PEARLS OVER SHANGHAI – An Interview with Russell Blackwood

Thrillpeddlers extends the Cockettes’ classic musical through April 24th

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By Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Photo by Lynn Imanaka

PEARLS OVER SHANGHAI is simply the best show in town. An original musical by Link Martin and Richard Scrumbly Koldewyn – the setting is Shanghai, the year is 1937, and a trio of virginal young ladies have been “Shanghaied” into white slavery. The rest is about singing sailors, witty whores, foolish immortals, handmaidens and henchmen, all taking their places in streets teeming with a mix of foreign aristocrats, opium addicts, and gangland slave-trade czars. The production is the centerpiece of the Thrillpeddlers second annual Theatre of the Ridiculous Revival. It marks the 40th anniversary of the formation of The Cockettes – a gender-bending theatrical troupe who originated the musical and, since the curtains first parted back in 1970, have exerted a profound influence on the culture of The City ranging from the phenomenon of midnight movies to glitter rock stars and outrageous fashion glamour. And by just Being. I met with director and featured player Russell Blackwood at their theater – The Hypnodrome – located at 575 10th Street (near Bryant and Division). During the day, the interior of this 45-seat house seems almost non-descript. But at showtime, with the clang of the gong, we are transported into an opulent and glittering Otherland – or what was once assigned to the original production, a “Nocturnal Dream Show”. Leave the kids at home. And brace yourself. Some of the illustrious cast members shed their sequins and pearls and just let the lights shine everywhere.
Click here for ticket information: PEARLS OVER SHANGHAI

Seán: How did all this get started?

Russell: It was New Year’s Eve, 1970, that they first appeared on stage.

Seán: I’m recalling times much after that.

Russell: The Cockettes were around two years and then, after they disbanded, there were some more shows that included them. You are probably thinking of Angels of Light. So, Hibiscus, who founded the Cockettes, left about a year or so later – before they did their New York tour. He started his own company called the Angels of Light and some of the Cockettes went there. The two companies definitely had a different aesthetic. They were both psychedelicized. The Angels were here for something like twelve years. They performed at the Herbst Theatre, did free theatre and lots of times they were big spectacles with extraordinary visuals. Beaver Bauer – who was one of the performers and costumers with the company – now does costumes for Teatro Zinzanni, he’s a resident designer at A.C.T., and does Vegas shows.

Seán: That’s what I remember. During that period, I was the “Jeanette MacDonald” of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus. We were controversial enough just being ourselves – as out musicians who sang standard concert repertoire. So, we were very aware and supportive of these way-other and outrageous performances.

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Kara Emry and Will McMichael. Photo, David Wilson

Russell: There was a life for the Cockettes, no doubt. But for those first two years the bulb burned really bright at the Palace Theatre which seats about 1200 people. They would do shows for one or two weekends. Lots of the shows – Pearls being the one exception – only happened then. We have posters in our ephemera exhibit that feature the Cockettes. Right after they disbanded, there was a show called Vice Palace which featured both Divine and Mink Stole. It was “The Mask of the Red Death” – with Divine as “The Count”. Last January we did a show to celebrate the 40th Anniversary – a 25-minute revue of material from other Cockettes shows including Vice Palace and Hot Greeks.

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Divine (center) and the Cockettes & Scrumbly.
Photos, Clay Geerdes

Seán: How close is this production of Pearls to the original?

Russell: I think the circumstances were so different that I wouldn’t even want to speak to it, because I wasn’t there. I’m up here doing it. I think looking at the history of it that the differences are apparent. It’s a very different age and completely different for our 45-seat theater. At the Palace there was a lot of space between the first row and the raised stage. But here! We are a purpose-built theater – and right up in your face!

Seán: Is the score the same as the original?

Russell: I would say there are a portion of songs that Scrumbly our pianist had charts for, that he could remember the tune of, or there was a recording. Some of the music was lost to history and all we had were the lyrics. So, those songs were created by Scrumbly for the production we did two summers ago. We really lucked out. I had already decided we were going to The Theatre of The Ridiculous revival. I read Sweet Pam’s book. She has a memoir about the Cockettes and I had seen the documentary about a year ago. But it was Sweet Pam’s book that really jelled it for me. I had to track these people down. And I did! Within something like six weeks, on St. Patrick’s Day – I have seven Cockettes sitting in my theater, including two from Los Angeles.

