Rumi Missabu is a legend known around the San Francisco streets as a former member of the Cockettes, a glitter-clad, hippie, drag queen troupe. In the 21st century, he has gained notoriety for his various theater performances around the world. Now is a busy time for Rumi Missabu, he is organizing performances in New York City, rehearsing for his Pearls Over Shanghai production at the Hypnodrome, and starring in his very own documentary, Ruminations. At 65 years old, Rumi is certainly not slowing down.
This interview was conducted at Billy Bowers’ San Francisco apartment. Billy is best remembered for designing costumes for Alice Cooper, the Rolling Stones, the Cockettes, and countless others. Rumi Missabu’s dear friend welcomed TEENAGE NEWS for an enlightening conversation in his cozy apartment. Bowers’ walls were covered with his own, original designs: collages of glitter, vibrant feathers, leather bulges, as well as his famous, whimsically embroidered jackets. We discussed life for Missabu in the seventies, his everlasting love of performing, and the importance of valuing human connection along the way.
TEENAGE NEWS: The Cockettes were considered a one-of-a-kind group for San Francisco in 1969. What distinguished the Cockettes from other hippies in San Francisco?
Rumi Missabu: There were no gay, hippies at the time. And we, the Cockettes, were probably the first gay, hippies, and we were the first bearded drag queens too. Some of the group had beards. As liberal as the hippies were, there were no gay, hippies until us. We were the first gay, hippy commune as well. There was none of that. The hippies treated gay people with a little bit of disdain, as liberal as they were supposed to be. I remember, Scrumbly, one of the Cockettes, was up on Hippie Hill [in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco], and was told by a hippy “Can’t you find a girl?” The Cockettes, also, weren’t all guys, there were girls in there too; the girls brought a lot of the magic to the group, and there was even a baby, an infant.
TEENAGE NEWS: How did the Cockettes react to these negative jabs?
Rumi Missabu: We just thought at the time that that’s how it was going to be forever. Back then we weren’t worried about gay-bashing, or anything like that. It wasn’t even in our thought process… We lived in our own fantasy so much so that it wasn’t even a part of our deal to be gay-bashed, bullied, or anything like that. None of that was going on. They weren’t even any tags like “top,” “bottom,” “gay,” or “straight.”
TEENAGE NEWS: Have you ever felt you needed to identify with your sexuality?
Rumi Missabu: I never had to “come out,” like they do now, today. I didn’t know I was gay. I had three girlfriends back then, and I was just defining my sexuality. I didn’t have a sexual preference then. But the dean of my high school, and the football team knew I was gay, even though I didn’t.
My parents, another story… They left before I defined my sexuality. They moved to Idaho from Hollywood when I was sixteen, so they never had to go through anything about me coming out. The last thing my mother knew about me before moving to Idaho was that I was running around in college with loose, married women. Anyways, I’m convinced that at my age, at 65 years old, that the human condition, not the gay condition, the human condition, is not meant to be monogamous. I’m convinced of it.
TEENAGE NEWS: So do you see a distinction between being “lovers” and being “in love?”
Rumi Missabu: I’ve had another epiphany in the last few years. I’ve been around the block, I’ve had many, many, many lovers. But I could, up until just recently, count on one hand (in the gay world at least) my lovers who have actually become my friends for life. How important is that? It is much more important than just being a lover. To me, this has become an obsession.
Turn your lover into your friend for life… More important, put sex on the back burner, if it happens it happens. And frankly, friendship is just more rounded. I could count two of my lovers that are friends for life, Scrumbly and Dan Nicoletta. Dan was Harvey Milk’s assistant when he was nineteen years old and I was twenty-three. These are my friends for the rest of my life.
TEENAGE NEWS: What was the Cockettes’ drug of choice?
Rumi Missabu: All of us started out on LSD, including during performances. That was the drug of choice. That was the drug of choice.
