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The Midnight Dream Shows

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This week on Music for Films Roz Kaveney and Tim Concannon visit the sacred space where once stood the Pagoda Palace Theatre, now a boarded-up building site waiting to become yuppie apartments, at the foot of San Francisco’s Russian Hill. But once it was the gilded, filigree-ornamented black box for a thousand Nocturnal Dreams, sequined spectaculars featuring underground films, old time musicals and the fabulous Cockettes.

Featured in the show:

Elevator Girls In Bondage‘ starring Rumi Missabu and various Cockettes.

The Cockettes‘ documentary.

Tricia’s Wedding‘ trailer starring the Cockettes.

SylvesterYou Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)

Super 8 footage of Hibiscus and The Angels of Light

Luminous Procuress from Bob Judd on Vimeo.

We warmly recommend extended viewing of Steven Arnold’s ‘Luminous Procuress‘, an extraordinary polysexual miasma in the style of Kenneth Anger, starring Pandora and the Cockettes.


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Former site of the Pagoda Palace Theatre,
1741 Powell Street,
San Francisco, CA 94133

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Photograph by Adrianna LaBoy.

The theatre dates from the rebuilding of San Francisco after the 1906 quake. Opening as the Washington Square Theatre it was later completely redone in Art Deco style, remaining so till it closed in 1994.

(Prior to the earthquake, the corner of Powell Street and Columbus Avenue was the site of the Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral, established in 1881 at a remodelled house at 1715 Powell Street. During this period the building was consecrated to Saint Nicholas, Saint Basil the Great and Saint Alexander Nevsky. Eisenstein would be proud. See: Ruth Hendricks Willard and Carol Green Wilson, 1985 ‘Sacred Places of San Francisco‘ Presidio Press, Novato CA).

Various accounts of midnight showings at the Palace attribute the trend to the period before World War Two when the theatre was called the Milano, and showed Italian films at midnight; or to the mid-60s when screening times suited its mainly Chinese audience, who worked late nights.

Critic Jennifer M Wood credits San Francisco Art Institute graduates Michael Wiese and Steven F Arnold’s 1968 sellout screening of their film ‘Messages, Messages’ for starting the midnight movie trend as part of the emerging counter culture.

However, the credit for starting the midnight movies phenomenon must be shared. New York’s Charles Theatre and Bleecker Street cinema had underground showings at midnight in 1962. In 1963, John Fles showed experimental films at midnight at the Unicorn coffee shop at Sunset and San Vicente. Mike Getz brought Fles in to program ‘Movies ‘Round Midnight” at the Cinema Theatre in Los Angelese. Early in 1965, Fles left L.A. and Getz took over the midnight screenings, retitling it ‘Underground Cinema 12’. In 1967, this became the name of an eight week programme that toured the twenty nine Art Theatre Guild cinemas owned by Getz’s uncle, Louis K Sher. ‘Underground Cinema 12’ featured a combination of experimental films, exploitation and porn, as well as musicals, comedies and rock concert film.

The Palace’s fame as a midnight movie theatre centres on the period from New Years Eve 1969, when Arnold organised the Nocturnal Dream Shows, featuring the transvestite perfomance troupe the Cockettes. This period is recorded in Bill Weber’s 2002 documentary ‘The Cockettes‘ and Pam Trent’s 2004 book ‘Midnight at the Palace‘:

From Pam Trent’s book 2004 book ‘Midnight at the Palace‘:

In the audience that night were future Cockettes John Rothermel and Frank (Inez) Bourquin…Mr. Chew was impressed by the size of the invitation-only crowd, and a deal was struck for continuing the midnight events…

For all its allure, there was an underlying funkiness that gave the Palace its unique flavor. As there was no intermission between the kung-fu flicks and the onslaught of the midnight crowd, there was no opportunity for the staff to clean the floors. Rhinestone divas in stiletto heels and hybrid hippies in glittered sneakers crunched through the paper cups, cigarette butts, and sticky candy wrappers that littered the floor like fallen leaves…

The midnight movies at the Palace were soon called the Nocturnal Dream Shows.

Combining underground film showings, live performance art and old musicals, the Nocturnal Dream Show attracted a large following. As well as Kenneth Anger’s work, and Busby Berkeley films, featured movies included the likes of Jack Smith’s ‘Flaming Creatures‘. Cockettes Nocturnal Dream Show posters from the period are here.

Folklore attached to the Palace includes Divine throwing dead fish on the stage (Dawn Davenport’s stage performance in ‘Female Trouble‘ is based on this), and the time in 1971 when “Bette Midler and Barry Manilow, then performing at the Bimbos 365 club, came in. He went to the piano that was on the main floor and started playing a tune, and she went onstage and yelled ‘anyone have a joint?’ About 100 joints came flying down from the balcony and she was picking all of them up”.

Empty since 1994, the Palace building is being converted into condominium dwellings and a Mexican restaurant. The only thing remaining of the Palace Theatre is the Art Deco sign tower. (The ‘Enough With the Plywood‘ banner is now gone).

Steven Arnold’s personal website.