By August Bernadicou with additional text and research by Chris Coats
Rumi Missabu was born in Hollywood, took a bus to San Francisco, made a wrong turn, got lost, and was too stubborn to ask for directions. The first place he lived after he ran away was in a water tower with a lesbian poet.
He was an original member of the San Francisco hippie, performance troupe, the Cockettes. The Cockettes were high-action, out front, out-of-the-closet entertainers, the satiric cutting edge of the first wave of the Gay Liberation. Rumi left the Cockettes after a year and a half, moved to New York, and then returned to San Francisco. For 35 years, he never had a government ID, work record, or a social security number. The closest form of identification he had was an expired San Francisco library card that said "Rumi Missabu." He was convinced the hippie days would never end. Everything had to be done on his own terms.
Cue the mystery and rumors. People thought he was in the gutter and then forgot he existed. His entire legacy was on the verge of being erased by his transient, underground life.
Rumi Missabu by David Wise, 1970
Rumi Missabu: I had just graduated from L.A. City College and lived in the middle of the Hollywood Hills with who would later become Cindy Williams from Laverne and Shirley. She was a nobody then, but she was supporting me. She'd occasionally get me a job as a busboy at the International House of Pancakes or somewhere like that, but I couldn't keep a job.
August Bernadicou and Chris Coats: One day, Rumi was tripping his brains out and stumbled to Hollywood Boulevard. He saw a movie that forever changed his life, She Freak, starring Claire Brennan and directed by Byron Mabe.
Rumi: There’s a sleazy, older man who's on his way to town promoting the circus—"Hey, girl, you want a job?” She gets in the car with him, and they go to town to promote the circus. Right away, the owner of the circus’ son and the lion tamer both start lusting after her. They fight each other and end up killing each other. Then the owner takes a hankering to her and asks her to marry him, and he dies on their wedding night. He had a heart attack and died on top of her leaving her to be the circus owner.
She says, as the first order of business, I'm getting rid of the freaks. This is their livelihood. They come at her, cut off both of her arms and legs, and throw her into a pit of snakes, and she becomes the star attraction.
When I saw this on LSD, I went back home, and I left Cindy Williams a note that said, “I can't take it anymore.” I got on a Greyhound bus and moved to Berkeley. I ended up living with a lesbian poet in a water tower on San Pablo Avenue in the back of a hippie store run by a biker gang called the Gypsy Jokers.
August: That particular in-person interview was right when Rumi was in the throes of his recently diagnosed cancer. He was barely breathing through a machine and gasping in anticipation of the story's end.
It was off the wall stories like deserting the future star Cindy Williams, freaking out on acid, and then living in a water tower that made me need to know more about Rumi. His story had not yet been documented, and I knew I had to be the one who preserved his legacy. Rumi picked the title for my biography of him, Trolling for Dick in Argentina. I promised him—his alternative title was I've Never Been Penetrated.
August and Chris: The Cockettes were founded by George Harris, a.k.a. Hibiscus. Hibiscus was a mysterious and magnetic figure in San Francisco's hippie culture. Taking to the streets, in vintage dresses and flamboyant makeup, along with a full beard and long, Jesus-like hair, Hibiscus quickly attracted like-minded queer men and women who wanted to join in on his gender-bending, acid-drenched way of life.
Rumi: I can't tell you where I met him. He was just everywhere. He was like a vision. It could have been on the bus, it could have been out at Land’s End, it could have been at the Palace Theater in the lobby—we would go there before we performed there to see movies.
Sex back then was like a handshake. Boyfriends were community property. If you had a boyfriend and the boyfriend was in the Cockette Commune, you’d sleep with him the first night, but then you wouldn’t see him again for a week or two even though he'd still be in the house.
August and Chris: The Cockettes began performing at the Palace Theater in the winter of 1969. Propelled by the playful absurdity of the psychedelic movement, the troupe performed outlandish musicals parodying Busby Berkeley films from the 1930s and 40s, but with a crude queer, gender fucked bent.
Rumi: We weren't just a bunch of swishy faggots which young people to this day who don’t do their homework think we were. The Cockettes also were not just gay men. The group included women, straight guys, a baby, everything and everyone under the kitchen sink. Anyone could be a Cockette. All you needed to do was to show up in the audience and jump on stage. We resented all the theatrical law, we resented direction, we resented choreography, and we resented charging money.
