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Monday, May 17, 2002

May is Cockettes Month in San Francisco. Bill Weber and David Weissman’s film on the gender-bending theatrical troupe is playing at the Castro Theater, with a companion exhibition at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. North Beach photographer Jean Dierkes-Carlisle describes what it was like to be there.

I Was a Female Cockette

Betsey Culp interviews Jean Dierkes-Carlisle

BC: How did you get involved with the Cockettes?

JDC: I had a boyfriend who was a Cockette. I know that’s an unlikely story, but it’s true. Frank & I had been friends since 1963. Frank Bourquin. When I first met him, he was just in the gay world. I met him in San Jose, and then we both moved up to the city. We’d see each other now and then. Then we ended up both working at the Postal Facility on the swing shift – PCC, the Postal Concentration Center. We did overseas mail for the army mail during the Vietnam War. And Frank and I had an affair. He got ill and quit the post office in 1970; I was there for another year. When he got well, he became part of the Cockettes.

The Cockettes had been performing on the street, and they’d been performing over at the Palace Theater at midnight. There would be Chinese movies over here – it was called the Pagoda and it was called the Palace. The Chinese movies would end at midnight, and then this whole other crowd would come in. All the audience came in costume. We came with flasks and six-packs and dope and all this stuff. There would be these outrageous live performances on the stage and everybody just partying and having a real good time. And then after the live performances, we’d see movies. Sometimes there would be wonderful art films like the Steven Arnold films. Or there’d be horrible films, like “Imitation of Life,” with Lana Turner. We’d stay up till six a.m. It was just crazy.

Frank and I had gone together, I think, to the Cockette performances before he quit the post office. We used to get off at 12:30 usually, but12:00 on the weekend, and then we’d scoot over to North Beach. There were people working at Rincon Annex who were pretending they were on the clock – they were getting paid to be there! – but we were a small facility so they could keep track of us.

Divine and Mink Stole used to perform with the Cockettes. And there were times when Truman Capote was there. I saw him once backstage. Rex Reed and Joanna Carson came to see them. I never knew who Denise Hale was at the time, but evidently she was there. And then ruth weiss would come. By the way, ruth weiss would perform with them sometimes, too, and she was in at least three of the five Steven Arnold films. Some of the Cockettes and some of the Warhol people were in these films.

Frank kept performing with them. I quit the post office because of injuries in the summer of 1971, and they were really hot then. I used to get all these comp tickets, so I’d take everybody from the Goodman building (I lived there at the time). We’d all get in our costumes and go and have a good time.

BC: What kind of costumes?

JDC: Whatever we’d found. The people in the Goodman Building had a friend who lived in the Goodwill box up in front of Cala Market, at California and Hyde. He lived in the Goodwill box with his dog – that’s Tom O’Connor and Sweetstuff – so he’d rip off all the stuff that was good before it got to the Goodwill. He’d come over and give it to me and Genie Moore at the Goodman Building. And we’d stash it, so of course we’d get in trouble for that. Every few months we’d call over the Cockettes and give them more of their drag.

My involvement was giving them drag, going to their performances, and just creating costumes out the stuff in the Goodwill bag. We had a lot of choices. Genie and I had velvet gowns, ankle-length with spaghetti straps. We’d stand in the middle of the kitchen, stirring our soup in these velvet gowns. It was the hippie era still, you know. It was really fun.

I started taking pictures of them, and I was invited to their parties. Never to their orgies, because I’ve never been into kink.

I have photos taken Halloween of 1971, when the Cockettes flew out of SFO to go and perform off Broadway in New York. They were there for six weeks. We caused pandemonium at the airport, because there were all those characters in wild dress. Guys with beards in female drag, and all this. I have photos taken of me that day with Frank, and we look like English rock stars. Those photos were taken by Peter Mintun. Peter Mintun, when he was very very young, used to accompany the Cockettes on the piano. This was before he became the society pianist. And he and Frank had been friends for many many years.

