“We were doing what really gave birth to theater; there wasn’t a structure,” says original Cockette Scrumbly Koldewyn. Photo: Clay Geerdes

 

Embracing and celebrating gender fluidity decades before the term “gender non-binary” was coined, the outrageousness of a small, drug-infused troupe of hippie performers known as the Cockettes changed the face of drag and counter-culture forever.

 

On Saturday January 4 2020 at 8 p.m., Cockettes are Golden celebrates 50 years since the group’s inception. Original members will take over the Victoria Theater stage to celebrate with guest performers, over-the-top make up, glittering hairstyles, quirky costumes and campy surprises.

 

Cockette Scrumbly Koldewyn moved to San Francisco in the mid-sixties. Now, before preparing to take the stage as one of the few remaining troupe members, Scrumbly reminisced with Castro Courier about where it all started and what to expect for the 50th anniversary.

 

“The gay movement had just barely begun and Stonewall [Riots] had just happened, too,” Scrumbly said via telephone in November. “Most of us were familiar with each other already, we all met and went to parties.”

 

It was Hibiscus — “This wonderful person who made you lose all shame just by being who you were”, says Scrumbly — who founded the group. The bearded man in vintage dresses, make-up and costume jewelry attracted a group of like-minded hippies. They all loved show-tunes, dressing up, showing off and dropping acid.

 

When it was suggested that Hibiscus bring some friends and dance on stage for New Year’s Eve, the rest became camp history.

 

The Cockettes were established on December 31, 1969 at the Palace Theater in a haze of sex, drugs, drag, genderbending and glitter.

 

“We were taking back theater,” says Scrumbly. “We were doing what really gave birth to theater. There wasn’t a structure; we broke down all the structure. Theatre is like church. People want it packaged so it looks professional. So we said, ‘OK, there’s some talent here, not a lot, but we want to do what we want to do.’”

 

They took drag and old Hollywood musicals, turned them inside out and upside down, attracting the attention of the American underground culture.

 

Now, with only about 5% of the original Cockettes still living, Scrumbly, 74, just couldn’t let the 50th anniversary go by without celebration.

 

“What would be better than ‘This Is Your Life: Cockettes’? I thought it would be great to have these iconic moments recreated and some of the main Cockettes celebrated in person.”

Clockwise from upper left: Billy Orchid, Divine, Scrumbly Koldewyn, Pristine Condition, Pam Tent, Mink Stole, David Baker, Jr. in Vice Palace, 1972, Palace Theater in SF Photo: Clay Geerd

 

Younger cast members will portray various Cockettes using songs and iconic moments to recreate an original Cockette extravaganza. The surviving members who live close enough to attend will be on stage to watch.

 

Back in 2009, a theater troupe called the Thrillpeddlers run by Russell Blackwood revived a legendary Cockettes show called “Pearls Over Shanghai” to much acclaim and a 22-month run. Playing on the interest already garnered by “The Cockettes” documentary released in 2002, interest in this troupe was reawakened, entertaining a new generation.

 

Over the next decade, the Thrillpeddlers continued recreating Cockette shows under Scrumbly’s watchful eye.

 

The 50th anniversary celebration will probably be the biggest gathering of Cockettes in the past 10 years, says actor Russell Blackwood, who tracked down the original group members after watching the Cockettes documentary over a decade ago.

 

“For a lot of the audience, [the performance] will introduce them to some people that we’ve lost rather than memorializing them to people they knew already,” Russell says. “It will give people a sense of the theater company that it was, and also the communal life that it was for these folks.”

 

Cockettes are Golden celebrates five decades since the group was established on December 31, 1969. Photo: Clay Geerdes

 

Director and choreographer Noah Haydon started doing shows with Russell and the Thrillpeddlers in 2010 during the revival of “Pearls Over Shanghai”. He didn’t know much about them, but soon found out about the founding fathers and mothers of queer and sexual freedom.

 

“I found them to be so incredibly interesting and cool,” says Noah, a Bay Area native. “When I was told that this would be the 50th anniversary year, Scrumbly asked if I would direct and choreograph the show.”

 

Noah says he feels a connection to the original Cockettes and the group of people doing the show revivals. “It feels like a family reunion,” he adds.

 

“It’s more important than ever to embody some of the ideals of the Cockettes,” Noah continues. “They were about freedom of expression and acceptance; they were forefathers of the gender movement.

 

“Honoring them and bringing their message back into the San Francisco spotlight is more important now than it ever has been. These are trying times we live in. This is not an easy time for San Francisco or for our country, and I think we all could use a bit more love and freedom in our lives.”

 

Tickets for Cockettes Are Golden: A 50th Anniversary Celebration are available at https://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/4428310.

 

• • • Also in the December Issue • • •

Venezuelan artist bares all in Castro exhibition

Artist Joset Medina inside his work studio. Photo: Joset Medina

 

 

Artist Joset Medina fell in love with our city upon his first visit in 2014. After fulfilling his dream of officially moving here in 2017, he has not only found a new home for himself, but also for his artwork, which has been on prominent display in San Francisco ever since. Joset Medina is currently part of a group exhibition at the Castro’s own Art Attack (2358 Market Street), entitled Rock/Paper/Scissors.

 

Wendy: You first visited San Francisco in 2014, and immediately decided that you would make it your home one day. Tell me about that first visit, and about why you were so certain that you wanted to live here.

