Rumi Missabu: original Cockettes member and performing artist, Nov. 14, 1947-April 2, 2024

  • by Jim Provenzano
  • Sunday April 7, 2024
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Rumi Missabu (photo: Steven Love Menendez)
Rumi Missabu (photo: Steven Love Menendez)

Rumi Missabu, one of the last original Cockettes, and a film, music and theater artist, died in his Oakland home on April 2. He was 76.

Rumi was a founding member of the radical drag group born out of residents in gay hippie communes in 1969. The Cockettes grew from obscurity to national fame during their brief two-year existence.

Missabu performed in several of the shows, known for sometimes chaotic but hilarious musicals and revues, but later went on to other artistic accomplishments. When San Francisco revivals of the musicals began to gain devoted audiences, Missabu returned to revive one of his favorite roles.

Rumi Missabu (center) in a scene from the film 'Ruminations' (photo: David Wise)  

Hollywood and a bad trip
Born James Allen Bartlett on November 14, 1947 in Los Angeles, he was the son of Earl Oliver Bartlett and Ruth Irene Bartlett. He is survived by sisters Mary Dobyns and Debbie Mitzlaff; sister Linda Gail Bartlett died in 2018.

His fascination with Hollywood and show business began early. He even performed in a high school production of "The Miracle Worker" with a young Sally Field. When his family moved to Iowa in 1965, he stayed in LA and attended Los Angeles City College.

What led him to come to San Francisco was in part a B-horror movie and a bad acid trip. When he saw the film "She-Freak" while on LSD, he rushed back to the LA apartment he shared with then-unknown actress Cindy Williams, leaving her a note that said, "I can't take it anymore."

Rumi Missabu in 1970 (photo: David Wise)  

He hopped on a Greyhound bus to Berkeley. For a while he lived with lesbian poet Carol Graham in a water tower on San Pablo Avenue in the back of a hippie shop run by a biker gang, the Gypsy Jokers.

In the late 1960s, Bartlett decided to change his name to Rumi, after the Persian poet. His connection to the Cockettes began from meeting Hibiscus (George Harris), whom he described as "a vision; he was everywhere" in the Haight Ashbury district.

The Cockettes sprung from a group housing commune and then, inspired by musicals of the 1930s, they decided to put on gender-fuck shows with a psychedelic twist, often under-rehearsed, with lots of elaborate drag and costumes.

Their first performance on New Year's Eve 1969 was held at the Palace Theater in North Beach. But this was not merely a drag show.

In one of several interviews with August Bernadicou of the LGBTQ History Project, Missabu discussed the troupe's true nature.

Rumi Missabu in 2002 (photo: Daniel Nicoletta)  

"We weren't just a bunch of swishy faggots which young people to this day who don't do their homework think we were," said Missabu. "The Cockettes also were not just gay men. The group included women, straight guys, a baby, everything and everyone under the kitchen sink. Anyone could be a Cockette. All you needed to do was to show up in the audience and jump on stage. We resented all the theatrical law, we resented direction, we resented choreography, and we resented charging money."

Little drag rascals
Despite this, acclaim for the group grew as the gay revolution continued in the midst of the East Coast Stonewall uprising. "The Cockettes" film co-director David Weissman described the group as "The Little Rascals doing Busby Berkeley musicals on acid," which Rumi later often quoted.

Their shows included a few unusually talented performers like Sylvester and Divine, who both left after a short time, and went on to greater fame.

A notorious flop performance in New York City (Rumi did not participate) seemed to tarnish the company's success, but for them, that wasn't the point to begin with.

Rumi Missabu (photo: Jackie Rudin)  

"We didn't know how political we were because we had no need for rhetoric," Missabu told Bernadicou. "It was the underground press that made us these political darlings. We were so anti-establishment. We didn't think about that. We were just out to have a good time. While our shows may have been interpreted as political, they were really just excuses to have a party, find boyfriends, and get laid."

Justice, please
Although they were constantly living hand to mouth, money was not an objective. When Rumi was almost going to be on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine, he got bumped for Ike and Tina Turner instead.

When he had a planned benefit concert with him doing a Tina Turner impression, Missabu was shocked to see that a photo from his scrapped cover shoot had been used to sell subscriptions to Rolling Stone.

