Capricious Shows and Extended Offshoots

This is a show record of a community theatre in San Francisco called The Angels of Light and the extended groups that emerged from that association. The group was created in 1970 as a free theatre. It lasted until 1988. I hope you enjoy this record of the many talented artists and crafts people that worked to develop art through free community participation. Please forgive me if I have inadvertently omitted you from this show history. Let me know and I’ll include your work in the record.

It was 1967 when an eighteen-year old young man named George Harris Jr., met a writer named Irving Rosenthal in New York City. George came from an acting family, the oldest of five siblings. He and his family performed in Off-off-Broadway theatre, and television commercials. George was a member of Actors Equity and had just finished working on an anti-war play called, “Peace Creeps,” starring Al Pacino and James Earl Jones

Irving was thirty-eight when they met. He’d graduated from Pomona State College and had done some graduate work in Human Development at The University of Chicago. He was a former editor of the Chicago Review and had just finished his first homoerotic novel, Sheeper (Grove Press, S.F.1967.) He lived in a commune in San Francisco and invited George to travel cross-country with him and Beat poet, Peter Orlovsky.

Harris, Rosenthal and Orlovsky took off on their road trip. They stopped off at an anti-Vietnam War demonstration in Washington D.C. Here in front of the Pentagon, National Guardsmen stood in full dress uniforms with their rifles at the ready. George, being a conscientious objector, went up to one Guardsman and placed a carnation in the barrel of his rifle. Bernie Boston, a local reporter for the now defunct National Star newspaper, snapped George and the Guardsman’s picture. Boston’s editor was not impressed with the photo and buried it. Boston later entered the picture in journalism contests winning several awards.

When George arrived in San Francisco, he joined the forty-member vegetarian  Friends of Perfection commune. This commune did not pay rent on their house because the building was owned by the city and the members planted trees and performed sweat equity to upgrade the dilapidated building in exchange for rent. Irving owned a printing press and the commune created a weekly newsletter called Kaliflower that was personally hand delivered to over 300 communes. This newsletter became a central feed tank for shared ideas about recycling, planting organic gardens, vegetarianism, free stores, coming out, health issues, applying for social services, home birth information, and an exchange of ideas. Anyone in the free community, who needed a flier or poster for their event, went to the Friends of Perfection commune to have it printed for free. Any commune that needed a refrigerator or a mattress put an ad in Kaliflower much the way Craigslist works today. This was all done quietly to keep communal business under the radar. The Friends of Perfection kept all the other communes in touch and the network blossomed.

George lived an openly gay life at The Friends of Perfection commune.  He did not simply come out, he let his short hair grow long, grew a long mustache and beard, wore vintage thrift store robes, bare feet, make-up, glitter and fresh flowers in his hair. He changed his name to Hibiscus.

Hibiscus’ job at The Friends of Perfection commune was to clean the house and prep food for the vegetarian diet. The commune took their social work very seriously. They purchased land that they worked in Oregon for a country commune to be built in the future, worked on the weekly newsletter and helped to deliver fruits and vegetables to other communes in the bay area. Many broken people landed on their door and even the most damaged  were invited to stay and put to work. Most arrived with no money and Irving suggested they apply for social services to cover their basic needs in the commune. Every member donated their welfare checks and money to the communal Kaliflower treasury. Those with money donated their inheritances or trust funds to keep the commune going. This commune did not party or take drugs. They became  known as Kaliflower because it was easier to say than The Friends of Perfection.

Kaliflower was not Hibiscus’ cup of tea after the bloom wore off the romance with Irving. He grew-up as a child performer with a lot of creative latitude. He had one younger brother, three beautiful sisters and parents that performed as a family as well as building their individual careers. He spent his childhood writing and producing original plays, attending acting school, creating children’s theatre, going on auditions, modeling and acting. He did not attend traditional schools and did not grow-up with the same socialization as the other commune members.

The  other commune members were college dropouts, tinkers and budding intellectuals with literary pursuits. The daily house meetings, grunt work; enforced poverty, mandatory group criticism sessions, dreary Marxist sobriety and stoic work ethic must have been like a Kafka nightmare for young Hibiscus. His gregarious personality withered under the watchful eye of his mentor-lover, Irving Rosenthal, a man twice his age. Hibiscus was not an intellectual and could not be easily controlled, so Irving made him leave.

