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Pam Tent, Midnight at the Palace: My Life as a Fabulous Cockette (Los Angeles: Alyson, 2004, $17.95, 274 pages, ISBN 1-55583-874-X)Chris Bell, Nottingham Trent University


The Cockettes all shared a sense of the absurd—our shows were never known for historical accuracy. We thrived on mixing times, cultures and drag—as well as sexual perceptions—to concoct plots that defied traditions and clarification. Nothing was sacred. [95]

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Cockettes, a performance troupe (for woeful lack of a better descriptor), took the San Francisco Bay Area by storm with its gender-bending / genre-blending routines, unreservedly carefree sensibility, and overall fabulousness. Tent, one of the group’s original and longest-lasting members, has crafted this memoir of a time long gone; a period in America’s cultural history predicated on hedonistic self-satisfaction, to be sure, but also the defiance of constricting traditions (as the above excerpt expresses), communal support and, yes, love.

In the first paragraph of the non-paginated Introduction, Tent references a recent issue of Marie Claire that characterizes the Cockettes as a mere “fashion footnote” (her phraseology). The referent unnerves Tent, and is arguably one of the reasons she opted to write this account of the Cockettes. In this reviewer’s estimation, she needn’t have been so miffed. Although it is to the reader’s benefit that she did devote her time to painstakingly setting the record straight by constructing her narrative, it should not be forgotten that cultural memory is eternally-shifting. So while the Cockettes might be remembered in Marie Claire by way of this less-than-flattering phrase, this does not mean they will necessarily be considered as such elsewhere and / or to everyone else. Indeed, the Marie Claire referent is appreciably troubled later in the text when Tent explains that a designer for the prestigious Balenciaga house of couture copied, sans permission, one of the Cockette’s original, lavish creations for the fashion house’s 2002 spring collection [105]. Moreover, respected designers John Galliano and Marc Jacobs have each acknowledged their indebtedness to the Cockettes, honoring the group by including their styles in recent collections as well. Such inclusion makes it clear that the Cockettes are much more than a “fashion footnote.” Quite the contrary, the group continues to inspire, hence the timeliness and interest of Midnight at the Palace.  

The reader has little difficulty trusting Tent as a narrator. As she makes clear early in the text, much of the factual information is culled from the letters she wrote in San Francisco to her parents in Michigan. Tent initially thought she would be a nun, but opted to leave Michigan as a late teen, hitching a ride west to the Bay Area. In between working the occasional odd job, she devoted the majority of her time to experimenting with drugs and acquainting herself with the local counterculture. One day, while napping in Golden Gate Park, she was awakened by the sound of an angelic voice nearby. That voice belonged to an individual who called himself Hibiscus. Along with an assortment of other largely-unemployed, drug-addicted free spirits, Hibiscus and Tent founded the Cockettes, which soon became one of the best-loved offerings on the Bay Area’s distinctive entertainment circuit.

The Cockettes’ performances at the San Francisco Palace Theatre were legendary: a medley of the sublime and the surreal, the bizarre and the avant-garde. This is not to suggest that those performances pleased everyone. A Cockettes show, as Tent acknowledges, was best experienced under the haze of illicit substances, and in the heyday of San Francisco’s hippie-ism, those substances were readily available and encouraged by performers and audiences alike. Nonetheless, not even the strongest of drugs could mitigate the effects of the social upheaval occurring in the country at the time. Consider this excerpt from the text, which speaks to the racial politics of the day:       

In the lobby after the show, a very large black man approached Big Daryl and picked him up by his shoulders. “You’re not going to do blackface no more, are you?” he asked. Big Daryl squeaked out a “no” and kept his word. From then on, any kind of racial satire—and indeed there was some—was done by our own black cast members, whose humor was predictably irreverent and spared no one. [41]