August and Chris: With their newfound fame came notoriety. The Cockettes were the first bearded drag queens to get national press in America. Children of the Cockettes sprouted up everywhere. Their impact was immediate and inescapable.
Rumi: We didn't know how political we were because we had no need for rhetoric. It was the underground press that made us these political darlings. We were so anti-establishment. We didn't think about that. We were just out to have a good time. While our shows may have been interpreted as political, they were really just excuses to have a party, find boyfriends, and get laid.
Rumi Missabu as Mick Jagger by David Wise, 1970
August: You were on the cover of Rolling Stone?
Rumi: I was supposed to be, but I got bumped for Ike and Tina Turner.
There's a picture of me smoking a pipe with a clown, and they ended up selling subscriptions on a quarter-page ad which said something like, "Hey kids, turn your granny onto a year’s subscription of Rolling Stone." Someone called me up and asked if I had seen the new issue of Rolling Stone. “You should go buy it and look at page 13,” and there I was, selling subscriptions. I thought, how dare they. Everyone was telling me you can sue, you can sue, you can sue. I said, better yet, I have a better plan.
I was about to do Ike and Tina for my farewell concert at the Committee Theater on Broadway in North Beach before I went to New York, and I thought, what a great way to get publicity. So, I had pictures of me as Tina—I took my favorite one by David Wise, and I had somebody, probably David Wise, make a quarter-page ad the same size as their ad.
Unannounced, with no appointment, in drag wearing women's coolants with a big, floppy straw hat, I went down to Rolling Stone's headquarters on Brannan Street, South of Market.
I walked into their office and asked to speak to Jan Wenner, the founder. "No, no, no, Jan's not in today." I said, "All right, I will wait here. Call him and tell him he better get his ass down here" So, Jan was actually there, and they kept making excuses. I told them that I wasn’t going anywhere.
Finally, he came out and invited me to his office, and I said, "You used my photo without telling me, without signing a release. I really need something for you. I'm not looking for money; I’m looking for justice."
Plop—I plopped my quarter-page ad on the table and said I'm about to play Tina Turner at the Committee Theater on Broadway in two weeks. Here is a ready-to-go quarter-page ad. I want you to run this in your paper next week, and they did.
August and Chris: The Cockettes were only around for a few years, but their legacy endures. At a time when gay people were being arrested for existing, thrown into mental institutions, and denied a place at church, the Cockettes were out in the streets, out in your face and out of the closet. Their play titles included Gone with the Showboat to Oklahoma, Tinsel Tarts in a Hot Coma, Journey to the Center of Your Anus, which featured Divine singing A Crab on Your Anus Means You're in Love, Madame Butterfly, which they couldn't book into a theater, so they performed in the streets of Chinatown to an enthusiastic crowd in fake Cantonese, and, of course, their wildly successful play Pearls Over Shanghai.
August and Chris: It wasn't always sunshine and flower power for the Cockettes. Most of the Cockettes came from nothing forever searching for pre-RuPaul fame. When they finally got a taste of it, their egos inflated. It was only a matter of time before some of them burst at the table.
Rumi: A number of the queens that came in were serious, serious drag queens, and I never identified myself as a drag queen. I consider myself to this day an identity curator. Everyone became so competitive, tried to outdo each other, and thought they really were in a Broadway show.
August and Chris: Bitching Queens arguing about who was worth what began to take over the Cockette’s weekly “board meetings.” The group's poor accounting practices left Rumi with only enough money from each show to buy fake eyelashes for the next one. Rumi and Hibiscus had had enough.
Rumi: We'd just put earplugs in and go in the kitchen and make cum bread. Unbeknownst to the rest of the Cockettes, Hibiscus would make his loaves of bread, and when they would come out of the oven, he would glaze the bread with his own semen. Hibiscus would serve the bread at the board of directors meeting to our manager, Sebastian, and the other Cockettes while they were all bitch fighting—"Ooh, delicious, Hibiscus. Can you pass the marmalade, Fayette?" They would just eat it all up, and they didn't know.
August and Chris: The cum bread was the beginning of the end for the original members. A free flow of ideas, art, gender expression. Living on the end of your imagination, not setting a fire on the world, but a fire in your heart. The Cockettes kicked out Hibiscus, and with them, Rumi and a couple of others followed. Hibiscus represented the old Cockettes: free theater for the free world, an extension of the hippie life and ideology.
