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Pam Tent, 2004


I Was a Teenage Cockette: Talking with Founding Cockette Member (Sweet) Pam Tent
 

By Owen Keehnen

 
The Cockettes' renaissance began in 2002 with the Sundance Award-winning documentary by David Weissman and Bill Weber--thirty years after the group disbanded. If you haven't seen the film or are unfamiliar with the group, the Cockettes were a collective of grit and glitter counterculture performance art radicals who rose from the San Francisco streets to take flamboyant gender-bending politics to a new level. This group of men and women performed their chaotic midnight stage shows at the Palace Theatre in the North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco and virtually overnight became the toast of the town. Their shows were jaw dropping extravaganzas of drag, decadence, subversive politics, and absurdity, with titles like "Tinsel Tarts in a Hot Coma," "Paste on Paste," "Gone with the Showboat to Oklahoma," "Tropical Heatwave/Hot Voodoo," "Journey to the Center of Uranus," "Les Etoiles du Minuit," "Pearls Over Shanghai," etc. It was glorious rhinestone anarchy every time they donned their pearls, headdresses, and flapper outfits and took the stage. Every show was "a happening." Camp had burst forth from the underground.

The notoriously insubordinate troupe even did films such as Elevator Girls in Bondage, Luminous Procuress, and the notorious Tricia's Wedding--a very wicked parody of Tricia Nixon's wedding (featuring characters such as Mamie Eisenhower, Eartha Kitt, and Lady Bird Johnson), which culminated in a wild orgy! As an added bit of political defiance, the movie was screened on the same day as the actual first family's nuptials and received almost as much press coverage. The Cockettes introduced disco superstar Sylvester to the stage, and Divine appeared in one of their shows throwing raw meat and sausages into the shocked audience! Fans and patrons included such diverse names as Diana Vreeland, Anthony Perkins, Janis Joplin, Rex Reed, Truman Capote, Allen Ginsberg, Angela Lansbury, Oscar de la Renta, and John Lennon.

And yet in a mere two and a half years, it was all over. In the autumn of 1972 the group disbanded because of differences, pressures, and their sheer indifference to (and loathing of) professionalism.

In the autumn of 2004, Alyson Publications released Midnight at the Palace: My Life as a Fabulous Cockette by founding group member (Sweet) Pam Tent. In this hair-raising memoir, Pam tells of the San Francisco scene in those drug-drenched days and the counterculture climate that made the Cockettes possible. She recalls in hilarious detail the formation and glory days of the group, their surreal celebrity status, eventual break-up, and the doorways the Cockettes opened for the glam rock of Bowie, the insane audience participation a la The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the campy shows of Bette Midler, and the masculinist drag of the New York Dolls.

Talking to Pam today it's at once apparent that you can take the woman out of the Cockette, but you can't take the Cockette out of the woman.
 

Keehnen: The Cockettes have been called so many things--a flamboyant group of cross-dressing radicals, drag- and glitter-strewn theatrical chaos, a rebellious gender-bending cultural phenomenon, unrestrained subversive sexuality and extravagance, etc. How would you describe the group?

Tent: Wow! I love those images. We were a group of revolutionary hippies--of all sexual persuasions--who loved to dress up and play out our fantasies.

Keehnen: You were a founding member. Tell me about the formation of the Cockettes.

Tent: Hibiscus hand-selected each one of us and brought us into his circle. I first met Hibiscus during the spring of 1969--about six months before the Cockettes' debut at the Palace Theatre. He was up in a tree singing "Tropical Heatwave." At that point his impromptu shows took place in Golden Gate Park and in the streets where we would sing and dance to '30s and '40s show tunes. While I was back east in New York, Hibiscus got together a bunch of friends, and they all dressed up in outrageous drag for New Year's Eve. He took them all to the Palace, and they just commandeered the stage during intermission. They cranked up a recording of the Rolling Stones's "Honky Tonk Woman" and did a kick-line, and the audience went wild.

Keehnen: Culturally, what do you think contributed to make San Francisco in 1970 the perfect place for a phenomenon like the Cockettes to emerge?

Tent: This town was wide open at that point. We were a huge interconnected community of creative acid heads, and the sexual revolution was in full swing. As the hippie street scene wound down, we took our anarchy from the streets to the stage.

Keehnen: All those years ago and all those midnight shows at the Palace Theatre in San Francisco: what was the usual ritual that preceded a show for you guys?