This recount is worth mentioning for a few reasons. Initially, it implies that blacks have the cultural dispensation to embody all races in performance, a characterization that is exaggerated to say the least. It is all the more interesting because a mere two paragraphs later, Tent refers to the Cockettes’ staged version of “Madame Butterfly” which featured “[white] Hibiscus […] playing the beautiful Oriental waif” [41]. But even if this example is an unconvincing onesince Hibiscus wasn’t performing in blackfacethe Cockettes contradicted their own race-sensitive policy. This becomes apparent when Tent mentions two Cockettes members performing in blackface on two separate occasions: Sandy, who is described as performing in blackface [91], and Jilala, who is described as performing as Hibiscus’s nanny, in blackface [115]. There is always someone who either does not get or, more to the point, does not appreciate the joke or the satire. In addition to underscoring that reality, these instances go a long way in acknowledging the burning racial issues that were dividing the country while the Cockettes were engaged in their revelry, and how that revelry spoke to those issues, intentionally and otherwise.  

In addition to including a wealth of specific details detailing Cockettes performances (culled, no doubt, from the letters she wrote home), Tent also speaks to life off-stage, an important facet of the narrative given the fact that many of the Cockettes lived together, scattered over the Haight Ashbury district of San Francisco in an assortment of flats. Life in these flats was anything but “ordinary”:      

Hibiscus would twirl down the hallway singing show tunes, transforming the railroad flat into Cleopatra’s barge, sailing down the Nile. People would burst into song, like in an operetta, as they were swept up in emotion while doing the most mundane chores like taking out the garbage or cooking dinner. [53]

And it worked. The Cockettes made it a point to take care of each other’s basic needs insofar as food and shelter. Although Tent includes head-wagging bouts of selfishness and self-centeredness (in the form of horded food, for instance), by and large the policy was share in order to survive; a policy that extended to the group’s sex partners as well, a tendency that gave rise to additional head-wagging episodes.  

Having becoming a major draw at the Palace Theatre, the Cockettes earned a noticeable amount of respectability (if not money, a sticking point Tent speaks to throughout the text). For instance, several of the group’s members acted as supernumeraries in a San Francisco Opera production. The Washington Post, in describing the group’s ill-fated run in New York City, declared the show “the biggest Off-Off Broadway opening in New York history” [177]. Of course with respectability comes notoriety, which, in this instance, was the ire of a presidential administration. Midway through Midnight at the Palace, Tent refers to John Dean’s text Blind Ambition. This text includes a description of the Nixon administration’s reaction to the film “Tricia’s Wedding” that featured several Cockettes and lampooned the president’s daughter amongst others. In Dean’s assessment and terminology, the administration wanted the film “killed” [145]. In short, the Cockettes were much more than a flash in the pan motley crew of untalented do-nothings. The group culled popular, critical and governmental (!) attention because they had a unique countercultural perspective that was grounded in incisive cultural criticism as well as satire.

For the most part, Midnight at the Palace is an engaging narrative that is inexcusably riddled with a host of errors. On the first page of the non-paginated Acknowledgments, Tent mentions a friend who read the manuscript and “suffered my regrettable spelling errors.” Given the fact that there are so many careless spelling errors, her friend should not have suffered them so much as he should have corrected them. A case in point occurs on page 134 when the author describes walking down a street and hearing someone call her name. “I turned to see Janis Joplin waiving to me,” she writes; careful proofreading could have prevented mistakes of that sort.

Moreover, the errors in the text are not just grammatical. If the reader were to believe Tent’s assessment, the events at Stonewall which signaled the beginnings of the modern gay and lesbian civil rights movement occurred not in June 1969, but one to three months earlier, as the reference to the event is included under the heading “March - May 1969” [15]. Other errors fall into the category of poor authorial and / or editorial judgment, namely the text’s omitted information. There is, for example, no index in the text, which would help a researcher quickly pinpoint key figures and events, or assist a casual reader in finding a select passage. Regrettably, the brief section titled Notes concludes by stating that “Additional data came from numerous newspaper and magazine articles as well as reviews, playbills and on-line reference sites” [274]. No further information is given for those readers who might want to access the original source material.

Its errors and omissions notwithstanding, Midnight at the Palace is an appealing read guaranteed to delight the reader with its examination of a group of matchless nonconformists who lived in a unique period in America’s history that will most likely never be repeated.

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