– 2021 Gary Ware: Interview with Marci Kwon, pt. 3

Page 11 from an untitled album featuring Angels of Light Free Theater performances and studio, ca. 1971–75. Courtesy of the Martin Wong Foundation c/o P.P.O.W.

The Cockettes and the Angels of Light Free Theater

WARE: I don’t know where he first heard about the Cockettes, but we certainly went to a couple of their shows before he ever met them. Somewhere along the line, they kind of morphed into the Angels of Light, at which point he was helping them with stage sets. He was making stage sets, cutout cardboard with paint on it and then glitter sprinkled all over, everything.

KWON: Do you remember the first Cockettes show you and Martin went to? What drew you to them?

WARE: The way I first heard about them was Martin said, “Oh, we got to go see these kids.” I remember that there were all these people on the stage [at the Palace Theater] and they were all dressed to the nines. It was spellbinding and interesting, but it wasn’t really very organized. People were wandering onstage and offstage, and people were falling down, and costumes were falling off. It was funny, and that’s what made it so charming in a way—that it wasn’t professional. And there were people wandering up and down the aisles, standing up and shouting and dancing to the music. A lot of people in the audience came dressed, too, and wanting to participate.

I had gone to the Palace Theater before with Martin to see Chinese opera films. He took me there before we ever went there to see the Cockettes. Of course, he didn’t understand Cantonese or Mandarin or anything like that. Oddly enough, he knew what he was looking at. When we went to see the Chinese operas, he had sort of researched it in some way or another. Not only was he interested in the costumes and the theatrics of it, but he seemed to know some of the actors. I was impressed how much he knew about it ahead of time. It wasn’t just entertainment for him to go and see those things. He really liked the costumes and the sets, the drama of it all. I was surprised to see that he was interested in theatrical things, you know.

Cockettes now appearing at Midnite at the Palace, 1970.
Cockettes now appearing at Midnite at the Palace, 1970.
Pearl Over Shanghai, 1970.
Pearl Over Shanghai, 1970.

KWON: How did you experience the gender-bending nature of their performances?

WARE: Well, it was interesting seeing guys with full beards and mustaches wearing dresses. This was a new thing. And I think Martin was excited by the idea of these people who were breaking the mold, so to speak. He always had an appetite for unusual things. And I’m not saying that this is true of the Cockettes, but he liked grotesque things.

He liked the Japanese Noh drama that we used to go see; he liked especially the ghosts that came on stage. And Noh drama and Kabuki, of course, it was all men playing all the parts. So once again, that was a blending there, too. When the ghosts came out, they were bizarre. The masks were bizarre, these huge red wigs, these huge white wigs that people were wearing. And, of course, Noh drama was very formalized and very strict. When you went to see it, the whole audience knew what was going to happen before it happened.

The Cockettes knew about Chinese opera, and incorporated some of those same things, with people dressed up in ghost costumes and stuff like that.

KWON: Where did you see Noh and Kabuki?

WARE: Well, we didn’t go see it in person, but we had seen it on film. We probably saw it on TV.

Sketch of the set for the Angels of Light Free Theater, Commune production of “Paris Sites under the Bourgeois Sea,” ca. 1975. Courtesy of the Martin Wong Foundation c/o P.P.O.W.
Page 26 of an untitled album showing the Angels of Light Free Theater Commune production of “Paris Sites under the Bourgeois Sea,” ca. 1975. Courtesy of the Martin Wong Foundation c/o P.P.O.W.

KWON: Do you remember any specifics about Martin’s flyer or set designs for the Cockettes and the Angels?

WARE: I know it was not made to last. It was done on cardboard for the most part, and it was sort of painted in a hurry, and then they used glue a lot. They spread glue and then sprinkled glitter all over everything as well.

KWON: What happened to the sets after the performances?

WARE: I think they just threw them away. So many of them just got thrown away. Some of the sets were quite large, too. Some of the sets made were in a way that people could pick them up and move them back and forth to show motion. They used to show the motion of waves. I think most of it eventually got thrown away.

KWON: Where was he living at the time he was working with the Cockettes and the Angels?

WARE: He was living in Berkeley part of the time. Later on he rented a place either on Oak or Fell Street [in San Francisco]. After he left Berkeley, he was staying with his parents for a while, and then that got to be too tempestuous. So then he moved out and into this little apartment. Aunt Florence was very vocal in her opposition to the Angels of Light, and she wanted nothing to do with them.

I think even though she knew Martin was gay—he kept trying to say that to her, but she didn’t really want to address the issue—the idea of men running around dressing up as a woman did not appeal to her very much. The other thing was that she felt that they were promiscuous. Expression of sex did not appeal to Aunt Florence very much. And I think she was afraid for Martin’s safety.