Tent: I have to say getting stoned and putting on our makeup. It's amazing we ever made it onstage sometimes. We'd get to the theater early and hang out in the dressing rooms and help each other get ready. We'd really pile it all on: the rhinestones, sequined eyelids, and oodles of glitter everywhere. It would become such a party backstage that there were many nights we had to be reminded that there was a theater full of people waiting for the show to start.

Keehnen: The Cockettes also made a few movies . . . like the notorious Tricia's Wedding, which debuted on the same day as Tricia Nixon's wedding. In that film you starred as Tricia, right? And it included such other characters as a drunken Mamie Eisenhower, a drag Eartha Kitt who puts LSD in the punch, a party crashing Lady Bird Johnson, and it all ends in an orgy. What's your fondest memory of that bit of outrageousness?

Tent: Actually, it was Goldie Glitters who did the honor as Tricia. I played Prime Minister Golda Meir. My favorite scene was the orgy after Eartha Kitt spiked the punch with LSD. We'd played our parts with White House formality until then. The orgy scene was when everybody cut loose. The wigs came off; dignitaries began groping other guests, and our own Lendon Sadler--as Mahalia Jackson--charged through the writhing mass of bodies cracking a bullwhip. Lendon lives in Chicago now, as a matter of fact.

Keehnen: The group disbanded in autumn 1972, just two and a half years after its inception. What were the events that led to the group's demise?

Tent: After our New York tour, we returned to San Francisco with determination to put on our best show ever--and we did: "Les Etoiles du Minuit." We followed that with a couple of great new shows, but by the spring we started floundering. We didn't have a direction, and everyone started to get antsy. At first, it had been enough just to be onstage and have a good time, but now we started to feel our creative differences, and we all wanted to work up our own individual acts, which is what happened.

Keehnen: You were also in the thick of cross-dressing superstars and featured Divine and Sylvester in different performances. Your fans included Rex Reed and Truman Capote; your shows were seen by such luminaries as Oscar de la Renta, Angela Lansbury, Gore Vidal, Anthony Perkins, John Lennon, and Robert Rauschenberg; and members even dated Allen Ginsberg and Samuel Delany. Is there a celebrity encounter that sticks out more in your mind than the others?

Tent: The most surprising moment was my encounter with Truman Capote backstage in a dressing room after the show. That was the weekend that the Rex Reed entourage showed up and came to toast us with champagne. I was visibly pregnant and Truman was delighted and insisted on rubbing my belly for good luck.

Keehnen: In today's world of show business do you think it's possible to have something like the Cockettes, which were much, much show and virtually no business?

Tent: You don't see that type of situation very often anymore. A few of the Angels of Light--who were an offshoot of the Cockettes--are working with grants to do performance art for the community. Unless you have a grant, it's almost impossible to find a theater where you can use the facilities for free. The economics of the times have changed everything.

Keehnen: Did you see the 2002 documentary by David Weissman and Bill Weber? And what were you feelings upon viewing it?

Tent: All of the Cockettes who were on the West Coast turned up for the premiere of the documentary, and we loved it. Bill and David made us look so good. It was a wonderful peek into a very incredible time. It brought back so many memories.

Keehnen: I have also heard there was a 25th or so reunion of the Cockettes a few years ago. What was that like?

Tent: The 25th reunion was the first time many of us had seen each other in two-and-a-half decades. We had all drifted apart; it was like coming home again. Over the course of that entire weekend, we hugged and sang, and we haven't lost touch with each other since.

Keehnen: Since over 30 years have passed since the group's break-up and there is a chance for a bit of a historical and cultural perspective, what do you see as the legacy of the group?

Tent: It's easy to see the progression of glitter rock and all of that, but the spirit of the Cockettes--especially now that David and Bill have brought it back to the foreground--is what is so sadly lacking these days. It was a magical time when anything was possible. I hope that people will glimpse the joy and freedom and find it in themselves to go out and do whatever and be whatever they want to be.

Keehnen: That's an incredible legacy. Congratulations, and all the best with the book, Pam.

 
About Owen Keehnen
 
Owen Keehnen has worked as a journalist, book reviewer, and interviewer for a number of years. Currently, the Chicago based author is completing a trilogy of interview books on gay XXX stars, finishing a horror novel, and supporting himself as a massage therapist. He is also launching a website which celebrates independent horror films, www.racksandrazors.com.
 
Related Pages
 

Performance Art

Drag Shows:Drag Queens and Female Impersonators

San Francisco

Theater Companies

Bowie, David

Capote, Truman

Delany, Samuel

Divine (Harris Glenn Milstead)

Joplin, Janis

Rauschenberg, Robert

Sylvester

Vidal, Gore

 

 
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