There were plenty of other communes. Hibiscus joined a new household with former Friends of Perfection: Jilala, Ralph, Tahara and Sweet Pam along with new friends: Scrumbly, Link, Harlow, Fayetta, Kreema and many others. This new household was more to Hibiscus’ taste. They spent their days dressing up, shopping at thrift stores, taking drugs, dancing, singing and having fun. Hibiscus found his new friends so theatrical he suggested  they be on the stage.

There was a movie house in North Beach called, The Palace Theatre, where the old Chinese men would relax after work and watch midnight movies. The Palace needed an act for New Years Eve, 1970. Hibiscus decided that the Palace Theatre was the place to create his new theatre company. Ralph came up with the name, The Cockettes – a gay male version of The Rockettes. They jumped onstage for a Cancan to the Rolling Stones song, “Honky Tonk Woman” and ended up naked. The Cockettes called their event, The Nocturnal Dream Shows. These early performances included a series of Betty Boop cartoons and movies by Kenneth Anger, Busby Berkeley and John Waters to flush out the program. The free live performances and midnight movies were a welcomed addition to the underground community and the Palace Theatre was soon filled to capacity with stoned out freaks every weekend.

The Kaliflower newsletter promoted the shows and audience members dressed in wacko drag to cheer on their friends no matter what they did. It was a big party. Men wore make-up, glitter, gowns, and sometimes performed nude. Women were cartoon Hollywood stars. Drugs were shared freely on stage and throughout the audience and everyone partook. Hibiscus had certainly fulfilled a need in the community and later that year in 1970, the group was so busy developing their shows they needed a manager to run interference between the fans and the owner of the Palace Theatre. Sebastian took on the job but needed a bank to print posters, buy stage supplies and reimburse the performers for their out-of-pocket expenses. Sebastian created a $2.00 entrance fee for this purpose and you’d think he robbed The Mint.

Hibiscus, Jilala, Ralph and Tahara had an immense fidelity to Irving Rosenthal. Irving took them in when they first arrived in San Francisco. He re-educated them to the free philosophy and the idea that “making a living” was a totally unnecessary concept. Irving felt that charging was a betrayal of the free principle that had developed throughout the communal underground because everyone lived on social services in order to create an alternative society. They contributed back to the community for free since the federal government supported them with General Assistance, Aide to the Totally Disabled, and Aide to Families with Dependent Children, Food Stamps and Medical Insurance. The idea that Hibiscus and The Cockettes would charge poor people to be entertained by this free community of local freaks was akin to inviting someone to dinner then charging them. Because Irving was appalled, Hibiscus followed suit. Hibiscus pressured the Cockettes to eliminate the entrance fee. Since Irving discovered Hibiscus and Hibiscus created the group, Irving blamed him for the violation of the free ethic and Hibiscus was a very sensitive young man. Irving liked to feel that he was in control and since these young men were half his age, they were easily shamed. Hibiscus did not want to lose Irving’s respect and neither did Tahara, Ralph or Jilala. They tried to undermine the entrance fee by sneaking people into the theatre without paying and publicly accused Sebastian, the Cockette manager, of ripping off the community when he was simply trying to manage the group and keep good will with the owner of the theatre. The argument escalated where Irving, Hibiscus, Tahara, Ralph and Jilala treated Sebastian like The Black Hand.

The majority of Cockettes however did not subscribe to the free philosophy of living on welfare to create an alternative society. They wanted a salary, wanted to build a career and  wanted to repeat and refine the shows they’d conceived. Their skills were getting better and some very talented people had joined the cast. Hibiscus wanted original shows each week and this was an enormous amount of work. The existing shows could not be improved upon nor could performances be fine-tuned if they could never be revived. But if the shows were always new, the audience participation would remain fresh to keep that party atmosphere. This argument lasted until the majority of The Cockettes had their fill of Irving’s instigation and Hibiscus’ demands. They booted Hibiscus out of his own theatre group and Tahara and Jilala joined the exodus.

Many of the Cockettes saw a way out of poverty through art. Not everyone believed in socialist welfare. Some wanted to be paid artists and develop a career. There were some pretty talented performers that found their way into The Cockettes. Sweet Pam Tent gives a full description of this group’s work in her autobiography, Midnight at the Palace, My Life as a Fabulous Cockette, (Alyson Books, Los Angeles, 2004.)

Hibiscus, now out in the cold, created a new free theatre taking several Cockettes with him and hoped that this next group would stay true to Irving Rosenthal’s free philosophy.

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April 9, 2010 at 6:52 pm


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