In writing about the Cockettes, it has become something of a clichéd trope to quote John Waters. Having famously once described the iconic gender-bending performance troupe as a bunch of “hippie acid freak drag queens,” the Pope of Trash seemingly had applied a nice summary to something that had been previously hard to define.
However, as with most succinct overviews, Waters’ comment merely scratches the surface of a larger history. From their very inception, The Cockettes were poised at the precipice of a social and sexual revolution.
Founded in the late 1960s, the group grew to prominence in San Francisco (and later worldwide) for their avant-garde, open approach to art and sexuality. As their popularity grew, so too did their ranks. Waters alumni Divine and Mink Stole famously joined The Cockettes for performances, as did disco icon Sylvester. The group was seen and praised by peers as diverse as Andy Warhol and John Lennon, and through their inspired style, changed the face of performance art and drag forever.
In 2002, filmmakers David Weissman and Bill Weber encapsulated much of The Cockettes’ history in their documentary of the same name. Through candid interviews and archival footage, the film pulled back the layers of an era of social/sexual reform, and perfectly placed The Cockettes in the center of it all.
Because Weissman and Weber’s documentary is such a fully realized celebration of The Cockettes and their evolving history, we here at Peaches Christ HQ think it would be madness to attempt to discuss the group as a whole. If you want to know about this iconic troupe en masse, do yourself a favor and rent the film.
Rather than discuss the group as a whole, this installment of the Drag Dossier instead chooses to turn its lens on the gender-bending drag deity who started it all: Hibiscus.
Born George Harris in 1949, Hibiscus came from a theatrical family, cultivating his stage career from an early age. Performing in Florida, and later New York City, the pre-Hibiscus Harris began garnering roles in commercials and off-Broadway productions, using the theater to slowly establish the voice he would one day unleash on the sexual revolution.
Prior to his migration to the Bay Area, Harris was famously captured in photograph placing flowers in the gun barrels of military personnel during an anti-war protest. The image became symbolic of the hippie movement, and served as the first of many times Hibiscus would publically use beauty to combat the wicked ways of society.
In the mid-to-late 1960s, Harris moved to San Francisco, and the Hibiscus persona became fully realized.
Initially taking to the streets of San Francisco, Hibiscus would perform for passersby, inviting other street performers and unique individuals to join his act. As he and other members of the “theater of the streets” began to join forces, The Cockettes were born.
From this point, a revolution was begun and history was soon to be made.
However, rather than passively recap the events myself; I wanted to give you, my dear children of the popcorn, a chance to hear the story of Hibiscus’s amazing legacy from people who were there.
Although The Cockettes contribution and impact to LGBT history was significant, their time together was also brief, tumultuous, and filled with its share of strife. As the group grew larger in size, their goals shifted, eventually alienating the free-spirited Hibiscus from the very thing he created.
Disappointed and dejected, Hibiscus left The Cockettes to form the Angels of Light, another performance troupe devoted to beauty and art, before returning to New York City full time.
In 1982, Hibiscus succumbed to the AIDS virus, one of the first victims in the pandemic that was to come, and the very first AIDS-related death to be reported by the New York Post. From those days on the San Francisco streets to his death in New York, Hibiscus lived a legendary life full of glamour, beauty, and love.
As such, I tracked down two individuals who were there with Hibiscus during the various stages of his life and career to get a firsthand account of the icon and his impact.
When Hibiscus began to form the Cockettes in the streets of San Francisco, his fellow group member and drag icon Rumi Missabu was there.
“We were lovers, roommates, worked together,” Rumi tells me, “we had quite a history together, and have quite a history still.”
An invaluable resource in putting together this article, Rumi shared wonderful photos and stories of Hibiscus that helped give me an idea of the world The Cockettes inhabited, and the sexual maelstrom in which they lived.
