INTERVIEW: All that Glitters: David Weissman's and Bill Webber's "The Cockettes" Shines
by Erin Torneo/indieWIRE
The Cockettes were an experimental theater group that arose, resplendent in glitter and thrift store drag, from the ideologies of the Haight-Ashbury counterculture at the cusp of the sexual revolution. Founded by a commune member who believed in free theater, the Cockettes quickly and completely accidentally became stars. For a bright, brief time, these bearded drag queens and kings reigned the stage at North Beach’s Palace Theater, and their exuberant shows celebrated a pastiche of cultural influences fueled by LSD and an idealism that was utterly pure — and utterly short-lived. With the sexual and political rebellions of the ’60s and ’70s slouching toward the dark hours of heroin addiction and the AIDS crisis, the Cockettes were part of a time in the U.S. that could not last for long.
In their first feature, David Weissman and Bill Weber chronicle the long-overdue story of The Cockettes. With some 13,000 still photos (“I’m sure another 13,000 will show up,” quipped Weissman), never-before-scene footage of The Cockettes’ Broadway appearance, clips from their hilarious 16mm films (must see: Tricia’s Wedding, “an interpretation of Nixon’s daughters nuptials”), and interviews with surviving members of the troupe and fans like John Waters and Sylvia Miles, the documentary is as rich and colorful as The Cockette show “Journey to the Center of Uranus” must have been.
indieWIRE’s Erin Torneo caught up with director David Weissman (co-director Bill Webber could not be present) after the “The Cockettes” screening at New York’s New Festival to discuss Haight-Ashbury, the loss of urban bohemia in America, and dealing with the many private losses he encountered when creating their cinematic legacy. Strand Releasing opens the film on Friday.
indieWIRE: I see you started out making fictional shorts. Why for your first feature length film did you make a documentary?
David Weissman: It insisted itself upon me. To some extent, once the idea started to germinate, I realized that everything I had done, both film and otherwise, was leading directly towards doing “The Cockettes.” The movie embodies so many things that have been important to me really since I was a teenager, so many cultural and political and artistic changes and inspirations. And the work that I had done reflected a sensibility that I had learned very early from seeing the Cockette movie “Tricia’s Wedding” when I was about 18 or 19 years old.
iW: How did you find the surviving members of the Cockettes?
Weissman: Actually finding them was one of the easiest parts of research. Most of them hadn’t gone too far away. Unfortunately, you know, the majority of the troupe has died, from drug overdoses beginning in the ’70s and from AIDS during the past 20 years.
iW: Did any members decline or did any people who were part of the Haight-Ashbury scene then not want to be involved with the project?
Weissman: There were a couple of people who chose not to be in it. Both were affiliated with the KaliFlower Commune, although we did have two KaliFlower people appear in the film. The KaliFlower Commune plays an important role in the story of the Cockettes, because that was where Hibiscus had founded the Cockettes. It was a very ideological commune, which had very strong beliefs about not participating in the money economy. They felt all beer and all art and all food and everything should be free that there should be no capitalism, and that everything should be bartered and exchanged on a totally different basis.
iW: So by that token, they would feel that the documentary you were making was part of a contrary ideology?
Weissman: Yeah. Irving Rosenthal, who was the sort of guru of the KaliFlower commune, felt that the movie was going to involve commerce and that it was going to be impossible to tell the story with any real depth and truth. He also thought that there was certain subject matter that he didn’t want us to be dealing with.
iW: Like what?
Weissman: Some of the welfare issues. The way that people survived back then, on disability. But I am happy to say that Irving and the other person who was a Cocketter but declined to be in the film have both been quite pleased and supportive of the film, the way it came out. But otherwise no, there was very little reluctance. Everyone was very willing.
iW: Are any of these organizations or communes still in existence?
Weissman: Well, Irving still lives in the KaliFlower house. And it still remains
a kind of center for people coming and going, providing free services. They do a lot of good things, so I think KaliFlower exists in a minimal way. Jilala and Ralph, who were in the film, were until recently doing a free Vegan dinner in San Fran