The Cockettes: Glamour Hippies - Iconic Drag Troupe Returns for a New Show

by Christopher J. Beale

Bay Area Reporter

Tuesday May 24, 2022

(left) The new cast of 'Cockettes: Eternal Emissions' photo: Gooch - (right) (L-R) Pam Tent, Scrumbly Koldewyn, Pristine Condition, Billy Orchid, Reggie, and Timmy in the cart
(left) The new cast of 'Cockettes: Eternal Emissions' photo: Gooch - (right) (L-R) Pam Tent, Scrumbly Koldewyn, Pristine Condition, Billy Orchid, Reggie, and Timmy in the cart  (Source:Clay Gerdes)

Scrumbly Koldewyn is one of the founding members of a hippie drag troupe active in San Francisco. The Cockettes were only around for a few years, beginning in 1969, but left a whole catalog of performance tape, photos, and lore in their wake.

Today, Koldewyn lives in Oakland in a gorgeous bungalow where his living room takes a backseat to his office. It's a little messy, full of papers, pictures, and memories centered around a baby grand piano where Koldewyn writes and plays music effortlessly.

Scrumbly has worked since the '70s as a composer and music director, among other skills. That diverse list of talents is what ultimately led to the nickname Scrumbly, which was given to him in the 1960s.

"I'm a scrumbly," Koldewyn explained in an interview with the Bay Area Reporter. "It means a lot of things, but in British English, it means the lines are blurred." He does a little bit of a lot of things and "a lot of them blend together. Anything that involves music, theater, cabaret, and art."

The Cockettes got their start at "The Nocturnal Dream Show" at the (no longer standing) Palace Theater in North Beach. The Palace had a reputation for playing underground movies.

"This was underground, subversive stuff," said Koldewyn. "And then, after the show, people would shout 'Bring on the dancing boys!'"

(L-R) Noah Haydon, Scrumbly Koldewyn, Birdie Bob Watt photo: Gooch
(L-R) Noah Haydon, Scrumbly Koldewyn, Birdie Bob Watt photo: Gooch  

Those "dancing boys" were actually a gender-diverse group, led by a bearded drag queen named Hibiscus. The Cockettes, as they would become known, would perform outlandish, cabaret-style sets after films, and the audiences ate it up.

"Art drag is what it was." Koldewyn said, "We were making statements. We are neither exclusively male, nor exclusively female. We are none of the above. We are all of the above. We celebrate every combination of freakiness that you can imagine. We love shocking people. We love turning the old concepts on their ear!"

Artistic drag was really the key, he said. "We weren't trying to convince anyone that we were one gender or another. We were just celebrating all of our sexuality.

"To be in fabulous drag, and reveal yourself with a glittered cock," recalled Koldewyn, "or rhinestones meticulously glued to your penis in beautiful patterns. We were definitely not your standard, mainline, old school drag queen."

Koldewyn said that fashion helped make the group appear cool and glamorous, but the celebrities that began to swirl around the group helped too.

"I once saw Iggy Pop at full mast," recalled Koldewyn, "I came home to find Iggy in my bed. He wasn't waiting for me (he was with a young lady), but he looked very inviting and looked me directly in the eye." Koldewyn added with a wink, "(Pop) was a polyamorous person."



The Drugs Like Me
Drugs were always present at Cockettes performances as well, sometimes as inspiration, others as unintentional set dressing, like on Halloween Night 1970. During the premiere of "Night of The Living Dead," a Cockette dressed as the Bride of Frankenstein had an "epileptic fit," said Koldewyn, "because she had taken MDA.

"And there was a whole huge audience. 1,200 plus sitting in the aisles — stoned to the tits on LSD — watching 'Night of The Living Dead.' And people freaked out!"

It certainly didn't help when Goldie Glitters — the aforementioned Bride of Frankenstein — was carried out on a stretcher by EMTs.

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.
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.  (Source: Clay Gerdes)

The partying was part of the fun, on-stage and off. Koldewyn said, "we all wanted to fuck everything and everybody in the whole world, at the same time." He added it was not uncommon for people to have sex and use drugs during Cockettes shows. There were no rules.

Star Searchers
Sylvester, the dance music icon of the '70s and '80s, was a Cockette. Koldewyn said that Sylvester worked harmoniously with the group for a while because they gave Sylvester creative autonomy.

"Well, he was a diva, but when somebody comes out on the dance floor and starts cutting a rug, you give them room!"

Hibiscus eventually left the group in 1971, and the remaining Cockettes tried to move the act to New York City. That did not go well. The writing was on the wall at the opening night, when Angela Lansbury and Andy Warhol were among the first of many to walk out of their premiere performance.



After returning to San Francisco from that experiment, Divine —who rocketed from cult figure to international celebrity, thanks to her appearance in John Waters' film "Pink Flamingos," among others— performed with the Cockettes in 1972. Soon after, the group dissolved.

Koldewyn has kept the Cockettes legacy alive in the decades since by producing Cockettes revivals like the one coming to Oasis in June, and it's something that he still lights up talking about.

"I'm a new vaudevillian," said Birdie Bob Watt, one of Koldewyn's longtime creative partners. Watt describes his act as "a little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down your pants!" A performer, drag queen and director in his own right, Watt is assistant-directing "Cockettes: Eternal Emissions" at San Francisco's Oasis June 2 through 4.

Diogo Zavadzki works a wig. photo: Gooch
Diogo Zavadzki works a wig. photo: Gooch  

Described as a colorful, multimedia musical revue, the new Cockettes show will feel like home to fans of the group.

"I think there's always interest in parody and pushing things too far," Watt said. "But we're living in very cautious times. So 'Eternal Emissions' is, hopefully, bringing back that font of ridiculousness."

Unlike a traditional lip sync drag show, Koldewyn stresses that 'Eternal Emissions' is all live original music. "I don't want people to take for granted that it's all my music."

Each number is selected for the actor, and the performer is given the chance to make it their own. Koldewyn said, "I wanted people to take that song and run with it, rather than try to recreate or imitate any particular Cockette."

A mix of old and new, young and old, gay and straight, and everything in between, The Cockettes are still alive and well in the memory of a generation of San Franciscans, and "Cockettes: Eternal Emissions" will be the perfect event to kick off Pride Month in San Francisco.


'Cockettes: Eternal Emissions' plays Thursday, June 2 through Sunday June 4, 7pm, at Oasis, 298 11th St. $20-$80. www.sfoasis.com

For even more on The Cockettes, The San Francisco Public Library hosts the exhibition 'The Cockettes: Acid Drag, and Sexual Anarchy,' featuring archival photos and more through August 11. 100 Larkin St. www.sfpl.org

Hear Christopher Beale's interview with Scrumbly Koldewyn and Birdie Bob Watt on Out In The Bay: Queer Radio at OutInTheBay.org, and Fridays on 91.7 FM KALW, https://www.kalw.org/

Watch 'The Cockettes' documentary by David Weissman and Bill Weber at www.cockettes.com


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