Alternatively, Italian horror icon Geretta Geretta knew Hibiscus in the days following his departure from The Cockettes in New York. Geretta, who became a horror icon for her roles in films like Lamberto Bava’s Demons and Lucio Fulci’s Murder Rock, had an early start performing with Hibiscus on the Warhol-inspired stages of the Big Apple.
Sitting down with Rumi and Geretta, I was able to establish a bigger picture of this avant-garde god/goddess who changed the face of LGBT performance forever. Larger than life, yet remarkably human, together they helped me see the true glory of Hibiscus.
Rumi, being rooted in The Cockettes from their inception, you got to see a lot of history unfold from a front row seat. I know The Cockettes essentially began in the streets of San Francisco, but do you remember how you first came together? How did you meet Hibiscus?
Rumi: I sometimes try and remember where we first met, and the only thing I can come up with is on the street. That’s kind of how we all met. We would all just see each other on the street in the late 60s, and he would just be saying, “Do you want to be in a show?” He just had that spirit about him that no one else did…he had charisma. The shows sometimes just consisted of us walking down the sidewalk. –laughs- We started our own guerilla street theater, and then eventually brought it to the Palace Theater.
We came together like magnets. We came from all different walks of life, but we were drawn together. There were a couple places we all would hang out. There was a bar on upper Grant Street in San Francisco, a gay bar, which had no windows. You couldn’t see in, you couldn’t see out…that’s just how it was back then.
What was your general sense of Hibiscus as a performance artist?
Rumi: He had a very strong off-off-Broadway background. He had performed at La Mama. Before he met us, he lived in this very strict commune run by a near cult leader, Irving Rosenthal. Everything in this commune was free, it had to be free. So, rooted in that, Hibiscus held the belief from early on that our performances would be free, and we wouldn’t charge for shows. He fought our management tooth and nail to not charge two dollars a head to get into the theater. However, they had to, because there were certain overhead costs involved in putting on a performance.
So, every time we performed, Hibiscus would conspire to liberate the theater. He would throw open the side stage door, and let many people in for free. It was always a bone of contention with management.
When we first started discussing Hibiscus, you sent me pictures of his scrapbook. What can you tell me about that?
Rumi: Hibiscus would steal books from the library, and he’d rip them up…and put the pictures and things in his scrapbook. He’d put glitter and decorate them. He was basically like a shaman, because a lot of the early ideas for our shows were based on the images he created in that book. It would start with a photograph that he’d show to all of us.
Tell me a bit about The Cockettes’ migration from the streets to the Palace Theatre. It’s my understanding that when you moved to that venue the group began to grow exponentially.
Rumi: Originally, we were a commune of twelve gay men and women, but it was so easy to become a Cockette. All you had to do was show up in drag and jump on stage. From there, you’d be in the next show, and the show after that…there was no wall. People brought their boyfriends, friends, lovers. By two months into our run, when we did our first Halloween show in 1970, Hibiscus and I were on our way out, because there were so many people in the production.
It hit a point where Hibiscus lost control. We would do a new show every month, and basically Hibiscus would come up with the idea, and we would run with it. He would say, “Okay, we’re doing a fairy tale extravaganza, and I want all the of the fairy tale characters to come together on LSD.” And we’d say, “Okay! I’ll be the Faerie Godmother, you be this, you be that…” It’s just what we did. But, as more and more people came on board, we’d get people who really thought they were in a Broadway show or something, and they would start to take over.
It got too serious for us, and it lost something. In fact, they got so serious about it, they created a board of directors within the Cockettes. Hibiscus was so anti-board, it just wasn’t him.
I wasn’t allowed to tell this story in the documentary, because David Weissman (the film’s director) didn’t want to upset Hibsicus’s mother. But, I know his mother, and I know she knows this story, so I’m going to share it with you now: Hibiscus had a fondness for making homemade bread. During those board meetings, he and I would get frustrated and go into the kitchen and make bread. Unbeknownst to the management and people in the meeting, as the bread was baking in the ovens, Hibsicus would braise it with his own semen. Then he’d serve it to them after.
