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Angels of Light
The Cockettes

The Angels of Light and The Cockettes

revolutionary genderbending guerrilla theatre

Index, this page

In the winter of 1969 appeared a new force forged from the communal spirit of the Diggers. On New Years Eve 1969, a group of hippie communal friends, who represented a mix of gender and sexual persuasions, dressed up in the costume room at the Sutter Street Commune (the publishers of Kaliflower) and made their way to the Palace Theater in San Francisco's famed North Beach neighborhood. There, they put on an impromptu performance that would set the scene for a new direction in the underground mashup that was taking place. Men with beards dressed in feminine attire, women dressed as male impersonators, all genders mixed together in one "whirlpool of theatrical anarchy" (as John Waters would describe the scene). These pages will attempt to add to the history of the two groups that grew out of that moment, the Cockettes and the Angels of Light communal theater troupes.

As these two groups' histories will show, there was a split in ideology between the Cockettes and the Angels of Light. The Angels (the shortened term that was often used) followed the Kaliflower/Digger ideal of no paid shows. The Cockettes didn't see the problem with paid admission. This led to the split which continued for years. As someone who was on the 'no paid' side of the issue, I didn't think to add the Cockettes to this site until recently. This was a mistake. The Cockettes were inheritors of the Digger spirit too, if not the religious adherence to the Digger economic vision of Free. Then again, not all the early Diggers even stuck to that rigid ideal themselves (in later interviews, Peter Coyote notably would say that Free was a theatrical prop, not a dogmatic principle.) Nevertheless, Free was a point of contention that separated the Angels of Light and the Cockettes. Perhaps these pages will be an amends for this historical splintering.

The plan for these pages will be to put together a scrap book of historical import for each group. So much has been written and archived and produced about the Cockettes that it would be presumptuous to try and recreate those accounts. But what hasn't been told so well is the impact the Cockettes had on the counterculture at large. That will be the goal of this project. On the other hand, very little has been told about the Angels of Light. Fortunately, there is a vast archive of video footage and ephemera that will help in portraying their genius. One example already completed is the video of the Kaliflower 1972 Intercommunal Carnival at which the Angels performed one of their inimitable shows, Peking On Acid.

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John Waters Comments at the 50th*

John Waters made a surprise appearance at the Cockettes & Angels of Light 50th anniversary event that took place January 4, 2020, at the Victoria Theater in San Francisco. His remarks capture perfectly the moment when the Cockettes burst onto the scene in 1970, and he pinpoints their historical import to the larger gay liberation movement that is a lasting legacy of the Sixties.

[Introduction followed by wild applause]

Thank you very much. Thank you. Oh, my. Fifty years ago—the Cockettes. You know, they maybe were only together for three years. How could that be possible? Three years when we were young seemed like eternity. And three years now seems like it's a second. The Cockettes—like nobody else in show business history. American culture was never the same afterwards.

I moved to San Francisco in 1970. I didn't know anybody. I didn't know who the Cockettes were. I wanted my gutter film, Mondo Trasho, to be shown. I read about the Palace and they were talking about Nocturnal Dream Shows. And I thought, wow. Underground movies and Busby Berkeley musicals, drag shows and the Cockettes. Who in the hell were they? I went to the show but before the show even started, I was so amazed at the audience which was as shocking as the show. Hippie gay guys, finally! It was so great to see them, you know. And drag queens with beards reading Lenin. They thought the revolution really was going to happen. I knew it wasn't but I liked watching. These drag queens didn't want to be Miss America or Bess Myerson. They wanted to be Janice Joplin with a dick. And girl Cockettes. So great. Ruby Keelers on acid. Female female impersonators with full pussy power.

I was in cinema heaven. You know, people think the Cockettes were noncommercial. But when I finally played the Palace, as Judy Garland used to sing, I made some money. And it helped pay back my dad who backed these movies and attracted future pot dealer financial backers. And Sebastian. I really salute you. I really, really do. Because this so-called show businessman behind the Palace shows, if you could call that showbiz, a $2 admission and half the audience sneaking in for free. I did it and it was. And I wouldn't be here today without Sebastian's help when I first got here. He had the Secret Cinema that many people have forgotten which was another showcase, probably completely illegal theater in an old loft that showed crackpot double bills every day for the cinema insane. He's the one who booked Mondo Trasho and Multiple Maniacs. He's the one who paid for Divine to fly out in full drag on the airplane to appear at the Palace. The day the Cockettes all met Divine at the airport in full drag. Can you imagine that today? "Is it Liberace?" the flight attendants are screaming. Imagine today if hundreds of drag queens showed up at the airport. It would be a terrorist alert. They would be locked up in a second.

