The Angels of Light and The Cockettes
revolutionary genderbending guerrilla theatre
Index, this page
In the winter of 1969 appeared a new force forged from
the communal spirit of the Diggers. On New Years Eve 1969, a group of hippie
communal friends, who represented a mix of gender and sexual persuasions,
dressed up in the costume room at the Sutter Street Commune (the publishers of
Kaliflower) and made their way to the Palace
Theater in San Francisco's famed North Beach neighborhood. There, they put on an
impromptu performance that would set the scene for a new direction in the
underground mashup that was taking place. Men with beards dressed in feminine
attire, women dressed as male impersonators, all genders mixed together in one
"whirlpool of theatrical anarchy" (as John
Waters would describe the scene). These pages will attempt to add to the
history of the two groups that grew out of that moment, the Cockettes and the
Angels of Light communal theater troupes.
As these two groups' histories will show, there was a split in ideology
between the Cockettes and the Angels of Light. The Angels (the shortened term
that was often used) followed the Kaliflower/Digger ideal of no paid shows. The
Cockettes didn't see the problem with paid admission. This led to the split
which continued for years. As someone who was on the 'no paid' side of the
issue, I didn't think to add the Cockettes to this site until recently. This was
a mistake. The Cockettes were inheritors of the Digger spirit too, if not the
religious adherence to the Digger economic vision of Free. Then again, not all
the early Diggers even stuck to that rigid ideal themselves (in later
interviews, Peter Coyote notably would say that Free was a theatrical prop, not
a dogmatic principle.) Nevertheless, Free was a point of contention that
separated the Angels of Light and the Cockettes. Perhaps these pages will be an
amends for this historical splintering.
The plan for these pages will be to put together a scrap book of historical
import for each group. So much has been written and archived and produced about
the Cockettes that it would be presumptuous to try and recreate those accounts.
But what hasn't been told so well is the impact the Cockettes had on the
counterculture at large. That will be the goal of this project. On the other
hand, very little has been told about the Angels of Light. Fortunately, there is
a vast archive of video footage and ephemera that will help in portraying their
genius. One example already completed is the video of the Kaliflower 1972
Intercommunal Carnival at which the Angels performed one of their inimitable
shows, Peking On Acid.
John Waters made a surprise appearance at the Cockettes & Angels of
Light 50th anniversary event that took place January 4, 2020, at the
Victoria Theater in San Francisco. His remarks capture perfectly the
moment when the Cockettes burst onto the scene in 1970, and he pinpoints
their historical import to the larger gay liberation movement that is a
lasting legacy of the Sixties.
[Introduction followed by wild applause]
Thank you very much. Thank you. Oh, my. Fifty years
ago—the Cockettes. You know, they maybe were only together for three
years. How could that be possible? Three years when we were young seemed
like eternity. And three years now seems like it's a second. The
Cockettes—like nobody else in show business history. American culture
was never the same afterwards.
I moved to San Francisco in 1970. I didn't know
anybody. I didn't know who the Cockettes were. I wanted my gutter film,
Mondo Trasho, to be shown. I read about the Palace and they were
talking about Nocturnal Dream Shows. And I thought, wow.
Underground movies and Busby Berkeley musicals, drag shows and the
Cockettes. Who in the hell were they? I went to the show but before the
show even started, I was so amazed at the audience which was as shocking
as the show. Hippie gay guys, finally! It was so great to see them, you
know. And drag queens with beards reading Lenin. They thought the
revolution really was going to happen. I knew it wasn't but I liked
watching. These drag queens didn't want to be Miss America or Bess
Myerson. They wanted to be Janice Joplin with a dick. And girl Cockettes.
So great. Ruby Keelers on acid. Female female impersonators with full
I was in cinema heaven. You know, people think the
Cockettes were noncommercial. But when I finally played the Palace, as
Judy Garland used to sing, I made some money. And it helped pay back my
dad who backed these movies and attracted future pot dealer financial
backers. And Sebastian. I really salute you. I really, really do.