TEENAGE NEWS: Would you say LSD played a significant role in the Cockettes’ performances?
Rumi Missabu: Oh yeah! Absolutely. But then a lot of them, when they went to New York, got into heroin. A lot of them… It was so cheap…
Billy Bowers: It was so cheap, and the hotel we stayed in just gave it to us. They were just waiting for us.
Rumi Missabu: You could get the bell boys to deliver it to your room.
Billy Bowers: It was like 5 dollars.
Rumi Missabu: That brought the whole thing down. It brought the whole psychedelic thing down to just like gut level. Luckily, I didn’t get into heroin because I always had an aversion to needles.
TEENAGE NEWS: Can you tell us about the Cockette’s children?
Rumi Missabu: All the Cockette children have these hippie names, Magic and Ocean Michael. Ocean was the baby in our group. He’s the only well-adjusted Cockette baby out of all of them. He was on stage. Pam never put her son on stage. He was always on the side. Dusty nursed Ocean on stage, and Pam performed pregnant on stage.
TEENAGE NEWS: It’s noted that the Cockettes performances were jam-packed every night in San Francisco with great admiration. With all the positive support from the audience of San Francisco, why do you think the Cockettes had a hard time when trying to perform in New York?
Rumi Missabu: I saw the writing on the wall; it wasn’t going to translate. East Coast to West Coast, it just wasn’t going to work. New York is a professional town and they want to see professionals, and the Cockettes resented direction, they resented choreography and rehearsals. They were anarchists, total anarchists. Basically, they all came home with their tail between their legs.
TEENAGE NEWS: What caused you to finally leave the Cockettes?
Rumi Missabu: I didn’t get how easy it was to become a Cockette; all you need to do was show up. Our audience came just as stoned as we were to our shows. Fifteen hundred people went to the Palace Theatre [in San Francisco], and there were no walls between the stage and the audience. You could just jump on or you could be someone’s trick, and just be recruited for the next show and be a Cockette forevermore. So more and more people jumped in, some people were turning into celebrities. Everyone was a Cockette at that time, everyone was. So all of a sudden it was ten months into our run and there were 65 people on the stage, and at that point I was enraged. They weren’t quite celebrities then, but some celebrities started joining our group, like Sylvester, who became an international disco star. I didn’t care who they were, how talented they were, if they came later, I resented them. They weren’t the Cockettes.
TEENAGE NEWS: With all these new members entering the group, did it affect the ways in which the Cockettes normally functioned?
Rumi Missabu: The dynamics changed, they got very serious. They kicked out our founder, Hibiscus, who started the whole thing. They kicked him down the stairs, out of the group. What also made me that way, utterly conceited, was cocaine, the drug that I got into after LSD. It made me very arrogant and very conceited. So it was very easy for me to get arrogant and very conceited, and I left the group very, very bitter and I didn’t want to have anything to do with the unoriginal Cockettes. I didn’t really get it then, but now, I get it. I see the no walls, and how it was so easy to be a Cockette. Now I celebrate those people who came later.
TEENAGE NEWS: What was the final straw?
Rumi Missabu: I wanted a career in New York, and I wanted to go see the world, not just California. I made arrangements to go and work with Hibiscus in New York because he made his next group there. They were called the Angels of Light. He created a splintered group that was more spiritual.
TEENAGE NEWS: Tell me more about Hibiscus!
Rumi Missabu: The Cockettes were all about Hibiscus the first year. He had such charisma, and he would just come up with a theme. He would say “Okay, next month we’re going to do an all Southern show called Gone with the Showboat to Oklahoma with songs. All the characters would be from a fairy tale extravaganza, and would all come together on acid.” That was the premise, no script, no nothing. Just do it, get up there and be who you want, be the character you want.
TEENAGE NEWS: You mentioned the first year was all about Hibiscus, how was it different after that?