 

Joset: When I came here for the first time, I was living in Panama, and I was working for a big, multinational architectural company, where I was working as a project manager. I was in Irvine, California, for work, because that’s where their headquarters is located. I came to San Francisco to visit, because San Francisco is very iconic, and I always wanted to come here. When I came here for the first time I really liked the city; I felt like I wanted to be here more [because of] the nature, the architecture, and the diversity of the city. When I came to the Castro it was very different, because back in Panama, everything is very conservative. Even in my hometown in Venezuela, people are very conservative. I [felt] like I was able to be myself without worrying, because back in the day, I wasn’t out of the closet with my family and friends. Coming to the Castro and seeing all of this was really good for me; I wanted to live in a place where I was able to be open and more myself.

 

Wendy: Now you live here, in the Castro, with your husband Robert, where you also have a home gallery, and where quite a lot of your art is on display. You are also part of a group show at Art Attack through the end of this year.

 

Joset: I have a few pieces there. This is not the first show that I’ve participated in in San Francisco, but this is the first gallery, where I have an agreement with them. It’s a very nice place; they’re very friendly, and it’s also convenient because I am just a block away from them. They just sent me an email yesterday; they have new plans for next year, and they want to include me. I have to wait to hear about their plans. [After our interview, it was confirmed that Joset Medina will indeed contribute to Art Attack’s Super Fine Art Fair. The opening reception is on Thursday, February 27th].

 

Wendy: Not long ago you were part of a group exhibition in San Francisco, in the office of Senator Scott Weiner, called Queer Eyes, which was curated by Joseph Abbati.

 

Joset: That was a show I did for Pride. Also, a year ago, I did a solo show at the International Art Museum of America, on Market Street. The San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus were singing at my art opening [there]. That was really nice.

 

Wendy: You have your artwork here in SF, but you also work in interior design.

 

Joset: After I quit my job in Panama I came to SF In November 2014 and stayed here in for six months. Here in SF I met an interior designer (www.alisonleggedesign.com) and she sponsored my visa. When I got my O1 visa approved [for] extraordinary abilities in the arts and design, I moved back to San Francisco in 2017. Since then I started working for Alison Legge Design, as an interior designer.

Art by Joset Medina Photo courtesy of the artist

 

Wendy: You did live in Spain for a short time too, prior to your move to San Francisco.

 

Joset: I was in Spain for a year, because when I came to San Francisco for six months [in 2014], my visa expired, and I had to go back to Panama. I started my visa process with interior design, and it took almost three years. I went to Spain because I have two sisters in Spain, and my niece. I did an exhibition in Spain, and also was invited to do an exhibition in Italy. I get a lot of inspiration from my trips and the places I live. [On my website] you will see the drawings and paintings I did after my trips to Vietnam, and Thailand, and Cambodia. Also, in the section called Public Collections, you can see [artwork that I did] in Spain. The piece was a gift I gave to the city where my sister lived, Talavera de la Reina. That painting was inspired by the ceramic art; that city is very well known for its ceramics, and they use specific colors, like blue and yellow, so I included all of those elements in that painting.

 

Wendy: A common theme in your artwork is women, because you grew up in a family of mostly women, your mom, your grandmother, your cousins, and your sisters.

 

Joset: Yes, I grew up surrounded by women. When I was a kid I used to make portraits of them; they were my models. My grandmother just passed away, a month ago; I was very connected to her. [She and] my mom have a garden; they like to have flowers, and I feel that connection [while] creating, using nature in my artwork, in my pieces.

 

Wendy: Yes, nature and women are very much recurring themes within your work, along with the overall themes of transformation and evolution.

 

Joset: On my website you can see that I haven’t painted a lot of male characters, but [there is] a self-portrait, and also I did a painting where Robert and I are together. If you click on artwork, the section called Ripping Layers, you can see the painting of us.

 

Wendy: Also on your website’s artwork page, there’s a group of paintings entitled Twisted Tea Trees. You view the trees as symbols of constant growth and flexibility, and were inspired by those that grow in Golden Gate Park. A couple of those pieces have tea trees that seem to take on male shapes, like those in Never Give Up, and Unless We Are Together.

 

Joset: Unless We Are Together was commissioned artwork. I did this piece for a client here in San Francisco. He asked me to represent a couple, because he told me he wanted to fall in love and be in a relationship.

 

Wendy: You also have many pieces within your Twisted Tea Trees section that embody female shapes, like the beautiful Family Tree.

 

Joset: That painting represented my mom, my grandmother, and three of my sisters, [who were] really close to me. Also, you can see that there are two hands holding the base of the roots; I wanted to include or represent my dad. Even though I didn’t grow up with him, he supported me with my education, and he was always supportive of me being an artist. He encouraged me to keep painting and drawing.

 

Wendy: Another great piece is Alice in the Rainbow Garden, which can be found in the section titled An Emotional Journey. There’s a woman in the trees, which are dripping rainbow colors.

 

Joset: That one was the first time I was in San Francisco. I love the story about Alice [Alice in Wonderland], and I was representing myself like I was in this surreal experience, in San Francisco.

 

Wendy: There’s a super fun one in Private Collections called Rumors Fade Away With the Flow. Right now, with social media, it seems very relevant, and the painting is just so lighthearted and colorful.

 

Joset: That one is in Panama; someone bought the painting a while ago. [It’s] about being confident, because people always talk, but rumors fade away in the end. What we believe about ourselves is the most important.

 

Wendy: What are your plans and hopes for the future and for the year ahead?

 

Joset: A few months ago I did a mural for a powder room in a house in Tahoe, in Martis Camp. I am really interested in [doing more of] this, so I’m looking forward to having more projects like that. I want to keep merging my artwork with my interior design projects. I want to keep creating artwork, and hopefully I will have a solo exhibition next year.

• • • December 2019 Issue • • •

Cockettes, legendary forefathers of gender movement, turn 50

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