Slowly, but surely he became worthless to the new direction the group was taking, and after awhile he’d come to rehearsal and all he was capable of doing was giving blow jobs. He was kicked down the stairs, and booted out. When he begged to come back, they told him no. So, out of solidarity for him, I also quit the group. They went to New York in 1971, and neither Hibiscus and I went with them. We refused to go. They were bringing two plays we had done into the ground, which were proven successes in San Francisco, to New York. Since we were famous for mounting something new every month, I thought, “Why not create something new?” But, they opened with our old material…and it was a debacle. People fled. It was so hyped up. Also, they had put up posters of Hibiscus there at the theater in New York, despite the fact he wasn’t in the show…and his mom went to the theater and ripped them down.
They actually hired a fake Hibiscus for the production, and two fake versions of me! It was a Cockette named Wally, he took on Hibiscus’s whole persona.
Again, we didn’t realize how political we were at the time. We didn’t understand the ramifications. We were just out to have a party, and that was Hibiscus’s attitude. I always like to say that the content of our shows couldn’t have lived in an established world of theater because we were sexual goof-offs. And I believe that.
But, it was so celebrated and cutting edge. John Waters said it was like going to a high school reunion at a mental institution.
As the Cockettes made a move to a more commercial status, when you and Hibiscus left, was this when the Angels of Light were formed?
Rumi: It was! Hibiscus started the Angels of Light when the Cockettes booted him out. At first, it was a free theater in celebration of essence and beauty, and wasn’t a Broadway showtunes kind of thing.
When Hibiscus formed the Angels of Light, and subsequently went to New York, what were his feelings in the aftermath? Did he maintain a positive feeling for the Cockettes?
Rumi: When he was booted out, he was done with it. When he went to New York, he started a second contingent of the Angels family. I left San Francisco in late 71 or 72, and I went and worked with a group called The Whiz Kids, which was kind of an off-shoot of the Cockettes. I was living in Montreal, Canada…and the whole time I was just waiting for Hibiscus to call and say, “Come to New York!” Ultimately, I did and I worked with Hibiscus, his family, and the Angels of Light in New York. I only did one production with them before going on to perform in Europe.
I always admired him, because the Cockettes weren’t about doing runs of shows, night after night. We would do something once, twice and then putting it away to do something else. But, we did this Angels of Light show in New York in 1972 called “The Enchanted Miracle.” The show was based on this comet that was going to pass over the Earth, which was supposed to be visible to the naked eye, but fizzled out and never did. Hibiscus wanted to do a run of two free shows a night based around this event, for two months. Completely free to the public. He would pick up people off the street and put them in the show. It was incredible how it all came together, and it’s an experience of which I’m really proud. It was magic.
Being free to the people of New York was a really a plus, because everyone came. All my idols- Warhol, Alejandro Jodoworsky-they all came to the show. The theater was filled to capacity every night. It was wonderful.
That brings us to the New York years. Geretta, you worked with Hibiscus in the Theater of the New City’s production of Tinsel Town Tirade. Can you tell me a little bit about the production? I know the show was populated with fringe performers and gender outlaws, what was the climate of the performance scene during that era, and how did Hibiscus figure into it all?
Geretta: Hibiscus wrote the play, with collaboration from Penny Arcade [Warhol superstar & punk icon-MV]. A lot of it was based on real people from The Factory. Holly Woodlawn was in the show too, and she also contributed a lot of her own dialogue, but the play was obviously meant to be scripted and not an improv piece. So a lot of that came from Hibiscus. He and his sisters of “Hibiscus and The Screaming Violets” also had several musical numbers, along with some of the other cast members. However, I can’t sing, so I was out of those!
You mention “gender outlaws,” but if I’m correct, the only person other than Hibiscus who could qualify as one of those in our show was Holly. The rest of us were young, run of the mill, primarily straight thespians doing our first play in New York. There were some boys liking boys, and boys being girls, but that wasn’t the whole focus of the show. I say this because we were “legit” theatre and proud of it. At the time there was a lot of crap being called “theatre” darling, but we actually were, if you get my drift.