Rumi Missabu: It started getting serious and scripted: board of directors, tech, rehearsals, etc. But the Cockettes weren’t about rehearsing; we were about anarchy. We weren’t about rehearsing, we resented direction. For example, I brought a director in the first year, Michael Kalmen, who directed me in Elevator Girls in Bondage. I brought a director in, and boy did they give him a hard time.
TEENAGE NEWS: Did you join Angels of Light with Hibiscus?
Rumi Missabu: Yes, I worked with him and his family, and then moved to New York with him. I was in a show he did called the Enchanted Miracle. Hibiscus, in the Angels of Light in New York, got me to do two shows a night for free for an entire month for the people of New York City.
TEENAGE NEWS: What made you want to do that?
Rumi Missabu: His charisma, Hibiscus had such charisma. It was very important work for me, I jumped in and I’m glad I did. I’m not in it for the money; I’m in it for arts’ sake, until this day. That’s why I’m doing Pearl’s for ten dollars a show. That’s BART fare back and forth from where I live. But Hibiscus got me to do that run, and I never missed a performance. I’m so glad I did it because all my idols came to see it. Do I want to be a working actor making no money? Or do I want to be a non-working actor making no money? The difference with the media, the entertainment media, I’m convinced, being from Hollywood, is that if you want to get famous, do films. I’m not talking independent films, or experimental, I’m talking film film. If you want to get rich, do television and if you want to get good, do theater. Also, look at the different ratios of entertainment. Film is larger than life, television, until recently, is smaller than life, and theater is actual size.
TEENAGE NEWS: After the Cockettes splintered, how was the relationship between the two groups?
Rumi Missabu: The Angels were more serious; they were also the Cockettes’ biggest critics. The Angels would be outside of Cockettes’ shows with picket signs, but as soon as the show started they’d drop the signs, and be in the front row of our show and be our biggest fans. So they were our most severe critics, and our biggest fans at the same time. There was a lot of cross-pollination between the two groups.
TEENAGE NEWS: You mentioned leaving the Cockettes on a bad note, but now you’re heavily into reviving Cockette productions. When did you start missing it?
Rumi Missabu: Well, over the years, I lost all my memorabilia. I didn’t even have a photograph to prove that I was in the Cockettes. I lost a trunk in New York that had my scrapbook and the photographs I saved that were identified with the Cockettes. So all those years, I didn’t have a photo. But in 1994, I was living in the Castro [San Francisco gay neighborhood] in a big flat, and hadn’t seen any of the Cockettes. I didn’t want to until I saw them in the streets one day! They were organizing a reunion in San Francisco, and I was still kind of bitter. Even in 1994, I contemplated about going or not going. I would go back and forth saying, “Oh, I would never go to such a thing,” or “ Okay, I’m going!” up until the final day. Finally on the third day, I said, “I’m going!” and I went and took 200 pictures and had the time of my life.
TEENAGE NEWS: So the reunion was a success?
Rumi Missabu: Yes, and it was not awkward at all! It was very beautiful. Five years later, in 1999, I gave the Cockettes a 30th anniversary party at my flat in the Castro. They came from New York and everywhere. A lot who have gone and died since then were at the ’99 reunion. So I had a whole change, at that point in ’94. I started collecting again, ravenously, all the stuff. Old stuff, all of it… I just ravenously started collecting all the stuff I had lost. In 1999, when they started making a documentary about the Cockettes, they started getting a hold of us. That helped me start to get more and more stuff because we were probably the most photographed group in Northern California back then.
TEENAGE NEWS: Did anyone within the group document and take photos of you guys?
Rumi Missabu: Only Fayette, a female. We were photographed by everyone, from Annie Leibowitz to Robert Allman, just a lot of famous people. We were just lionized by the press back then, and famous people started coming to our shows like Truman Capote, Andy Warhol, Tina Turner, John Lennon; oh my god, it just didn’t stop.
TEENAGE NEWS: Do you think there is a difference in drag now compared to the Cockettes during the groups prime?