Because this so-called show businessman behind the Palace shows, if you
could call that showbiz, a $2 admission and half the audience sneaking
in for free. I did it and it was. And I wouldn't be here today without
Sebastian's help when I first got here. He had the Secret Cinema that
many people have forgotten which was another showcase, probably
completely illegal theater in an old loft that showed crackpot double
bills every day for the cinema insane. He's the one who booked Mondo
Trasho and Multiple Maniacs. He's the one who paid for Divine
to fly out in full drag on the airplane to appear at the Palace. The day
the Cockettes all met Divine at the airport in full drag. Can you
imagine that today? "Is it Liberace?" the flight attendants are
screaming. Imagine today if hundreds of drag queens showed up at the
airport. It would be a terrorist alert. They would be locked up in a
The Cockettes gave Divine confidence. "24/7" Divine
could be Divine. He never went back. Then Mink Stole came and Van Smith.
Everybody followed. And we were very different than the Cockettes. The
Cockettes were hippies. I thought Divine would scare hippies, really.
Divine was hardly a hippie. He wanted to be Liz Taylor and Godzilla in
one person. We were yippies and zippies. Divine and I used to dump sugar
and meat on another commune's steps as a kind of a comical publicity
stunt. But the Cockettes loved us back with their approval anyway. None
of us knew it but ‘punk’ was next in line, and we all saw it coming.
We were political and so were the Cockettes. And,
they influenced each other. I had made The Diane Linkletter Story
about [Art Linkletter’s] daughter. She wasn't on acid when she jumped
out of the window. And then Sebastian made Trisha's Wedding with
the Cockettes. It premiered the exact same time and day as Nixon's
daughter's real wedding. Where's the next group of theater radicals
today? Where are the Mockettes? The Angels of Blight? Why aren't they
making the pussy-grabbing [..] show?
What a world it was back then. The old Stud on
Folsom street. Sweet Pam and Scrumbly and Tahara and [..]. Oh, god!
Goldie Glitters. You can't imagine. And Link. I was even scared of him.
And then Marshall, the only straight male Cockette. I bet he was busy.
And also the outer layer of the Cockette scene. All the men who were
crazy and sexy and loved the Cockettes too. Like Grasshopper, my friend
that taught me when you shoplift, set little Kleenex fires in the
department store. It distracts them. And Tom Tadlock, the handsome man
who wanted to hook you up to electrodes and have sex. Oh, and at the
center of all this, the beautiful Sylvester, the Lena Horne of the
And let's not forget drugs. "Oh, let's leave out
drugs. The Cockettes were more than that," I read recently. You've got
to be kidding. Not mentioning the drugs when you talk about Cockettes is
like talking about New Year's Eve without liquor. We were all on drugs.
And it was fun! So much so that Mink Stole and I celebrated our 50th
anniversary of knowing each other by taking LSD again last year. Not
those pussy micro doses you all take. This was twelve hours of
hallucinations. My Mom says, "Don't tell young people to take drugs."
I'm not. I'm telling old people to. If you took LSD back in the old days
when you were watching the Cockettes and liked it, do it again. They
can't say you're having a senior moment, you're trippin'.
Gore Vidal was wrong when he snarkily quipped after
seeing the disastrous New York premier of the Cockettes, "No talent is
not enough." But he was wrong, very wrong. No talent is enough if
you ignore the talent part and replace this outdated concept with
insanity and cannonball-your-ass-first-without-a-safety-net into the
whirlpool of theatrical anarchy. That's beyond talent, over the top of
nerve and beneath the valley of sexual beauty. The Cockettes have
withstood the test of time. Their legend is cemented in America's
lunatic history. We all deserve ATD. Cockettes then, Cockettes now, and
Cockettes forever. Thank you. [raucous applause] —John Waters
*As of 1/9/2020, this is nearly a complete
transcription of John Waters' speech at the Cockettes/Angels of Light
50th Anniversary that took place Jan 4 2020. There are two places where
the recording was inaudible (marked thus: [..]). If I subsequently get a
better recording to review the transcription and clear up those
portions, they will be corrected. Thank you to Scrumbly Koldewyn and
Russell Blackwood for their assistance in this transcription. Thanks to
John Waters for permission to post his remarks here.