November 7, 1971. Throngs of celebrities, socialites, drag queens, and rock stars crowded into the Anderson Theater on New York’s Lower East Side for The Big Apple’s first glimpse of The Cockettes, San Francisco’s notorious theatrical troupe.
“Everyone was there!” recalled actress Sylvia Miles, “All the ‘beautiful people’…” It was a night that, for better or worse, none present would forget. Opening night in New York would prove to be the apex of The Cockettes’ glamour and notoriety, both within The Cockettes’ own dreams and in the public imagination. Resplendent in glitter and thrift-store finery, The Cockettes emerged from San Francisco’s 1960s psychedelic counterculture into the burgeoning sexual revolutions of the 1970s. Male and female, straight and gay, The Cockettes began as a ragtag ensemble of hippie escapees from middle-class America, with idealistic dreams and a shared affinity for dressing-up, old movie musicals, and LSD. Combining grand camp spectacle with the endearing awkwardness of a high school operetta production, The Cockettes thrilled audiences as much with their unpredictability as with their triumphs. The Cockettes became a huge sensation in San Francisco, drawing crowds from the gay and hippie countercultures as well as from high society.
When famed writer Truman Capote and film critic Rex Reed came to a show and spread the word to their East Coast chums, it began a madcap saga of grand delusions that led to one of the most anticipated, and most disastrous, theatrical debuts in off-off Broadway history. In many ways, The Cockettes were the first gender revolutionaries. Not only did they upend all conventional notions of gender, but they also subverted the existing conventions of drag which were mainly about female impersonation. According to John Waters “it was complete sexual anarchy, which is always a beautiful thing!”