Long before her majesty RuPaul, decades before Lady Bunny, and leaps and bounds before Divine, was a psychedelic orgy of queens from San Francisco called The Cockettes. This family of eccentric, gender-bending, self-proclaimed freaks--comprised of both men and women, gays and straights, and even a baby boy--sprouted from the sexually liberated, acid-tripping k-hole in time we call the 70s.
Founded by the flamboyant and mystical Hibiscus, The Cockettes were an army of 13 who sang and danced to their own versions of showtunes at North Beach’s Palace Theatre. Their seductive energy and elaborate, sequin-dripping set designs soon caught the attention of the city--and then the nation. Audience members were so captivated by Cockette shows that it became customary to crash the 4th wall and join the mayhem on stage. The number of Cockettes literally grew with each production, their commune on Haight Street practically bursting at the seams.
Enjoying a feverish degree of critical acclaim, The Cockettes (who, at this point, numbered over sixty people!) were flown to New York to perform. This hotly anticipated event turned out to be a true who’s-who of NYC–from Warhol to Capote to Lennon, some of the most celebrated talents of the time were eagerly in attendance. Unfortunately, given an unusually large stage for their smaller-equipped production, The Cockettes underwhelmed the audience with what seemed to be a haphazard, inconsequential performance. As a result of this New York City flop, the rise of The Cockettes’ career found itself at a halt, and soon after, the troupe disbanded. Some members went on to join different communes; others followed their own paths with film, music, and theater.
One of the original and most successful Cockettes, Ms. Rumi Missabu, toured New York last year to screen a few of his old shorts, as well as the Cockettes cult feature, Elevator Girls in Bondage
(1972). You can bet I jumped at the chance to claim a seat at the show, and when it wrapped, I purchased a copy and timidly asked Rumi to sign it. He was sweet and his energy was bright and open--so much so that I mustered up the courage to ask him for an interview! “Do you have an email by chance?” I asked. To which he responded, “I don’t do well with the Internet; I’d much prefer a coffee shop.” With eyes wide, I nodded my head like a shocked lap dog. Rumi then brought me to his dressing room, where he wrote down his contact information and gave me a signed poster of his smash-hit live show, Pearls Over Shanghai
We set up a time to chat at the beautiful Bed-Stuy house where he was staying. In its lush garden with a cigarette in his mouth, Rumi recalled his heyday as I frantically took notes. We talked about his current projects, his past lovers, rummaged through photographs, old zines, and then played dress-up for a mini photoshoot.
I recently caught up with the prolific Rumi Missabu, who is still performing, touring, and keeping his hands deep into film. Check out some photos from our meeting last year, and read on to learn more about Rumi and his new work!
Christelle de Castro: Describe a Cockette show in 3 words.
Rumi Missabu: "Hippie Drag Queens"
CDC: Who were the original members of the Cockettes?
RM: The dirty "dozen" consisted of 9 gay men, 4 women, and an infant. There was Hibiscus (our founder and creator), Rumi Missabu, Scrumbly, Kreemah Ritz, Goldie Glitters, Johnny, Gary Cherry, Ralph Sauer, Roland Perlin, Fayette Hauser, Harlo, Marilyn Brody, Dusty Dawn, and her infant son, Ocean Michael Moon. Marilyn, Roland and Ralph were only in the very first show and never performed with us again. Marilyn, a friend of Harlo’s, came from The Groupies. Roland hung himself masturbating after the first show. Ralph quit to join the Angels of Light, the second group Hibiscus founded. We were a bunch of freaks clung together like magnets. Hibiscus’ charisma brought us together.
CDC: How rehearsed were your shows?
RM: We never rehearsed, but improvisational chaos was our forte!
CDC: The Cockettes didn’t live by a strict gender identity—is this true for you?
RM: I don’t believe in labels. When I die, I want “He was some kind of woman” engraved on my tombstone.
CDC: Anyone could be a Cockette if they broke the 4th wall and jumped onto the stage. Did you find this problematic?
RM: Drugs made me become really particular and resent everyone else who later joined, like Divine and Sylvester, because they were identified as mincers. Now, I celebrate all 168.
CDC: Roughly how many people strong were The Cockettes when you flew to New York to perform?
RM: I refused to go to New York--I knew it would be a big debacle. I later went to New York on my own, to start my own career.
CDC: Do you always feel like Rumi or do you only take on that role when performing?
RM: I am Rumi, she is me. I am not performing but being.
CDC: Last year your show, Pearls Over Shanghai, received great critical acclaim and ran much longer than expected! Can you tell us a little bit about the show?
RM: Pearls Over Shanghai
is a musical by Link Martin and Richard “Scrumbly” Koldewyn. It's a comic mock-operetta about white slavery and miscegenation, set in the colorful world of 1937 Shanghai, China. Link Martin parts the bamboo curtain, his politics swept aside by his love for the intriguing Orient. His exotic “old sin town” is filled with singing sailors, witty whores, foolish immortals, handmaidens, and henchmen, all taking their places in streets teeming with a mix of foreign aristocrats, opium addicts, and gangland slave-trade czars.
Actually, on the eve of the one-year anniversary of Pearls Over Shanghai
's debut, Senator Mark Leno honored Scrumbly and myself with a proclamation for our contribution to the arts. And The Cockettes' longest-running musical is still packin' 'em in at the Hypnodrome in SF!
CDC: Wow, it’s still running?
RM: Yes it is--it has been extended for an open-ended run. Luckily, I have three understudies that allow me to focus on film and touring.
CDC: Are you currently involved with any other films you'd like to mention?
RM: Glitter Emergency
: Part dance, part drag, part silent movie with music set to Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto. I portray a depraved evil stepsister. The Glitter Emergency
has its world premiere at the SupperClub in San Francisco on May 27th. Uncle Bob
: directed by Robert Oppel and premiering this Saturday at Frameline! It's about the life and death of the director's uncle, a performance artist who streaked at the 1974 Oscars and was murdered in his SOMA arts gallery. Children of the Cockettes
: a work in progress by Belgian Filmmaker Ben Wa about The Cockettes legend.
CDC: Any new live acts in the making?
RM: Yes, I will be touring New York this October with some amazing artists I've been collaborating with--namely Jean Franco
and French song-and-dance sensation François Chaignaud
CDC: I’ll be sure to catch you in October then! And hey, I'm visiting California soon. What’s your favorite treat with coffee? I’ll bring it by.
CDC: Artist to artist, any advice for me and other young creatives?
RM: Poof, you’re a Cockette!