The Cockettes Conquer New York
Clip Job: an excerpt every day from the Voice archives.
November 25, 1971, Vol. XVI, No. 47
History of a hype: Worm in Big Apple
By Maureen Orth
New York is dead, everyone complained. The last thing to hit town was "Jesus Christ Superstar," and it was so unbelievably crass. The major art openings were over, and the holiday parties hadn't yet begun. Dull dull dull. But didn't Rex and Truman rave about some divine hippie drag queens from San Francisco who actually wear glitter on their "private parts" as well as their eyelids? Right. "The Rockettes like rocks, and the Cockettes like -- " How utterly outrageous!
And weren't they opening down in the slummy crummy East Village along with Sylvester, a black rock queen who sings falsetto? How off off can you get? And isn't this the Year of the Gay? -- it's all right for men to dig other men in public. Everyone understands now. And hasn't the underground press been covering the Cockettes favorably for over a year, even though the regular San Francisco press accepts their ads but doesn't review them? Isn't it time for something different? Let's discover the Cockettes!
Not since Andy and Edie had New York made a group of society's freaks its very own darlings in one short week -- seven days to scale the highest media peaks, only to fall opening night with a great dull thud. How come? One reason is that the media-heavy audience came opening night expecting to see some sort of new art form and got comatized instead; but more importantly, the Cockettes were victims of the Big Hype -- that peculiar New York phenomenon whereby people and things are declared hot, cool, in, out, under, and over. The poor little gold differs of '71 from San Francisco made a big mistake -- they believed it.
Reality is fantasy and fantasy is reality to the Cockettes. Their life style is carefully contrived to blur if not actually diminish the distinction between the two. So when the Big Apple gave them the Hype they were ready for it. "Darling, we're the toasts of the town, they love us to death!" said Big Daryl, a Cockette leader. Never mind the hassles with the producers, the el cheapo production, the lack of a sound system to rehearse with, the cockroaches and the broken plumbing in the hotel, or even the parties the nights before that made rehearsing almost impossible, because the Tinsel Tarted Broadway babies were having their pert little behinds kissed bought up and downtown and Ziegfield wasn't around to ask if they could sing or dance. Nobody did. "I'm Goldie Glitters, and I go to all these ritzy penthouses every night, and these photographers keep wanting to take my picture."
Performance for the Cockettes is mostly an excuse to live a freaky life style. Why be a hairdresser or work in a third-hand store if you can be a Cockette and spend all day getting dressed up like your favorite movie star? The drag's the thing -- the Tinsel Tarts spend a lot more time on themselves than they do on the shows. In San Francisco the Cockettes are pure hippie-nostalgia street theatre with rinky tink piano, clever lyrics, and tons of glitter thrown in for good measure -- gay hippies plus women who love to show off for their friends. There are far too many freaks in San Francisco for them to be considered avant garde, political, or revolutionary. It's a $2.50 midnight show at a funky old Chinese movie house where you can watch Betty Boop festivals and dig the spectacle. Stoned at 2 in the morning, you don't care if it moves. The indulgent audience is half the show, and knows it.
But the Big Apple declared the Cockettes media myths, the "fashion and faggot aristocracy" came out en masse to view their drag for inspiration, the ticket price shot up to $6.50, and Time, Life, Women's Wear Daily, etc., all showed up to review them. The opening night's theme song should have been "Please baby," pant pant, "give us some new freaks to love"...
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]