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Click on the photo to order on-line.

Seán: How did you get hold of them?

Russell: I had Pam over and we had some pizza. I told her, “I’m going to do this Theatre of the Ridiculous Festival. I’m really excited about your story and the fact you guys are here. I want to do an event.” And they came! So, we were showing films, doing talk-back, and it just began. Fayette Hauser wound up doing the costume job for Charles Busch’s play, Theodora, She-Bitch of Byzantium. Jim (co-producer James Toczyl) and I were invited by the Cockettes to join them that June in New York for a week. Martin Worman, who has passed away – his lover, Robert Croonquist, was donating all of the archive of Martin’s work to the Lincoln Center Performing Arts Library. So, it’s there for scholars and theatre people to study his scripts, listen to recordings, everything. It’s really great. Charles Ludlam’s archive is there as well. Charles did The Mystery of Irma Vep. If there is somebody who is the figure head of Theatre of The Ridiculous, it’s Charles Ludlam.

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Original Cockette Rumi Missabu with the trio of pearls –
Adeola Role, Liza Bouterage, and Miss Sheldra.
Photo, David Wilson

Russell:There were about fifteen Cockettes who came in from all around the country to spend this week. Mink Stole came in from Baltimore. There was a symposium at the Gay and Lesbian Center in the Village. There was a special – they perform for us night – including Hibiscus’ family doing this whole act at Theater For the New City where Jim and I and the Cockettes are the Guests of Honor. We had this incredible bonding experience with them before we even started work. Then this producer of the Howell Festival is all enthusiastic about the Cockettes being a part of their festival. We decided on Pearls Over Shanghai.

Seán: I think the score for Pearls is fantastic. Is there a recording?

Russell: There are some songs that are in the documentary. Sylvester sings “Jaded Lady”, the cast sings “Shanghai”. At any rate, this producer comes up with the money to give each of us a plane ticket and a stipend to bring the entire Theatre of The Ridiculous program, plus a costumed concert staging of Pearls Over Shanghai. The piece ran for about an hour. There were things that were cut in order to take it there, some verses were trimmed from songs – but the shape of the show was there.

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OPIUM.
Photo, David Wilson

Russell: We had a great time. Someone shot a professional video of it. Watching the video after we got back, I thought: ‘I know just what to do with this show.’ And I think we did. We knew what to do with the material, we knew what to do with the inspiration. We knew how to enfold working members of the Cockettes into the company and people who were holding the torch for what the Cockettes stand for.

Seán: Including Leanne Borghesi. I’m her vocal coach. She’s been working with me for twelve years.

Russell: I’ll be damned! Wow. Well done! She’s back in as “Petrushka” this weekend and she’s working on Hot Greeks with me as well as my associate director.

Seán: I know you’ve had several other “Petrushkas” since the show opened, each so different from the other. So, what’s the essential core value of the role that makes it available to a number of different types?

Russell: Sylvester originated the role. He came into the Cockettes a star – whether anyone knew him or not. He was greeted like a mega-talent. So – Star Quality and, preferably, a following.

Seán: Well, Leanne certainly has an abundance of all that.

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Russell Blackwood (center) with Jim Blackwood, Will McMichael, Morningwood and Mouse Couture. Photo, David Wilson

* * * * * *

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Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Seán Martinfield, who also serves as Fine Arts Critic, is a native San Franciscan. He is a Theatre Arts Graduate from San Francisco State University, a professional singer, and well-known private vocal coach to Bay Area actors and singers of all ages and persuasions. His clients have appeared in Broadway National Tours including Wicked, Aïda, Miss Saigon, Rent, Bye Bye Birdie, in theatres and cabarets throughout the Bay Area, and are regularly featured in major City events including Diva Fest, Gay Pride, and Halloween In The Castro. As an Internet consultant in vocal development and audition preparation he has published thousands of responses to those seeking his advice concerning singing techniques, professional and academic auditions, and careers in the Performing Arts. Mr. Martinfield’s Broadway clients have all profited from his vocal methodology, “The Belter’s Method”, which is being prepared for publication. If you want answers about your vocal technique, post him a question on AllExperts.com. If you would like to build up your vocal performance chops and participate in the Bay Area’s rich theatrical scene, e-mail him at: sean.martinfield@comcast.net.

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