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television: Sex, Drugs and Sequins

San Francisco's outrageous acid-head drag queens, The Cockettes, hit the stage once again.

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And that was just for their hair. For their costumes, he and The Cockettes shopped, relentlessly, at third-hand stores all over San Francisco — gauzy, filmy, padded-shoulder dresses from the 1930s, boas and hats reminiscent of 1940s Hollywood musicals, faux-military 1950s elevator-girl uniforms, Chinese opera costumes stolen from a forgotten steamer trunk, anything that expressed the screw-the-establishment attitude that swept through San Francisco and then spread across America two years after Scott McKenzie made himself a one-hit wonder by singing John Phillips' gentle anthem to peace and love.

Because, you see, Hibiscus and his tribe were putting on a show at the Palace Theater, a midnight salute to anarchy, an unrehearsed, do-your-own-thing happening to introduce the world to The Cockettes. (Why that particular name? Well, among other reasons, the name Rockettes was already taken by a real-girl dance troupe in New York.)



"If you're going to San Francisco,

You're gonna meet some gentle people there."




"Gentle," however, is not the word most people would use to describe The Cockettes. They were freaks, sexual anarchists, young people who had tuned in, turned on and dropped out. Although Hibiscus was nominally the leader, nobody was really in charge of The Cockettes in the beginning. They just did their own thing three nights a week at the Palace — and San Francisco couldn't get enough of it. They weren't good, really. But they were outrageous, flying without a script, dancing without choreography, singing without much of an idea of key or harmony. They defined the difference between talent and novelty, with very little of the former and a whole lot of the latter. Many of them were so stoned they didn't really know where they were or what they were doing.

"People were allowed to live at the end of their imagination," says Fayette, one of the few who survived the crash of The Cockettes in the early 1970s and who managed to live through the AIDS epidemic that began to pick them off, one by one, in the early 1980s.



"There's a whole generation,

With a new explanation."

People in motion. People in motion."




And everything — underscore everything — was in motion on the stage of the Palace Theater, as the gender-bending Cockettes cavorted costumed and/or stark naked and celebrated sex, drugs and show tunes for packed houses. Their bizarre routines became increasingly elaborate, and the titles did too: "Gone with the Showboat to Oklahoma," "Tinsel Tarts in a Hot Coma," and "Journey to the Center of Uranus," just to name a few. To call them flamboyant is to rob the word of meaning. They were light years past flamboyant.



"If you come to San Francisco

Summertime will be a love-in there"




But summertime fades quickly, and so did The Cockettes.

David Weissman and Bill Weber weren't content to let go of the memory of The Cockettes, however. And their memorial documentary — a homage, really — impressively full of archival film and stills interspersed with interviews with surviving Cockettes, blew the audience away at the 2002 Sundance and Berlin International film festivals.

The national rollout of the feature-length film will be June 28. But by special arrangement with the two filmmakers, the Sundance Channel will present a one-time-only preview in celebration of June as Gay Pride Month.

If you were young in the late '60s, the film will remind you of what a joyous and outrageous time it was.

And if you weren't, now's your chance to see what all the fuss was about. I promise you won't be disappointed. S



"The Cockettes" airs at 9 p.m. Friday, June 21, on the Sundance Channel.

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