Rumi Missabu: Look at the current venues, and all that. I hate all that stuff because all they are doing is recycling old television shows. That’s where they’re getting their inspiration from, Golden Girls and Sex and the City. That’s their inspiration, and, to me, that’s so tired. They’re also performing in bars where they’re making more money than I am. They’re making $90 a show, and I’m making ten; but they’re performing in bars where no one’s really listening. I make sure to keep my art in a theatrical setting, museum, or gallery because that way I know people are paying attention.
TEENAGE NEWS: With the original Cockettes and their first performances, and even with Hibiscus and the shows with the Angels of Light, what were you trying to give to the audience?
Rumi Missabu: In an early issue of Rolling Stones Magazine, I said, “I think I’m performing gay-liberation through my art.” I just had a sense of it then. Now, I know I was. But, we didn’t realize how radical we were. I still think the radical press that politicized us helped our great extent.
TEENAGE NEWS: Were you okay with being politicized?
Rumi Missabu: We did not think about it, because we were so far out. We were practically illegal, whatever they wanted to say about us, we were okay with everybody and everything, even back then.
TEENAGE NEWS: Looking back, do you agree with how the journalists labeled you as a leader in gay liberation movement?
Rumi Missabu: Yeah because I’ve become a mentor for the gay liberation movement. Now, I do lectures at universities, and have an essay, and a book out about gay lib. I just came peace with that. I’ve become a mentor for a large amount of people. I didn’t really get it until after several years. Now I work with it, I’m celebrating it. Up until ’95, the Cockettes were just a glitch on the radar. A one sentence blur in a gay encyclopedia. A group of San Francisco drag queens, that’s all we were, up until like ‘94/’95.
TEENAGE NEWS: So during the performances, did you even know the audience would take anything away from it?
Rumi Missabu: There really wasn’t a message. It was just our fantasies from the street to the stage. That’s what it was, living at the peak of our imagination. We weren’t bothered by gay labels or bashing. We didn’t think of that. We didn’t even think about that…
TEENAGE NEWS: Do you think nowadays there is anything even close to what the Cockettes created?
Rumi Missabu: No, it can never be replicated. Never. You can’t make that magic happen again. Can’t do it. You can keep the spirit alive, and that’s what I am doing by these revivals, and the museum show I do. As well as keeping my movies out there like Elevator Girls in Bondage.
TEENAGE NEWS: What else do you do to continue the legacy of the Cockettes?
Rumi Missabu: I now collect original photos of the Cockettes, I’ve actually collected estates of dead photographers and I own those photographs. And if, someone is interested in a photo, depending on a whole bunch of factors like how passionate I am about their project and TV shows or how much their budget is, I will loan it to them.
TEENAGE NEWS: There have been many recent revival shows of famous Cockette productions. For the upcoming revival of Pearls Over Shanghai, what are the differences between the upcoming production and the original?
Rumi Missabu: John Waters, when he came to Pearls for the revival in 2009/2010, he took me aside and said two things: One, “I’m not on LSD this time,” and two, “This is really polished. This is really polished.” Like I said, we rehearsed and rehearsed and there’s crews and warm-ups, musical warm-ups, extensive choreography.
TEENAGE NEWS: How is it working extensively with a full new cast for all the revivals that you do?
Rumi Missabu: After working with a whole new, young cast for every revival and working so closely with all these people, you are like family because you are rehearsing for months and months at a time. It’s almost like you’re family, you see these people vulnerable, you see them sad, happy at these rehearsals, you see them naked, you see everything. You really build these relationships.
TEENAGE NEWS: Like you said, friends for life!
Rumi Missabu: Building relationships are important. Just the other day a young friend of mine said to me (he made me cry), he told me that I had done all the homework for him as a young gay man a long time ago. I gave him an excuse to dress up on other days besides Halloween.
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Post by Gabrielle Domingo, edited by August Bernadicou