By Chris Gore | July 26, 2002

This is why I go see documentaries in the theater – to be moved and entertained all at once. This is one of those rare docs that paints a grand picture of an era and makes the journey feel like a party. One moment I was laughing my ass off and the next moment I was in tears. Witnessing the creative anarchy of the subjects of “The Cockettes” is pure joy.
San Francisco in the late 1960s was a hotbed of hippies and experiments in new lifestyles. When the decade of the seventies dawned, it brought with it some whole new attitudes and the Cockettes were a part of it. To say they were ahead of their time may be an understatement, I don’t think pop culture will ever catch up to the advanced state of euphoria this performance group attained. Their stage shows at The Palace Theater in San Francisco became legendary. Imagine a bunch of men with long, unwashed hair with beards, in full drag kicking up a storm like the Rockettes, but with their schlongs in perfect view flopping around between their legs. With an “anything goes” attitude (and mainly under the influence of the best drugs available at the time including ample amounts of LSD) they put on shows with names like “Paste on Paste,” “Gone with the Showboat to Oklahoma” and “Tropical Heatwave/Hot Voodoo.” Their grand opus was an original stage show called “Pearls Over Shanghai.” It was surreal, vulgar, practically pornographic and they were the hit of San Francisco’s underground.
The group was created by acid freak and self-named drag queen “Hibiscus,” who “organized” their plays and dance numbers. (Though there wasn’t much “organization” involved with anything the Cockettes did – which is part of their charm, of course.) They were men, women, straight and gay and they lived and played together in a community that supported their wondrous creative contributions. While their performances initially opened the screenings of underground films at the Palace, they soon became the main attraction even making low-budget films of their own. It’s no surprise that the Cockettes caught the eye of a young burgeoning filmmaker from Baltimore with his drag queen leading-lady Glenn Milstead. John Waters and Divine became instant fans and Divine even participated as a special guest in the Cockettes performances. Their underground films were smash hits as well including “Elevator Girls in Bondage,” “Luminous Procuress” and, a film that got them national attention, a satire of Pat Nixon’s wedding called “Tricia’s Wedding” that was screened the same day that the actual wedding took place at the White House. But every rise must be accompanied by a fall, and the Cockettes fell hard as they arrived in New York as the toast of the town, only to be humiliated as the laughingstock.
David Weissman and Bill Weber have delivered an epic documentary spanning decades. The film mixes interviews with surviving members of the troupe along with an incredible amount of archival footage of the performances, films and news reports about the phenomenon. It’s one of the few times that I have witnessed an eruption of applause from an audience consisting solely of jaded press people. That never happens.
More than a documentary, it’s a chance to participate in the party that passed by the last few generations. In fact, I may just grow a beard, drop some acid and wear a dress to the next screening.

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