Was Tinsel Town Tirade the first time you had met Hibiscus? If not, how did you first become acquainted?
Geretta: I met him on the play. When it was first cast, it had a different name, but he couldn’t get clearance for it, so he finally called it Tinsel Town Tirade. I used to audition for just about everything they did at The Theater of the New City, and this was just one of the shows listed on the casting board. I showed up and I was cast as “Jayne Champagne.” Coincidentally, it always pissed me off, because people thought I was a boy playing a girl pretending to be Jayne Mansfield, when in fact, I was a black girl pretending to be a white Jayne Mansfield. See the difference? That’s talent. –laughs-
You told me that you once tried to convince Hibiscus to have sex with you? How did that work out?
Geretta: For some reason that I no longer remember, we (he, another guy from the show, and I) had all gone out and spent the night at a guy’s flat on 9th Avenue. This was way before that side of New York had any style. It was just cheap. I think Bruce Willis was still a bartender on 8th Avenue at the time.
Anyway, we never did it. He smiled, kind of smirked, and said “I just like to watch.” I think he and the other fellow would have been more suited to each other, anyway. I often think how my life would have been different after any sex act between us. He was pretty full blown by then, but none of us knew that at the time. I do, however, think he was listening though while the other guy and I did it. Oh, to be 19 again! –laughs-
Hibiscus was at the forefront of the AIDS-crisis, being one of the first reported on individuals to succumb. Do you remember what your reaction was? Can you comment on his passing and the greater crisis to come?
Geretta: Well, on the ground floor, you don’t know a “crisis is coming”. I moved out of the States around 1980, so the true horror of it all…friends dropping like flies… I missed. I wish I had been there. I wish could have done more. We lost an entire generation; they were completely gone, like after a war. We don’t have those people to add to the general growth of the arts, nation, science, everything. You don’t have their offspring. It’s unimaginable. I wonder what the world would have been like without the epidemic. But, that’s like wondering what the world would have been like 200 years ago without plague, famine, or war. A better place, surely…but not possible. I don’t know. Maybe it’s all a Matrix and somebody fucked up, pushed the wrong button and the whole system got a virus and we have to keep redoing all this until we get it right. It’s spooky and scary. But, let’s hope that one day it is a disease that will be cured, like many that were of epidemic proportions in the distant past. Hopefully it will no longer exist in the very near future.
How I found out about Hibiscus though, was a friend of mine sent me the New York Times article in Paris announcing Hibiscus had died from an unknown disease. I mean, this was when there really was no info at all yet.
A couple of years ago I ran into Penny Arcade and we just shook our heads. We said to each other, “He was like the first case publicized, right?”
Final question for you both: What would you want people to know about Hibiscus?
Geretta: He was just amazing! He was cute, funny, talented, and had a wicked sense of humor. He was the nicest person ever. Off-stage, he was more George than Hibiscus, if that makes sense. In his way, he was like Fred from The B-52s mixed with David Lynch, he had this twisted San Fran artistic esthetic. If you add sequins to that, plus a strong sense of family, that was him. Also, boy, did he have an eye for talent.
Rumi: I would want people to know how important he was and how revolutionary he was, not just in regard to the sexual revolution, but in theater. His work was groundbreaking and new. It’s incredible how important his work became. We didn’t know that at the time, of course, but the legacy this has created has been amazing. I still never know what’s around the corner because of the opportunities that we created all that time ago. It’s just amazing, and I want to make sure that Hibiscus is recognized as a free spirit in gay liberation.
Assorted photos of Hibiscus and the Cockettes from the collections and photography of Joshua Friewald (1971, Earth Magazine), Scott Runyon (for Steve Arnold’s 1970 film ‘Luminous Procuress’), and David Wise.
Other assorted photographs, including original images of Hibiscus’s scrapbook (property of Ann Harris), provided by Rumi Missabu.