The Cockettes

Explore the subversive world of midnight films, queer theater, and psychedelic San Francisco.
Cockettes member, Johnny, 1971. Photo by Clay Geerdes.
Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library

On New Year’s Eve 1969, the Cockettes made their glittering debut at the Nocturnal Dream Shows, a late-night movie showcase at the Pagoda Palace Theater in North Beach. Over the next two and a half years, the hippie drag troupe became synonymous with San Francisco counterculture, challenging gender norms and paving the way for the growing gay liberation movement.

Poster for "Finchley Boys" and Sylvester, 1971. Design by Todd Trexler.
Poster for "Finchley Boys" and Sylvester, 1971. Design by Todd Trexler.
Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library

Overview

The Cockettes and San Francisco counterculture collection contains over 300 posters, flyers, photographs, ephemera, and other materials documenting the Cockettes and other artists associated with the Nocturnal Dream Shows, including Steven Arnold, Divine, Hibiscus, Sylvester, and Todd Trexler. In some cases, the collection documents their wider careers by highlighting the work leading up to, and beyond, the events at the Palace Theater.

The Cockettes

The Cockettes were a multiracial drag ensemble composed of members of various and fluid genders and sexual orientations. Their first impromptu performance gave way to campy, drug-fueled midnight musicals typified by outrageous costumes and sexual anarchy (“genderfuck”), with titles like Hell’s Harlots, Pearls over Shanghai, and Tinsel Tarts in a Hot Coma. Today, they are credited with influencing the glitter rock era and raising the profile of drag performance outside the gay community.

Nocturnal Dream Shows

Steven Arnold started the Midnight Films series in April 1969. The program quickly evolved into the Nocturnal Dream Shows, a heady mix of experimental and vintage films and live shows, featuring monthly performances by the Cockettes. 

The collection includes a complete run of 30 Midnight Films posters designed by Arnold and graphic artist Todd Trexler. Trexler’s illustrations came to define the Cockettes’ decadent visual style as well as an iconic era of gay pop culture. He also created posters for early gigs by Cockettes breakout star Sylvester and for the West Coast debut of drag icon Divine, which are part of the collection.

Also included in the collection are dozens of notices with information about each film that were posted in the Palace Theater lobby before screenings. There are also posters for the Matrix nightclub, The Shed, and the Secret Cinema film series.

Arnold’s career as a filmmaker is documented by promotional material for the award-winning film Luminous Procuress (1971) featuring the Cockettes.

Art is revolution or it’s nothing. —Steven Arnold
 
Flyer for Sylvester and his Hot Band, 1971.
Flyer for Sylvester and his Hot Band, 1971.
Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library

Sylvester

Singer-songwriter Sylvester first performed with the Cockettes in Radio Rodeo, a benefit for the Gay People’s Defense Fund. By 1971 he was appearing as a solo artist around San Francisco. Sylvester later became known as the “Queen of Disco” after a string of hit singles such as “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real),” "Do Ya Wanna Funk," and "Someone Like You."

The collection contains posters and handbills for concerts by Sylvester (and Sylvester and his Hot Band). It also includes photographs of Sylvester and newspaper coverage of his death from AIDS in 1988.

Divine

Divine first took the stage at the Palace Theater during the San Francisco premiere of John Waters’ Mondo Trasho (1969). It was the beginning of a creative working relationship with the Cockettes that culminated in now legendary performances in Divine Saves the World, Journey to the Center of Uranus, and The Heartbreak of Psoriasis. Posters for these shows and other performances by Divine are well represented in the collection.

Angels of Light

Even before the Cockettes disbanded in 1972, a splinter group led by Cockettes founder Hibiscus (George Edgerly Harris III) formed the Angels of Light Free Theater Collective and carried on his free art ideals.

Many flyers for the Angels of Light were printed at Kaliflower commune’s Free Print Shop and appeared in their weekly newsletter of the same name. In addition to the flyers in the collection, the Ludlow-Santo Domingo Library holds an almost complete run of Kaliflower from 1969 to 1972.

Accessing These Materials

All material is available for use in Houghton Library’s reading room.