Cast Party: backstage with Thrillpeddlers' 'Pearls Over Shanghai'

  • by Jim Provenzano
  • Tuesday April 15, 2014
Share this Post:
The cast of 'Pearls Over Shanghai' (photo: David Wilson)
The cast of 'Pearls Over Shanghai' (photo: David Wilson)

Given the hallucinogen-hazed history of drag ensemble The Cockettes, and the second hit revival of Thrillpeddlers' "Pearls Over Shanghai," which includes many scenes in an opium den, one might ask, 'Does the cast party?'

The answer is yes, of course, but nothing like the LSD-popping original Cockettes, whose 'not at all sober' local shows and a road trip to New York City are now the stuff of legend.

Fortunately, the current cast balances their worship of the gods Teatros and Bacchus in good measure, as I discovered during pre-show dressing room chats with a few cast members before composer and musical director Scrumbly Koldewyn called them to warm-ups.

Rumi Missabu (left) gets a makeup touch-up from Birdie Bob Wyatt  

Rumi Missabu (aka James Bartlett), one of the founding members of The Cockettes, shared some of the saucier tales from his days as a Cockette in the 1970s and afterward.

"My club days are over," said Missabu in the Hypnodrome's dressing room, "unless I'm performing or friends are. But I'd rather keep my art in the theater, and there's a sacrifice there. They're making more money in the bars, but for me it's not so much about that. I feel safer keeping my art in the theater. In a club, people don't pay attention."

Missabu will be taking off two weeks from playing Madame Gin Sling, a role he created in the original 1970 production, to perform and do guest lectures in New York about his history with the Cockettes.

"This production is so cool, because here we are forty-four years later. I get to reprise my role again!"

Rumi Mussabi in 'Pearls Over Shanghai' (photo: David Wilson)  

After a nearly two-year run, the revival of "Pearls" includes new cast members, choreography and costumes. As an archivist for the Cockettes, Rumi saves and stores many of the ephemera items from the drag collective's heyday, and to this day.

"At sixty-five, the young cast members keep me going," said Missabu, who eschews theatrical fame, but enjoys his role as "a seminal cult figure."

Somewhere in the documents, and in David Weissman's acclaimed documentary, are scenes that show how wild things were in the Cockettes' early days. Asked how they ever managed to put on a show while high, Rumi smiled.

"Well, of course, LSD was the drug of choice for a while, but not always," he said. "It changed. Some of them became high, or 'low' on heroin. We lost a lot of people because of that. I became very arrogant, because I was later on cocaine. At the time, I resented any newcomers into the group of young men and women who were defining themselves as gay. We didn't even know we were gay at the time. But along with the three women, who brought equal magic to the Cockettes, there was a lot of variety."

Now focused on the spiritual side of drag performances, Rumi told of the philosophical aspects of theatrical magic, and recent international exhibits about the Angels of Light and the 168 people who have performed in either Cockettes shows or films.

"I work a lot," said Rumi of his lack of time for cocktails post-curtain. But in their early days, he said, "We hung out at The Capri Bar in North Beach. It was the one of the gay spots even before Polk Street. They had the windows boarded up. This crazy bartender called Mavis, who was later in the original version of 'Hot Greeks,' kind of adopted us."

Members of the 'Pearls Over Shanghai' cast backstage. (photo: Jim Provenzano)  

Missabu also mentioned the Savoy Tivoli, and the Palace Theatre, where sex, pot and other shenanigans were common in the balcony at Cockettes shows. "It was a free-for-all. The cops never bothered us, because it was run by graft and gangsters!"

One problem with a fire marshal was caused by a Cockettes show where cofounder Hibiscus offered free tickets and food, which drew hundreds more than allowed in a theater. In that tradition, Rumi will host an after-show cabaret The Blue Hour, on May 31, where the public is invited.

Rumi summed up the 1960s and the Hippie era as not particularly gay-friendly, and post-Summer of Love, as being more about speed addicts.

"They tolerated the gays, but didn't really embrace gay culture," said Rumi. "We started our own. We were a bunch of freaks who came together like magnets."

"Sweet" Pam Tent's book about The Cockettes  

Fabulous Cockettes, then & now
For original Cockette "Sweet" Pam Tent, her wild times were worthy of a book, "Midnight at the Palace: My Life as a Fabulous Cockette," which was published by Alyson Books in 2004.

"The whole thing about free love extended to the gay community," recalls Tent, now 64. "People were having threeways; there was all sorts of experimentation. It wasn't gay or straight," she explained. "It was freaks and straights; there wasn't a rigid line."

Of the early notorious days of the Cockettes, Tent recalled, "We would sometimes start the show two hours late! That wouldn't go over anymore."

Tent told of the early days performing and hanging out with the Cockettes.