The Cockettes gave Divine confidence. "24/7" Divine could be Divine. He never went back. Then Mink Stole came and Van Smith. Everybody followed. And we were very different than the Cockettes. The Cockettes were hippies. I thought Divine would scare hippies, really. Divine was hardly a hippie. He wanted to be Liz Taylor and Godzilla in one person. We were yippies and zippies. Divine and I used to dump sugar and meat on another commune's steps as a kind of a comical publicity stunt. But the Cockettes loved us back with their approval anyway. None of us knew it but ‘punk’ was next in line, and we all saw it coming.

We were political and so were the Cockettes. And, they influenced each other. I had made The Diane Linkletter Story about [Art Linkletter’s] daughter. She wasn't on acid when she jumped out of the window. And then Sebastian made Trisha's Wedding with the Cockettes. It premiered the exact same time and day as Nixon's daughter's real wedding. Where's the next group of theater radicals today? Where are the Mockettes? The Angels of Blight? Why aren't they making the pussy-grabbing [..] show?

What a world it was back then. The old Stud on Folsom street. Sweet Pam and Scrumbly and Tahara and [..]. Oh, god! Goldie Glitters. You can't imagine. And Link. I was even scared of him. And then Marshall, the only straight male Cockette. I bet he was busy. And also the outer layer of the Cockette scene. All the men who were crazy and sexy and loved the Cockettes too. Like Grasshopper, my friend that taught me when you shoplift, set little Kleenex fires in the department store. It distracts them. And Tom Tadlock, the handsome man who wanted to hook you up to electrodes and have sex. Oh, and at the center of all this, the beautiful Sylvester, the Lena Horne of the Cockettes.

And let's not forget drugs. "Oh, let's leave out drugs. The Cockettes were more than that," I read recently. You've got to be kidding. Not mentioning the drugs when you talk about Cockettes is like talking about New Year's Eve without liquor. We were all on drugs. And it was fun! So much so that Mink Stole and I celebrated our 50th anniversary of knowing each other by taking LSD again last year. Not those pussy micro doses you all take. This was twelve hours of hallucinations. My Mom says, "Don't tell young people to take drugs." I'm not. I'm telling old people to. If you took LSD back in the old days when you were watching the Cockettes and liked it, do it again. They can't say you're having a senior moment, you're trippin'.

Gore Vidal was wrong when he snarkily quipped after seeing the disastrous New York premier of the Cockettes, "No talent is not enough." But he was wrong, very wrong. No talent is enough if you ignore the talent part and replace this outdated concept with insanity and cannonball-your-ass-first-without-a-safety-net into the whirlpool of theatrical anarchy. That's beyond talent, over the top of nerve and beneath the valley of sexual beauty. The Cockettes have withstood the test of time. Their legend is cemented in America's lunatic history. We all deserve ATD. Cockettes then, Cockettes now, and Cockettes forever. Thank you. [raucous applause] —John Waters

*As of 1/9/2020, this is nearly a complete transcription of John Waters' speech at the Cockettes/Angels of Light 50th Anniversary that took place Jan 4 2020. There are two places where the recording was inaudible (marked thus: [..]). If I subsequently get a better recording to review the transcription and clear up those portions, they will be corrected. Thank you to Scrumbly Koldewyn and Russell Blackwood for their assistance in this transcription. Thanks to John Waters for permission to post his remarks here.
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1. Cockettes and Angels 1971

at the First Polk Gulch Gay-la, May 1971.

 

 

2. Cockettes Snippets  

edited for the 50th anniversary, Jan 4 2020.

 

 

3. Hibiscus and Tahara 

at the First Intl. Erotic Film Festival, Dec 2 1970.

 

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