Missabu stormed into the offices, then in San Francisco, and demanded to see publisher Jann Wenner. Despite suggestions from friends that he sue, he simply asked for justice, and demanded that they publish a ready-made quarter-page ad for his benefit concert in exchange. He succeeded.

Rumi Missabu (photo: Veronica Barra)  

After a year and a half of performing in shows like "Les Ghouls," where his Mick Jagger impersonation wowed audiences, and performing in the 1972 cult film "Elevator Girls in Bondage," Rumi left the Cockettes when the company's board had become a bit too egotistical for his liking, and Hibiscus was thrown out.

Rumi and others quit as well. He traveled to Canada, then lived in New York City from 1971-1974, where he performed in Angels of Light shows with Hibiscus as well as cocreating "happenings" with Marta Minujin. Lacking proper ID for a plane ticket, he then hitchhiked back to San Francisco.

For three decades, he lived without a government ID, work record, or social security number, barely getting by with under-the-table temp jobs. His only form of identification was an expired San Francisco library card.

When former Cockette Kreemah Ritz died in 2005, Rumi, who was his executor, collected his materials and became the Cockettes' archivist, giving him a new purpose in life. Strangely, they couldn't hold a formal funeral for Ritz, because they couldn't find his body. After several frantic phone calls to a funeral home and the city, Missabu found out that his friend had been cremated, along with other unidentified people.

Rumi Missabu as Madame Gin Sling in the Thrillpeddlers revival of the Cockettes show 'Pearls Over Shanghai,' June 13, 2009 (photo: Daniel Nicoletta)  

In 2002, David Weissman and Bill Weber's acclaimed documentary "The Cockettes" brought renewed attention and devotion to the group, as well as their historical significance.

Their musicals were later revived by musical director and original Cockette Scrumbly Koldewyn, and Russell Blackwood of Thrillpeddlers at the South of Market Hypnodrome theater, which presented "Hot Greeks," "Vice Palace," "Pearls Over Shanghai" and other shows from 2002 to 2017. He also performed in Marc Huestis's production of "Marat/Sade" at Brava Theatre.

Rumi later suffered physical disability, and by 2008 he was diagnosed with chronic COPD. Despite his health problems, from 2009 to 2014 Missabu joined the new Cockettes ensemble for revivals of "Pearls Over Shanghai," re-creating his role as Madame Gin Sling.

Rumi Missabu in a 2010 studio portrait, Brooklyn, NY (photo: Keith Gemerek)  

"The young cast members keep me going," said Missabu in my backstage interview with "Pearls" cast members in April 2014 for the Bay Area Reporter.

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

Honors and encores
Frequently staying with friend Ford Wheeler in New York City from 2007 to 2019, he performed in his play, "The War," at the historic Judson Church in Manhattan, among other productions.

He later befriended gay historian August Bernadicou, who recorded multiple interviews for his website and podcast, became Rumi's biographer and edited his memoir, "Off the Grid: A Crazy Cockette Who Spent his Adult Life Off the Grid." Missabu's tall tales include his encounters with Jim Morrison, Allen Ginsberg, Rex Reed and many other celebrities.

By 2016, he began to suffer from cancer, and the medication also took a toll on his health. Yet Missabu continued to perform in small theater projects and independent films in New York. Missabu performed "I Wonder What Became of Me," a concert of songs by Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen with pianist David Lewis, at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center to inaugurate The Rumi Missabu Papers at the library.

Rumi Missabu performing in New York in 2018 (photo: Jackie Rudin)  

Taylor Mac, who has said that he owes his artistry to the Cockettes, also paid tribute to Rumi by bringing him out on stage during his "Holiday Sauce" show at the Curran Theater in 2018, where Rumi was given a "Legendary Queen" award.

In the same year, Robert James' documentary "Ruminations" was released, showing Rumi traversing hospital visits amid his renewed fame and artistic rejuvenation.

Missabu lived in Oakland through his last years.

A memorial potluck and roast with a slideshow, movie clips, food and entertainment with the theme "Afternoon of a Thousand Rumis" is being planned by Missabu's caregiver Griffin Cloudwalker for a later date, possibly Memorial Day Weekend in May. Donate to costs for the memorial and other expenses at

An additional fundraiser for funeral services is being organized by his sister, Mary Dobyns:

A New York City memorial will be at the Bureau of General Studies; Queer Division bookstore at the LGBT Community Center, 208 West 13th Street, on May 9 at 7pm. The event will be live streamed.

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