There was one time when there was a fund raiser. One of the Cockettes, Daniel Ware, drove into one of the lampposts – well, one or two of them, actually – in front of the St. Francis and knocked them over. He was being asked to compensate the St. Francis, so we had a benefit at an old synagogue on Geary between Fillmore and Steiner. It was called the House of Good. It was a door or two from what became People’s Temple. And I was part of the show. I was one of the judges, but the judges were part of the show. Frank usually didn’t wear drag at all. He used to do male leads. But this time someone got a-hold of him – I think it was Big Darryl – and did this incredible makeover in drag. And I walked right by him and didn’t recognize him. It was a hilarious event – the whole place was packed. And of course, it lost money.

BC: Nobody had any money.

JDG: Everybody was getting jobs that didn’t make any money. But it was a lot of fun. I don’t know how Daniel Ware ever paid the bill. Anyhow, that was how I got involved with them.

And I went to the parties. This photograph I have here is of Sweet Pam  and her baby. It was taken at a party, probably somewhere in the Castro. I also have a wonderful photograph of Pristine Condition. I made two copies – one straight black and white (it was at a party), and the other I hand-tinted. I don’t know where they are at the moment. Hopefully I’m going to find them soon. Anyhow, that’s Sweet Pam. She was so cute. About 5¢ 1² , really cute.

BC: How old was she?

JDC: Oh golly, 20 ... 21? She was adorable.

I’m just trying to think what else I should tell you… There was a splinter group from the Cockettes called the Angels of Light, and they were anti-commerce. However, the Cockettes never made any money anyhow, so I don’t know what the big deal was.

Oh, I know what I didn’t explain. The Cockettes went to New York to perform off Broadway at the Albert or the Anderson theater, I can’t remember exactly. They were referred to as Warhol West. And they were wined and they were dined by the Factory crowd and Vogue Magazine. My friend Frank didn’t let his relatives know that he was in these shows, and he told a colossal lie to his mother, right in front of me, that he was given a free trip to New York to dismantle a pipe organ and send it back to San Francisco. It was a very creative lie. I got a migraine headache. I thought, “How am I going to cover this?”

As I said, he very seldom did drag. The few times he did, he wore his mother’s girdle. He’d ripped it off her and she never knew it. By the way, he was a collateral descendent of Mark Twain. And like two of his cousins, by the time he was middle-aged and getting gray, he had a mustache, and both he and his cousins looked just like Mark Twain.

Anyhow, when they went back to New York, they just shocked people and they really got panned very heavily. Rex Reed, who’d been a fan – he came all the way out here to see them – said no-talent is not enough. But they had a lot of fun. The New Yorkers were very appalled, because Sweet Pam was performing on-stage eight months pregnant.

They were back there at Thanksgiving time. On Thanksgiving, I had a vision: Frank was in an orgy with the Cockettes and the Warhol people in the elevator of the Chelsea Hotel. When I had this vision, I said, “The hell with him.” I got a babysitter that night and went out on the town. I was really angry. Frank and I had attended the spiritualist church here, where they had séances and stuff, so for this to come up – it shocked me. It made me angry. And it turned out that it was true. Frank told me later, “You know, one night in the theater, I was there all alone. It was very dark, and something hit me on the head. And there was nothing there.” And I said, “That was me. That was my poltergeist, my astral projection.”

Anyhow, that’s kind of a capsulated story of my involvement in the Cockettes.

BC: How long did the they last?

JDC: You know what? I’m not sure when they began. They began in the late 1960s, I’m not sure when, because I really wasn’t aware of them until Frank started taking me over to the shows.

BC: What surprised me about the Cockettes was, when they went to New York, they got such a bad reception.

JDC: Actually, New York at that time was more strait-laced than San Francisco. This was a wild place. This was the hippie place.

BC: You’d have thought that, with the Warhol group…

JDC: Yeah, but the straight critics were the ones who were there for the most part. And a lot of people found it shocking that Pam was eight months pregnant.

But also, we were doing stuff out here. I had my own wild form of dress. I remember having this wonderful blouse where I wore nothing under it. You could see my nipples and all that. I mean, we were pretty far out around here. In some ways, I think New York was just a little more conservative. By the way, a lot of people in North Beach who are so bohemian, or so they think, never went over there to see them. Maybe they were threatened by the cross-dressing, or what. I don’t know.