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The Cockettes

Photograph of Kreemah by Fayette Hauser
Fayette Hauser
Kreemah, 1970
Gelatin silver print
KREEMAH RITZ PAPERS
The Cockettes (1969-1972) blazed like a dazzling, slightly frayed comet through the psychedelic landscape of San Francisco, creating a spectacular, subversive theater of gender pandemonium. A young New York stage actor named George Harris came to San Francisco in 1968, renamed himself Hibiscus, and in the context of communal living, drugs and revolutionary ideals, became a visionary dedicated to free art and theater, founding the Cockettes. Hibiscus took to the streets in fabulous, ceremonial hippie drag, attracting and influencing an eclectic group of gay men and straight women. Their daily life of dressing up, playacting, and sexual exploration led to the routines of a wildly transgressive theater troupe. Sylvester, one of the early members of the Cockettes, went on to have a stellar career as a chart-topping singer and performer.

Transformed by thrift-store finery and elaborate makeup, the Cockettes performed inspired midnight shows at the Palace Theater in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood. Early productions such as Tinsel Tarts in a Hot Coma, and Gone with the Showboat to Oklahoma, were characterized by an anarchic, absurdist sensibility, non-narrative singing and dancing, and fantastically tawdry glamour. In Pearls Over Shanghai the Cockettes created their first all-original script, music, and lyrics. Their growing audience, decked out for the occasion, fueled the ecstatic energy. New shows were presented every few weeks and were important events for the hip and culturally adventurous.

Cockettes concert tickets, 1974 and 1979
Concert tickets
1974 and 1979
KREEMAH RITZ PAPERS
As word about the Cockettes’ shows spread to the East Coast, the group was undergoing internal difficulties—Hibiscus and several others dedicated to free theater, left to form the Angels of Light, and the remaining Cockettes went to New York for a highly anticipated three-week run. Celebrities and socialites turned out in droves, but the joyously amateurish spirit of the Cockettes was lost on sophisticated New Yorkers. Returning to San Francisco, the Cockettes’ unique alchemy continued long enough to produce several of their most successful shows and a lasting legacy.

The Hormel Center is fortunate to have a collection of rare Cockettes materials, donated by Kreemah Ritz, an original member of the group. Included in the collection are photographs from the production of the Cockettes' 1971 film Trisha [Tricia] Nixon's Wedding (other films include Elevator Girls in Bondage and Luminous Procuress), The Cockettes Paper Doll Book, publicity posters, and performance stills, including Kreemah Ritz as Miss Liberty.