Divine and the Cockettes

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“The fabulous Cockettes host a Private Benefit Soiree…Featuring The First Annual Miss de Meanor Beauty Pageant And dance With special Added Attractions LADY DIVINE Dancing ’til dawn to the sound of INFINITE MESSAGE and RIBBITT….Sat. July 15. House of Good. 1839 Geary, S.F….”

Flyer, 139 x 220mm, illustrated advertisement by “WRS ’72,” on pink card, “1972” stamped on verso, in near fine condition.

ABOUT THIS FLYER

The Cockettes and Divine were a match made in heaven. This flyer advertises “The First Annual Miss de Meanor Beauty Pagent,” one of their last appearances together in 1972. By that time the Cockettes were notorious for their raucous theatrical productions. Anyone could be a drag queen in their group: members were gay, straight, male, female, and transgression was more about wildness and having a good time than about labels. Their approach had been informed by life in radical communes, especially Kaliflower, where the group’s founder Hibiscus had lived and whose publications this flyer resembles. The Cockettes rose to prominence in San Francisco putting on free musicals inspired by Golden Age Broadway hits, collaborating with performers like Sylvester, who would go on to disco stardom. Their style was psychedelic camp, with costumes and accessories drawn from the 1930s and -40s, mined from used clothing stores in the Bay Area and assembled in an array of colours and patterns with lurid makeup—captured on this flyer’s illustration. 

Truman Capote thought their shows among the best he had seen, but when they were invited to perform in New York, the style didn’t translate and they received terrible reviews. Instead, the real melding of west- and east-coast counterculture was the Cockette’s work with Divine. Born Harris Glenn Milstead, Divine was a hairdresser and drag queen from Baltimore who rose to cult-like status through the films of John Waters, including Mondo Trasho (1969), Pink Flamingos (1972), and Polyester (1981). In a 2002 documentary about the Cockettes, John Waters describes that the collaboration between Divine and these “bearded hippie drag queens” was mutually empowering. “Divine was still living as Glenn Milstead” and moving between identities before she met the Cockettes—she “flipped over” to being Divine “full time” after flying out to San Francisco to meet them in April 1971. For them, it was the chance to work with someone they admired: they put on a show before a screening of Mondo Trasho

The reason for their meeting was The Palace Theatre: it was a movie theatre at the heart of counterculture in San Francisco, and the first to show John Waters’ movies. The Cockettes had been founded in order to perform at the Palace in exchange for free tickets to the movies, but eventually their shows became an end in themselves, as with Journey to the Center of Uranus, which Divine also appeared in. According to Noehill, a resource focussed on San Francisco history with an archive of the Cockettes’ “Nocturnal Dream Shows” at the Palace, the Beauty Pageant advertised here lived up to the usual anarchy: contestants included Miss Conception, Miss Shapen, Miss Used and Miss Carriage who each performed a unique talent. The pageant’s host, Miss de Meanor (played by Divine) ranted and confessed to the Sharon Tate murders, and eventually stirred up a free-for-all in which the queens had to fight for the crown. From the appearance of the performers to the content of their shows, this flyer is part of a drag culture only hinted at in popular shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race—and aspects of both the Cockette’s and Divine’s performances have an ability to shock and to push the limits of straight culture even to this day.

FURTHER READING

“The Cockettes Nocturnal Dream Shows,” Noehill, https://noehill.com/cockettes/shows.asp

“The Cockettes, A film by David Weissman and Bill Weber,” https://www.cockettes.com

“Series III: The Cockettes, 1969-2008,” Martin Worman Papers, 1960-2008, Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library. http://archives.nypl.org/the/18148#overview 

“Kaliflower: the Intercommunal [Free] Newspaper, a Publication of the Free Print Shop,” The Digger Archives. http://www.diggers.org/kaliflower/kf.htm

Brooke Palmieri