Rumi: I ended up bitter. I did not speak about the group. I lost all my memorabilia. I didn’t give a shit about the group. I was off the grid and really out of it. I had nothing to do with the Cockettes, nor did I want to.
August and Chris: Before Rumi was a Cockette, he was a male groupie. Male groupies were an interesting and unique phenomenon in the history of California rock and roll. Rumi says the only group he ever got with was a gangbang with the Chambers Brothers. All kidding aside, well, maybe not kidding aside, the groupie scene gave Rumi an early glimpse into stardom. Rumi says he was never impressed. He has stories about Truman Capote, Rex Reed, Iggy Pop, Jimmy Page, Allen Ginsberg, and Jim Morrison. He first met Jim Morrison when they performed in a play together in Berkeley, California in 1968. He later saw Jim Morrison in 1974, three years after he had died.
Rumi: I was in New Orleans and on my way back to California. I stuck out my thumb, and the first person to pick me up was Jim Morrison. He was on his way to a Led Zeppelin concert in Baton Rouge. He said that he wrote a book and asked if I’d like to check it out. There was a whole box of them in the back seat.
He was all fat and had rings on his fingers and was driving a big, old Cadillac. I picked one out of the back seat, and all I remember—I didn’t take the book. He didn’t offer it to me. All I remember about the book was that it had Jim Morrison’s name on the cover and the words “Bank of Louisiana.” It was, in fact, Louisiana where he picked me up. If you Google “Jim Morrison Bank of Louisiana,” you can see the book. You can find a bunch of printouts about his alleged death and the whole deal.
A lot of people go to his grave at Père Lachaise in Paris and worship on his grave—he’s not in there! He ain’t even in there, don’t you get it? It’s so funny that people worship at his grave—it’s like a shrine. I keep telling people, “He’s not even in there. Knock first.” I don’t know who’s in there. Some people say that about Elvis too. You can’t stress how much his death is alleged. I’m convinced, and I’m not the only one—I’m not nuts.
August and Chris: You can't fly across the country without an ID. Rumi had to hitchhike. He lived in New York for three years after leaving the Cockettes to polish his star in his own way. He wanted to become someone that he couldn't be in the new, queeny Cockettes. Rumi learned a lot in New York when his fruitless early attempt to become famous failed. He had to readjust to post-hippie San Francisco. There were no more free stores, and his community was gone.
To make matters worse, Rumi had no valid form of identification—no government record until he was 55 years old.
August: Was your only form of ID an expired library card? What name did it say?
Rumi: It said Rumi Missabu. I was forever that person. I became that person. I didn’t use my real name for years and years.
August and Chris: Rumi began to slip even lower. His three priorities in order were cigarettes, weed, and bills.
Rumi: For 40 years, I smoked marijuana and cigarettes. I was very, very addicted to both, so I had no money. I was buying an ounce of green bud at a time, which was $60, so I was spending a hundred and twenty dollars, at least on green bud a month. My diet was terrible. All I had money for was ramen and chicken franks.
August and Chris: Rumi had not yet convinced himself to resurface above ground, but it was around this time that he found a new purpose, a new passion that he has dedicated the remainder of his life to. He became the Cockette’s archivist out of the ashes of their former archivist, Kreemah Ritz.
Rumi: I was Kreemah Ritz’s power of attorney, and I got all of his shit, but I lost his body. I found the prosthetic leg, but I couldn’t find his body, teeth, or wallet. I had the will, and it specifically said he didn’t want to be cremated.
The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence kept asking me if they could help with a funeral. I said, “That’s really cute, Sister Roma, but I can’t find the fucking body.”
I called the Green Street Mortuary, and they said, “Yes, we had him, but he’s gone.”
I said, “What do you mean he’s gone?”
“We sent him to the cemetery and if you’d like more information, here is the number. Call and ask for Gloria.”
So, I called old Gloria, and I said, “Hi, I’m the power of attorney for Kreemah Ritz, the dead Cockette, is he there?”
She said, “Why? You want him?”
I said, “No, I just want to know what happened to the fucking body.”
She said, “He's in a hole in the ground.”