"We were all part of the same loose crowd," said Tent. "I met Hibiscus in Golden Gate Park. I was trying to sleep, since I'd been up all night on acid, and he was up in a tree with some friends, and they started singing show tunes. I was in."

Pam Tent (lower right) with Divine (center) and other Cockettes (photo: Clay Gerdes)  

Tent's childhood love of putting on shows as a child combined with the sexual revolution. After the Cockettes kinship, Tent lived and performed in New York City, including at the now-gone punk club CBGBs. "We did shows with Divine and Mink Stole, we continued doing shows at The Palace in San Francisco."

Asked what about the original group and its myth still retains an appeal, Tent said simply, "It's the history of gay culture. Most people don't even know where this liberal attitude and freedom came from. They have no clue. We wanted something other than the monochrome Eisenhower years, and we changed things."

Asked about her current nightlife options, Tent, who's spent decades being fabulous, said, simply, "I've gone to enough parties, and I have a beautiful man waiting for me at home."

Noah Haydon, who plays Petrushka in "Pearls," has performed in several Thrillpeddlers shows, and also works fulltime during the day in film production.

"If I want to have energy for a show, at first, I don't go out. But I do sometimes."

Having performed everything from tiny garage work to Equity house shows, Haydon cites Thrillpeddlers as a balance.

"We're professional, and do our job onstage, but also have a lot of fun. Some 'higher level' theater companies can be boring, and you don't have much fun doing the show. We have so much leeway, changing the show a bit every night, playing off the up-close audience, which you can't do in a production of "Oklahoma."

Eric Wertz (left) and Noah Haydon in the dressing room. (photo: Jim Provenzano)  

Eric Wertz plays Lili Frustrata in "Pearls," and has performed with Thrillpeddlers in many other shows since 2005, including his Bay Area Theatre Critics Award-winning featured role in the recently staged "Vice Palace."

"I've pretty much done everything they've done recently," Wertz said as he applied make-up to his face. "My tendency is to play these young ingenues, which I love; it plays into the gender-bender drag that I like."

Wertz told of his Sub/Dom relationship with a woman, and mentioned a few specialized nightlife events with a kink theme.

"We go to the Citadel, or Kinky Salon; of course Folsom Street Fair," along with clubs in Los Angeles, where, he said, "We kind of get free run of the equipment. There are people there, but compared to San Francisco, they're not using the stuff or doing things, instead watching a lot more, which is fun for us."

Wertz added that the level of revelry "comes and goes with each cast." He told of an early show in his career where the cast would visit a bar called Sadie's.

"A woman in the cast was sort of dating a bartender," Wertz said, "and by 'sort of,' I mean she was giving him blow jobs and he was giving her cocaine. But he would give us drinks, and we would hang out and party til three in the morning."

These days, Wertz is more settled. "You start to become more relaxed after a show opens," he said of not needing to blow off steam after an opening weekend. "This is a pretty fun cast, so I'm sure we'll tear it up at some point."

Russell Blackwood dons his 'look' for 'Pearls Over Shanghai' (photo: Jim Provenzano)  

When Russell Blackwood read Pam Tent's book, he knew what his next project would become. The theater entrepreneur brought the Cockettes' shows into revivals at Thrillpeddlers, with the talents of composer, co-author and musical director Scrumbly Koldywen. Each man balances out the frolics and professional duties.

And that includes glitter... lots of glitter.

Blackwood's also resolved about having glitter invade his life. "It gets everywhere," he laughed. "You get used to it."

"We ransacked Cliff's store when we did the original show," added Rumi, from across the dressing room.

Blackwood told of the historic events a few years back, when Cockettes exhibits in New York led to two versions of Cockettes shows produced by Thrillpeddlers.

Blackwood admitted that the company's Grand Guignol genre is "trippy, whether you're really tripping or not."

Asked how he balances life and show business, Blackwood said, "It's getting more complicated; with people's lives. More folks are moving to Oakland, so our process has to accommodate that. We want more preview time and rehearsals, too."

As he outlined his intricate make-up, I asked Blackwood about the inspiration, which gets back to the show's opium den setting.

"Part of the over-the-top aesthetic is a drug-fueled compulsiveness. The Cockettes would have done this, and so would the character. If there's a Cockettes aesthetic, it's that getting into the drag is part of the party, the joy, the sacrament. And for us, it becomes that as well. The people who do extensive make-up consider it a part of the arc of their evening. And some people wear it out afterwards."

Diego Gomez inĀ 'Tinsel Tarts in a Hot Coma'  

New faces
The new version of "Pearls Over Shanghai" includes some new faces, also daubed in glitter. For Diego Gomez, his drag character is just an extension of his artistic nightlife.

"I tend to go to The Stud on Fridays for Some Thing," said the 32-year-old San Francisco native.

