“They were the only drag troupe I knew that read Lenin,” is John Waters’ desription of the Cockettes, a psychedelic theater group founded by George Harris (aka “Hibiscus”) during the wild heyday of Haight-Ashbury. In the fall of 1969, Harris arrived in San Francisco and moved into KaliFlower, a communal house with a barter economy. Finding the house a bit rigid for his taste, Harris moved into the Cockette house shortly after. Harris, now going by Hibiscus, decided that he and his housemates were destined to perform, so their first gig was a drag chorus line dance to “Honky Tonk Woman” at the Nocturnal Dreams Show at The Palace. The Cockettes quickly became the hottest ticket in San Francisco, and their audience gained a reputation for being as raucous as the entertainers. Rolling Stone, Esquire and Life were all keen to feature this motley group.
Their early shows were improvisational and free of charge. These qualities would eventually cause a rift in the troupe, but not before the Cockettes attracted the attention of Divine and John Waters, as well as Truman Capote, who said, “The Cockettes are where it’s at!” The group mocked President Nixon’s daughter, Tricia, and dropped LSD—they thought the fabled revolution promised by the Summer of Love would happen at any moment.
But it didn’t.
And with this realization came the painful unraveling of the group’s utopian ecosystem. Out of principle, the Cokettes had always been adamant about being non-paid performers, but as their celebrity grew so too did certain egos. Some members began demanding compensation from the owner of the Palace theater, where the group regularly performed. In early 1971, members who wanted to keep money out of the equation formed The Angels of Light, an alternative performance troupe. The Cockettes gave their last performance in the fall of 1972.
If there was a “Where are they now?” special on the Cockettes, it would have to be a two-part series given the troupe’s scattered and rotating cast. Some pursued solo drag careers, some left “show business” altogether, and, sadly, some—including Hibiscus—died of AIDS.
Rumi Missabu, a former Cockette, reflects on his time with the troupe, saying, “We thought at the time that was how our lifestyle was going to be forever.” And for Rumi, finding his identity after the Cockettes has taken the better portion of his life.
For forty years Rumi lived in obscurity, taking jobs as a short-order cook and domestic. And it’s this decades-long exile that filmmaker Robert James wants to explore in his documentary Ruminations, currently seeking funds on Kickstarter.
“In this film Rumi will light a joint and pour the tea while ruminating about his encounters with everyone from Tina Turner to Allen Ginsberg,” the project’s Kickstarter campaign says. The documentary also includes interviews with former Cockettes, dancers, costume designers, and filmmakers who collaborated with Missabu.
The focus, however, will be Rumi’s story of recovering from the Cockettes and returning to a life of artistic expression. For 38 years, Missabu existed in true anonymity, with no ID, no social security card, and no bank account—nothing but a library card. In a way, he stayed true to the Cockettes’ ideals, living outside of the materialistic system they rejected.
As costume designer Bill Bowers puts it, “Rumi Missabu is the afterbirth of Godzilla and Bambi combined.” That image alone deserves a film.