The city administrator cremated him. They assign you a number and if you didn’t have any money, if you are indigent, they throw your ashes in a hole with everybody else's.
I said, “Oh my God!”
August: Six months after that specific interview with Rumi, I went to his apartment. His attendant had just finished spring cleaning and laid out all the contents from his closet on the table. I asked him what he was hoarding and why he kept a 10-year-old Starbucks cup. He told me that's where I keep Kreemah’s ashes.
August and Chris: With his new passion, Rumi gained a new understanding of himself. He decided that he could no longer live on chicken franks and ramen.
August: What did it do to your spirit when you lived off the grid?
Rumi: Well, in one sense, it killed my spirit. I'm extremely grateful that there was an intervention, and I got my identity back because I was very limited with what I could do. I had to fend for myself and make my own nuclear family. I still hadn’t talked to my actual family since I was a teenager. I had to work under the counter. I'm extremely grateful that I made the decision to get my identity back.
Timothy Leary’s mantra was “Turn on, tune in, drop out.” I know I turned on, and I know I dropped out, but everyone else dropped back in. Even the most radical people dropped back in, or they died. I just realized there were some things I couldn't do—I resigned myself that I could never be able to travel to Europe. I thought, well, I'll never go to Europe in my lifetime. Too bad. Now, look at me, I've done that, and I reunited with my family after 52 years. I like to say, “I took a wrong turn, got lost, and was too stubborn to ask for directions.”
Rumi Missabu in Tip Toe Past the Witch, 2017
August and Chris: With Rumi’s new identity came disability—mental disability.
I had to prove to the government that I was disabled to get SSI. Just the fact that I didn’t have an ID or work history for 35 years proved it.
The psychiatrist said, “You have no work history since you were 19 years old, temping at a bank in LA. You're 55 years old—where have you been?”
I said, “People took care of me because of who they thought I was, but they are all gone now. By the way, can you please leave the door open for this interview?”
The next thing I knew, I was mentally disabled! I got it immediately, and no one gets it the first time. Everyone thought I’d be denied, but I got it immediately. I was kind of coached. I got a stuffed teddy bear to keep in my purse but ended up leaving it on the washing machine. Then, I became physically disabled in 2008 when I caught pneumonia and also got diagnosed with chronic COPD."
August: When I met Rumi, he was barely a hundred pounds. I had no idea what I'd be getting myself into. I'm sure he didn't either. I didn't know I would find a forever friend, someone who I know everything about. It's a heavy burden, but one lightened by love, holding someone's legacy in your brain and in a file cabinet under your desk.
I remember when Rumi told me he had cancer. It was a gut punch. August 17, 2016, 8:24 P.M. Eastern Time: “Rumi Missabu told me he had cancer earlier.”
Now, Rumi is 300 pounds as a result of his cancer-fighting drugs. He should have died years ago. Dead, gone forever, but Rumi is a survivor.
August: Were you ever scared? Do you ever remember feeling scared or just alone and scared? Can you think of a moment?
Rumi: No, I've never been scared or alone—never been suicidal. I think it’s because I'm always in love, whether it's consummated or not, or whether it turns out to be mutual or not or long-term. I haven't gone too many days without being in love with somebody or something.
August: For the past 11 years, Rumi has come to New York, my home, to give people a gift, a performance, a free dance attraction. He only leaves his house three times a year: to go to the doctor, the hospital, and New York.
August: What does it mean when you say, “It took me being disabled to become an artist again?”
Rumi: Until I started doing shows again, I had to support myself working as a domestic. I wasn't doing anything artistically—I had to support myself to keep a roof over my head. So, I’m saying that when I became disabled, I was able to stop working and become an artist again. It's not like I had a career.
August Bernadicou and Rumi Missabu, 2021
August: What do you want the Cockettes to be remembered for, what do you want their contribution to be known as?
Rumi: I think that's up to the individual. I have a personal legacy that includes the Cockettes. I am bound and determined in my own way to keep their spirit alive, which I do to this day.
August: What's the spirit of the Cockettes?
Rumi: Radical, unpolished theater. It's okay if your wig falls off during the show. I don't believe in auditioning, which I don't do. I'm not looking for professional dancers or singers. If you can walk, you can dance. That’s what I’m all about.
The above interview was previously featured in the QueerCore Podcast.