honky Tonk Woman” and the crowd went ballistic.
You see, nobody had done that before. Looking femme, full of tinsel, but with beards and moustaches. It was a big party. It was as if, in your huge extended family, some of the most outrageous family members got up and put on a show.
They loved us so much we had to just keep at it. After that, we started doing our own shows and by November, 1970, we were doing our first original show with our own music.
That was “Pearls Over Shanghai,” a wild sendup of Hollywood’s warped imaginings of Asian culture, featuring drag characters like “Madame Gin Sling” and “Mother Fu.”
Speaking of Hollywood’s version of Asia, Scrumbly notes:
We knew it was nothing like that, but we had the stock characters: gangsters and such. I wrote the music. The lyrics were outrageous, like “Endless Masturbation Blues.”
That began like this: “Every night I wake up, smoke, then use some make-up, scratch and stretch this body, then I perfume my ass. Walk up to the bedroom, lay it on the pillow, soon I’m pretty busy, time starts moving so fast.”
It wasn’t long before The Cockettes (who, by now, included legendary performer Sylvester as part of the show) attracted national attention when Rex Reed and Truman Capote attended one night.
Oh, they went berserk! They were just crazy for us! You know, Rex Reed’s column had national circulation in about three hundred papers and he wrote a big three page article just raving about us and based on that we were invited to come to New York.
What they saw was the show—the whole event—which was half party and half show. The whole thing had a magic that carried it. Everything was wonderful and beautiful and lots and lots of fun. Heroically outrageous. All kinds of society people were coming: Herb Caen, you know.
It was people who were exotic and adventurous and artistic. Artists and eccentrics were always honored in San Francisco.
But when we got to New York, they didn’t like us. New Yorkers were offended because we weren’t paying homage to traditional theatre. We were consciously deconstructing it. And we didn’t have our supportive audience! We were spoofing being serious about theatre. But we had the wrong audience. Our first house was filled with the theatre establishment but we were anti-establishment and it just didn’t work.
Opening night in New York became a famous debacle, when the audience, led by an affronted Angela Lansbury, walked out in shocked disgust. Gore Vidal famously commented that “No talent is not enough.”
Fortunately, the show did find its audience, and before long it was a bona fide hit among New York City’s counter-cultural fans, and was glowingly reviewed in “The Village Voice.”
The New York adventure proved to be the pinnacle of success for The Cockettes. Founder Hibiscus abandoned the group when it went professional, believing that it should remain loyal to its hippie roots and his original vision, performing for free. Sylvester went on to a solo career, Divine (who performed with the Cockettes in New York) became a movie star, and other members moved on as well. In the following decades, many of the original members died in the plague, including Hibiscus, who passed away in his early 30s of AIDS. One of the first to go, he was diagnosed with GRID (Gay-Related Immunodeficiency) before the term AIDS had been coined.
Fans have kept the memory alive, however, In 2009, Thrillpeddlers began staging successful San Francisco revivals of several of the Cockettes’ greatest hits, including “Vice Palace,” and “Hot Greeks,” under the more-than-capable direction of Russell Blackwood.
At the end of our recent visit, I asked Scrumbly if he would perform something from a Cockettes show, and he offered the following:
On January 4th, the 50th Anniversary of the Cockettes will be celebrated in “The Cockettes Are Golden,” at the Victoria Theatre. The show, emceed by Russell Blackwood, will feature recreations of many of the company’s most popular numbers, with commentary by several original Cockettes who will be attending. Musical direction and accompaniment will be provided by Scrumbly Koldewyn. For further information, click here.