Saturday, January 16, 2010

Pearls over Shanghai

For my birthday last weekend I got taken to the current production of Pearls over Shanghai at the Hypnodrome. Fearing initially that attending a Cockettes revival might exhaust my final reserves of bathos [my God, has it come to this?] I found instead that I was quite delighted.

The production was generally the same as 35+ years ago, albeit much more professionally executed. John Waters, who attended the night before we did, said the show was “better rehearsed,” which has to be the first major understatement of the new decade. It was great to see Scrumbly at work as the de facto orchestra: his appearance in the persona of an escaped, aging Nazi piano-playing female named Ilsa, was terrific, and of course he was the composer of all the songs. And his appearance as Gertrude Stein in the encore hour that followed was marvelous, although he did look a bit like the Church Lady. Unfortunately Rumi wasn’t present to reprise her role that night as the original Mother Gin-sling, but we have heard nothing but good reports.

Yet the show was very different than the original version, and if I list some of those differences here, it is not to criticize the present production, which I urge everybody to go to see before it disappears—it’s brilliantly funny entertainment. (If you’d like to see a preview, there are several clips posted on YouTube.)

• The principals in the early 70’s, in addition to the happily surviving Scrumbly and Rumi, included Sylvester, John Rothermel (into whose apartment I moved in the Summer of Love 1967), and Martin Worman (whose poems I published in my small press magazine). It’s hard to see the show without thinking about them, and the AIDS epidemic that took their lives and so many others among the Cockettes.

And I’m not about to publish here how many of them I slept with in those days. I suppose it’s an age problem: there’s no way you can let the Cockettes go, since it was such an enormous experience, but the melancholy that pervades those memories is inescapable, since, young and innocent as we were, there was no way of knowing how it would all turn out.

• The whole gender-fuck aspect was missing in the current show. What was majorly comical about the Cockettes was simply their appearance: slender young men with bushy beards and longhair, wearing dresses and women’s attire from the Goodwill, with fancifully painted faces and perhaps a crazily perched head-dress, and more often than not no underwear. Their appearance was hilarious before they even hit the stage.

Hibiscus, Beloved founder

• The present production includes (gasp!) a substantial number of women, in my view a useful improvement.

• The Cockettes shows at the Palace were performed on the stage of a movie theater which was elevated at a considerable distance away from the audience, in contrast with the cabaret-style atmosphere at the Hypnodrome, which puts the performers right in your face—and in other parts of the anatomy for those in the first row.

• The political consciousness is much more a background issue today. Before they even hit the stage, the Cockettes represented a venomous assault upon Nixon’s America, and a full-scale attack upon “family values.” It would have likewise been clear to everyone that had Pearls over Shanghai been produced even five years earlier, both the performers and the audience would have been carted off to jail.

Daniel Ware as Martha Mitchell (wife of Nixon's attorney general) at Tricia's Wedding—A political affront?

• Early shows at the Palace were pretty disorganized, with long periods of time between numbers, which however meant you could go trolling for sex around the back rows of the theater, and thus find creative ways to dispel the periods of tedium.

• This changed: with time the shows became incredibly popular, so you had to stand in line for an hour in front of the Palace to get a ticket, your bladder bursting from beers consumed at the nearby Capri. Eventually the audience started to dress up the like the Cockettes, creating a festive chaos in the movie theater like nothing seen before or since.

• Of course it goes without saying that everyone was absolutely ripped to the tits, onstage or off. This makes it more than just a little difficult, seen from a distance of 35+ years, to remember the details of the individual shows, but, my God, just to listen to those tunes again and the floodgates open and memories of all the good times come racing back.

[The pictures are screencaps from Bill Weber and David Weissman: The Cockettes.]


  1. thanks for sharing your memories James!

  2. I'd forgotten how big Daniel's..........was. I barely remember this show except for Rumi.