They came from outer space (via Haight Street) sometime in 1969, and first to prominence as the palpably 3-D entr'acte between late-night underground and vintage movie reels at the old Palace Theater in North Beach. There they mounted a sort of acid-fueled, glitter-bearded, hippie drag-queen free-for-all, causing immediate convivial mayhem among the rowdy stoners there assembled. This was only the beginning. The Cockettes were a streak of homegrown countercultural iridescence registering profound if indeterminate influence on the lives of us all even if you've never heard of such musical revues as Tinsel Tarts in a Hot Coma.
Midnight movie sequel of sequels: after 40 years they're back, as Thrillpeddlers presents a devilishly sharp and inspired revival of the Cockettes' Pearls Over Shanghai. Perhaps their most polished gem indeed, their first scripted production, penned by Cockette Link Martin Pearls is a rousing mock-operetta of strikingly elaborate low-budget design (notoriously padded in its original incarnation with the contents of a costume trunk pinched from the visiting Peking Opera), catchy music, and highly questionable taste, loosely based on an unabashedly Orientalist 1926 Broadway play, The Shanghai Gesture. Wonderfully arch and exquisitely fashioned, this pungent bit of business is a triumph for director Russell Blackwood (who broods and bellows and taps beautifully in the role of Mother Fu) as well as his winning cast and crew which in addition to special guests like Connie Champagne, includes original Cockettes Scrumbly Koldewyn (composer, musical director and accompanist), Rumi Missabu (unforgettably reprising his role as the evil Madame Gin Sling), and Tahara and Bill Bowers (collaborating with Kara Emry on the eye-popping costumes and makeup).
Pearls hasn't just aged well it may be even more offensive than when it premiered. But somewhere too, amid all the jade and jaded ladies, is a whiff of the innocence and insouciance, glamour and naughtiness of those earlier years. Not to mention the "complete sexual anarchy," which, as John Waters counsels sagely in The Cockettes, Bill Weber and David Weissman's excellent 2002 documentary, "is always a wonderful thing."
PEARLS OVER SHANGHAI
Through Aug. 16
FriSat, 8 p.m.; Sun, 7 p.m. (starting July 26), $30-$69
Hypnodrome, 575 10th St., SF
1-800-838-3006, www.thrillpeddlers.com