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Prairie Pop: Flashback to ’70s SanFran drag with former Cockette Lendon Sadler

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Lendon Sadler
Lendon Sadler as gospel star Mahalia Jackson — still from Milton Miron’s film, Tricia’s Wedding, starring the Cockettes

Plenty of dicks have lived in Iowa City over the years, but only one Cockette. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Lendon Sadler was part of a notorious San Francisco drag troupe named the Cockettes, which filmmaker John Waters affectionately referred to as a bunch of acid freak bearded Marxist drag queens. Since that time, Sadler has put down roots in many places — including Iowa City — though he now resides outside of Chicago, where I recently spoke with him.

Lendon Sadler was one of three African-American members of the group during the early 1970s, including the soon-to-be disco star Sylvester –who died in 1988 of AIDS, which also claimed the lives of many other Cockettes (as did drugs, cancer and suicide). Their loose membership hovered around three to four dozen, “but now you can count just barely over one hand the number of us, and Lendon is one of the few that is left,” Cockette Pam Tent told me, adding, “I adore Lendon. He is one of my favorite, favorite people.”

Sadler was born in Atlanta, Georgia in 1950, and was inspired as a young teen by the peace movement and Martin Luther King, Jr., who he knew from his neighborhood. “Besides the hippies,” he told me, “the Civil Rights organizers were the most inspirational movement at the time, because they had so much energy.” He eventually ran away from home, traversing the 1960s on a long, strange bohemian trip that eventually took him to the West Coast.

“Flying into San Francisco,” he said, “for the first time in my life, I felt settled. Even before I got out the plane, just seeing the Pacific Ocean was incredible.” Sometime in the late 1960s, he met George Harris — the Cockettes’ ringleader — who had settled in a San Francisco commune, changed his name to Hibiscus, and began hanging out in the trees.

Literally.

“One day I was in Golden Gate Park,” Sandler recalled, “and there was an area called Hippy Hill, and Hibiscus was in a tree and he was singing ‘Madame Butterfly’ in that high screechy falsetto he would do — and he was just so seductive.”

Tent met Hibiscus the same way.

“I had been up all night on acid, and then in the morning I went to Golden Gate Park,” she said. “There is a little area and I was laying there sleeping in the ferns and I heard some people singing, ‘We’re having a heat wave, a tropical heat wave’!”

“In those days, everything was possible and everything happened. I saw these three people up in a tree, and this incredible creature was a display of golden hair and red lips, and this flowing cap-up in a limb of a tree,” Tent said. She added, “I went over there and they said, ‘Oh, come on up. Come on up.’ And so I did.”

She never looked back. (The Cockettes were pansexual, featuring both male and female members doing their own gender-imploding take on drag.)

“Hibiscus was a free spirit and he was all over the place,” Sadler recalled. “He would hitchhike in dresses. He had long blonde hair and a beard, and he’d wear makeup when he cared to. I mean, first of all, he freaked all the hippies out. We were obviously hippies, but he cornered another market in freakiness, and he began to amass various circles –people with like minds.”

“Everybody was raised by somebody, and all of us carried the baggage of our families — our class, our religion, all of those things. The magic of the Cockettes was that everybody showed up and we all flew into a common religion, the Cockettes,” he continued. “All of us felt like we were alien creatures born into the world that we had no understanding of, and we were just getting the confidence to say, ‘Whatever we are, we are going to push it in your face and we demand to be ourselves’.”

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The troupe regularly performed midnight shows at the Palace Theatre in North Beach, which also programmed underground movies — including early films by John Waters, which is how he entered the Cockettes’ orbit.

“John Waters had just come to San Francisco for the first time and he was staying there,” Sadler said. “That began our friendship.”

They were roommates for a time in San Francisco’s Mission neighborhood, and the director hipped Sadler and the rest of the Cockettes to his muse, Divine, well before he starred in the gross-out classic Pink Flamingos.

“When we heard that Divine was going to visit San Francisco,” Sadler continued, “we all got dressed up and went out to the airport. He didn’t know us from Adam, but we were wearing all this high finery and crazy drag. We went out there and turned the airport up. Of course, Divine arrived in Divine drag and we acted like kids greeting the Beatles. We were of course instant friends.”

These soul mates soon began collaborating on demented musicals at the Palace Theatre.

“Journey to the Center of Uranus was the first show we did with Divine,” he recalled. “There were others, but that was the first one.”

Divine was a huge hit with the Cockettes’ audience, especially during his show-stopping number, “A Crab on Uranus Means You’re Loved,” which always brought the house down.

“A lot of what we did has gone mainstream — with mainstream stars who drag now, straight stars that do drag. A lot of what was outrageous about us has been incorporated into popular culture,” Sadler said. “We took and recycled some of the basics of Hollywood and Vaudeville, and completely repackaged it and made it something else.”

“We were such a uniquely American phenomena, and that’s a crucial thing about the Cockettes. I mean, even the name, the name came from the Rockettes,” Sadler told me. “When the conversation went on about considering what we should call ourselves, the story goes that everybody was sitting around and somebody said, ‘Well, we’re like the Rockettes, except we have cocks.’”

The Cockettes were as American as apple pie — dosed with glitter and LSD.

Kembrew McLeod’s is spending the month of June on a vision quest. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 201.


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