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RUMI MISSABU (1947-2024)

"If You Cry at My Funeral, I’ll Never Talk to You Again"

By August Bernadicou

Rumi Missabu, Cockettes podcast, gender bending history, genderfuck, gay theater, gay performance troupe, gay rights, lgbtq history, angels of light, hibiscus
Rumi Missabu at home by Daniel Nicoletta, April 25, 2023.

Rumi Missabu, gender-bender, identity curator, and visual storyteller, passed away on April 2, 2024, at the age of 76. He was born on November 14, 1947.

Rumi was born and raised in Hollywood, California. In 1965, when he was 16 years old, his family moved to Lewiston, Idaho, and they agreed that he could stay in Los Angeles if he finished his education at Birmingham High School, which he did.

He went on to study theater at Los Angeles City College. In college, he lived with his classmate Cindy Williams, who would later star in the show Laverne and Shirley. Feeling unfulfilled in Hollywood's competitive environment, he left after watching the movie She Freaks while under the influence of LSD. This led him to Berkeley, California, where he lived with Carol Graham, a lesbian poet, in a water tower on San Pablo Avenue.

In 1968, as a male groupie, Rumi met several people who, along with Rumi himself, would later become members of the Cockettes theater troupe. Founded in 1969, the Cockettes were high-action, out-front, out-of-the-closet entertainers and the satiric cutting edge of the first wave of gay liberation. They were influenced by the psychedelic times.

Rumi Missabu, Cockettes podcast, gender bending history, genderfuck, gay theater, gay performance troupe, gay rights, lgbtq history, angels of light, hibiscus
Rumi Missabu as Madame Gin Sling in Pearls Over Shanghai by David Wise, 1970.

The group integrated dance, set design, gender-fuck costumes, and their unique interpretations of show tunes (either original compositions or revamped versions) into their performances. Their shows included Gone With the Showboat to Oklahoma, Tinsel Tarts in a Hot Coma, Journey to the Center of Uranus, Hollywood Babylon, and Pearls Over Shanghai, in which Rumi played Madame Gin Sling and sang a song titled “White Slavery.” Recognizing that visibility is a form of liberation, in an interview with The LGBTQ History Project, Rumi said, “We did not realize how political we were because we had no need for rhetoric.”

In 1972, Rumi starred in Elevator Girls in Bondage, a feature film motivated by the ideas of Karl Marx. In the movie, the women employees of a rundown San Francisco hotel stage a rebellion against the management, demanding higher wages and improved working conditions. The movie was originally recorded without audio, and, consequently, Rumi’s voice was overdubbed by Cockette Pristine Condition.

Rumi left the Cockettes after a year and a half, traveled to Canada, and moved to New York, where he stayed for four years. In New York, he performed with Hibiscus and the Angels of Light in a show called The Enchanted Miracle at the Theater For the New City. He also collaborated with performance artist Marta Minujín from Buenos Aires, Argentina, on what were labeled “happenings” at the time. One happening, called Kidnapped, took place at MoMA, where a fleet of 40 taxis took 40 people to 40 different locations.

In his memoir, Off The Grid, he remembered, “I ended up in the Catskills in Upstate New York. I went up there with Hibiscus to the theater commune and stayed there. Then I thought, ‘What the hell am I doing in the Catskills?’ The three big events of the day were to get up, wash your hair, and go down the road to see the cows. Again, I lived with no money.

Finally, I said, ‘Okay, I'm done with New York. Let's go back to San Francisco.’”

Rumi eventually made it back to San Francisco by hitchhiking across the country. Never afraid to tell a tale, Rumi told The LGBTQ History Project about a ride he had while in New Orleans: “On my first ride out of New Orleans, I stuck out my thumb and got into a big, shiny Cadillac with tail fins. This overweight guy with big old rings all over his fingers was driving. We started chatting, and he said, ‘Yes, yes, yes. I'm heading to a Led Zeppelin concert in Baton Rouge.’ Baton Rouge, fine!

He told me that he had just written a book, that there was a whole box of them in the back, and that I should help myself. I picked up the book and looked at it. It was titled The Bank of America of Louisiana, and it was written by Jim Morrison. I had read about his alleged death.

I realized I was in the car with Jim Morrison. We talked about groupies we both knew in L.A., like Miss Lucy. His story checked out.”

During this time and for 37 years total, he lived without a government ID, work record, or Social Security number. His only form of identification was an expired San Francisco library card that said "Rumi Missabu." Everything had to be done on his own terms. Cue the mystery and rumors. He supported himself as a prep cook and house cleaner during his off-the-grid years. In his memoir, he reflected, “I have never felt alone or suicidal or depressed because I am always in love—whether it is consummated or not or with a person or not, there haven’t been too many days that I am not in love with someone or something.”

Following a notable appearance in Bill Weber and David Weissman’s 2002 documentary The Cockettes, Rumi skillfully navigated the resurgence of interest in the Cockettes, displaying the finesse of a seasoned star. After he (born James Bartlett) reclaimed his formal identity in 2004, he took part in numerous revivals of Cockette stage productions, such as Tinsel Tarts in a Hot Coma and Pearls Over Shanghai with the Thrillpeddlers in San Francisco and in Marc Huestis’s production of Marat/Sade at the Brava Theatre.

In 2005, he became the archivist of the Cockettes after the death of Cockette Kreemah Ritz. Rumi never stopped collecting. His archives are available at Lincoln Center and The LGBT Community Center National History Archive in New York City.

Between 2007 and 2019, Missabu ventured into creating and frequently starring in experimental “dance productions,” including The Questioning of John Rykener, Keeping the Tigers Away, and The Last Days of Pompeii at the historic Judson Memorial Church in New York City.

Photographer and friend Dan Nicoletta recalled Rumi’s acting was part of his charm when he said, “Rumi’s devotion to stagecraft all those years was part of why we all fell deeply in love with him and whatever he was up to.”

Rumi is also remembered for his documentary Ruminations, produced by Robert James in 2018. Described as “lurid tales in and out of the spotlight,” Ruminations paints Rumi as a survivor, as it follows him pre- and post-cancer and alone and in front of a crowd.

Rumi’s biographer, August Bernadicou, summed it up by saying, “Rumi Missabu was a groundbreaking performer who challenged norms through radical artistry and fearless self-expression. His legacy inspires and empowers individuals to embrace authenticity and challenge oppressive systems through creative resistance.” Rumi always let his freak flag fly.

Rumi Missabu, Cockettes podcast, gender bending history, genderfuck, gay theater, gay performance troupe, gay rights, lgbtq history, angels of light, hibiscus

You can buy Rumi's memoir here and read our previous features on him here and here. Here are our podcast episodes on him.


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