On other nights, he sometimes goes out for drinks with a few fellow cast members, when afterwards, he said, "I tend to be more energized from the show."

Gomez heard about Thrillpeddlers back when an ex-boyfriend told him about an audition, which Gomez also attended, and landed a role. He studied the Weissman documentary as part of his preparation.

If he's performing or attending a drag-themed night, you may encounter him as his alter ego Trangela Lansbury. "I tend to not change my face on those nights," said Gomez. "If I'm performing again, I put on make-up to go with both shows."

Cast in "Pearls" as a female whore from the 1930s, Gomez, with a glitter-coated beard, was the poster character for Thrillpeddlers' other recent Cockettes revival, "Tinsel Tarts in a Hot Coma." And although his costumes in the shows remain the same, his make-up and hair variances have included neon hair and yellow contact lenses.

When he's not making visual art (as exhibited in a recent Batman and Robin gay comic art exhibit) or posters for shows like the upcoming "Serial Mom" screening at the Castro Theatre, Gomez freelances and works for Pottery Barn, designing graphics for products like superhero towels for a kids' line.

His nightclub drag shows range from being "a back-up lady" to lip-synching to various genres of songs, depending on the show's themes.

"Sometimes I just go to watch," said Gomez. "But I'll go anywhere in my drag. I ride my bike in my face and my costume... except the heels."

Chris Olin and Rose Blood in the Hypnodrome's dressing room. (photo: Jim Provenzano)  

Thrillpeddlers has been a part of Rose Blood's life since childhood, where at age ten she studied and performed in Creepshow Camp workshop productions. She was also part of the touring cast of "Pearls."

Blood's friend Chris Olin, originally from San Diego, is the freshest performer, having only been in San Francisco a few weeks. With "mostly straight plays" and musicals among his experiences, Olin said, "I like putting glitter in my beard, apparently, so this is fun."

For these younger performers, "It depends on whether I want to go home and go to sleep," said Olin. "But if not, the more the merrier."

Blood shared tips on acting drunk or high versus being so. "You act absolutely ridiculous. But the whole partying thing, I'm more often tired. I want to go home and sleep. Last week we had a cast party, but it wasn't wild."

Eric Wertz (center), Steven Satyricon (right) and other cast members of 'Pearls Over Shanghai.' (photo: David Wilson)  

Satyr days
Nightlife regular Steven Satyricon still likes to enjoy a good night out, despite his busy schedule.

"I'm probably still one of the more wild members of the troupe, as it were," Satyricon said. A cast member of every Cockettes revival to date, along with other shows, he enjoys "playing against type" as the stuffy ship's captain.

"It's completely opposite of myself. I take inspiration from Brad Majors [of "The Rocky Horror Show" musical and film]. I relish being able to play that."

Satyricon said that during a few nights of the "Pearls Over Shanghai" 2008 New York City workshop version, "I did a great homage to the Cockettes original trip by showing up late to rehearsals because I'd been out all night."

Having "settled down somewhat" with his boyfriend Andrew Darling, and his twelve-year day job at Maxfield's House of Caffeine (398 Dolores St.), Satyricon occasionally solves temptation by succumbing to it.

"The proximity of SoMa nightlife is an enabling factor," he said. "I work Monday through Friday, up at 6am. But with our theater so close to the Powerhouse Bar, and when it's Underwear Night, I've been getting into a habit of meeting my boyfriend for 'one drink.'"

Satyricon recalled the first time he stripped down to his underwear, joking, to quote "Pearls" character Madame Gin Sling, "That was my downfall."

But stripping down is nothing new for the actor-singer. "I'm usually the naked character in these shows," said Satyricon. "Playing Captain Eddie is so constricting, with the nautical suit." He said he anticipates shedding the uniform each night.

Satyricon's gogo dancing will take a back seat for the duration of shows like "Pearls."

"There have been a number of times in the last run when I would go out," he said, adding that for the recent Pepperspray band reunion, held a few weeks ago at the DNA Lounge, "I donned my Pepperspray panties and did my old routines."

"It's not unheard of for me to the rush off to another late night gig," added Satyricon. "You always have to sacrifice something, and sleep is the first to go. I'd hate to look back on my life and say, 'Gosh, I could have done so much more.'"

"Pearls Over Shanghai" runs Thu-Sat, 8pm at the Hypnodrome Theatre, 575 10th St., thru May 31. $30-$35.

Never miss a story! Keep up to date on the latest news, arts, politics, entertainment, and nightlife. Sign up for the Bay Area Reporter's free weekday email newsletter. You'll receive our newsletters and special offers from our community partners.

Support California's largest LGBTQ newsroom. Your one-time, monthly, or annual contribution advocates for LGBTQ communities. Amplify a trusted voice providing news, information, and cultural coverage to all members of our community, regardless of their ability to pay -- Donate today!