So she was putting a lot of pressure on Martin. And on the one hand, they wanted to grab him up and make him their own. It was too much. Along about there is when he had one of his breakdowns, and he was hospitalized. After that, I said, “I think you need to get out of town.” So that’s when we decided I would take him and get him on a bus back to Eureka.

In retrospect, it’s easy to see Aunt Florence’s side of it. And it’s easy to see people wanting to take advantage of Martin. He was a little bit vulnerable. He could be talked into doing things. And he was also impulsive.

KWON: When I was looking through a book of Martin’s work, I saw a letter he wrote to the Angels. He wrote, “I love you but I could never be a part of you.” I was wondering about your impression of that statement.

WARE: Well, I think that was a good thing because he realized that he couldn’t allow himself to be absorbed by them. No matter how many friends he had and people he knew and infatuations and all the rest of it —despite all of his affairs and romances and all that stuff —he was still very much himself, always himself. He never was somebody else. At his center, he had a very firm feeling of “This is me. This is what I’m going to do.” So when he wrote that letter to them, I think that was very good because he took a stand. He took a stand and protected himself because communes in those days were—many people who joined hippie communes had to escape from them because they became cult-like almost. That’s the other part of it. I think Martin knew that. “No: I can do some sets for you and stuff. But I’m not going to give up my independence for you."

Martin and Gary, ca. 1969. Photos attributed to Florence Wong Fie. From the album “Aug. ’69 to Dec. ’77,” courtesy of the Martin Wong Foundation.


WARE: Martin was always much more comfortable with stereotypes and with the Q-word, as I call it, than I was. For those of us that were coming out in 1963 or 1964 —when it was illegal to be gay, when you could be put in jail for being gay, when your parents could put you in treatment for being gay —we had to be more cautious.

KWON: Martin was out at Humboldt State?

WARE: Pretty much, yes. We didn’t talk about it a lot, but yes.

KWON: What was your relationship like?

WARE: People often thought that we were a couple, but we were like brothers. He didn’t have a brother, and I wasn’t close to my brother, who was much younger than me. So Martin and I became like brothers. Each of us had our own side affairs and romances. And we commiserated with each other and complained and whined and felt sorry for ourselves.

KWON: Would you go out together?

WARE: My first gay bar visit was with Martin. And it was his first visit, too. He said, “We’re 21. We’ve got to go to a gay bar.” [Laughs.] I said, “Why do we have to go to a gay bar?” He said, “Oh, we’ve got to go to a gay bar.” He said, “You choose,” because he thought I knew more about gay bars. And I knew of one down on Folsom Street, FeeBees, which was a famous, notorious old leather bar. So we went one afternoon. I don’t know why we went in the afternoon, because it was empty. We went in there, and we looked around, and it was all about leather. We looked around at all the pictures on the walls, and I think each of us had a beer. And then we left. So that was the extent of our first visit to a gay bar.

But then he called me up one night and said, “Gary, you’d better come down here. I’m at this club. All these gay hippies are here dancing. You’ve got to come down here.” I said, “Well, just maybe tell me where it’s at. I’m not coming down immediately, not tonight at 11:30.” But he was so excited he called me up to tell me about it.

I don’t remember him being interested in the drag scene. In that time, the drag scene was mainly confined to Polk Street, as were many of the regular gay bars. Castro Street didn’t exist until later on in the ’70s. But I know that when he was in New York City he couldn’t have helped but run into all kinds of gay people. Some of the graffiti kids were gay. So he ended up being involved with some of them. But he never was closeted in that sense. He was always out.

Gary (above) and Martin (below), October 1969. From the album “Aug. ’69 to Dec. ’77,” courtesy of the Martin Wong Foundation.

KWON: Was Martin aware of the gay rights movement, such as the protests at Stonewall?

WARE: I mean, the Bay Area Reporter, which was a gay publication, kept us up to date on what was happening in New York City. And the whole drag scene of those days before the Castro was up and running, on Polk Street. Most of the bars were up on Polk Street or up in the northeast. I was certainly aware that people were dressing up and wandering up and down the street and things like that. He certainly knew about it. All this stuff that’s happening right now is very new to me.

KWON: What about his romantic entanglements?

WARE: Well, I think everyone knows he was an extremely romantic person. When I first met him, he was just coming down off of a very hard crush from high school. He’d make fun of himself. He’d say, “Oh, I whisper your name like a prayer.” Because one of the ways that Martin dealt with himself was self-deprecation. He would make fun of himself to keep it from hurting too badly. He’s the only man I’ve ever known who made a practice of sending out valentines to his various crushes. He was always having crushes on one person or another. So there’s all these crushes, and the crushes, whether they liked it or not, they got valentines.

KWON: Did he have notable romantic relationships?

WARE: Of course. I don’t know if I dare because the people are still alive. Let’s just say that they were involved in the art world also. He certainly had romantic relationships [with], or at least romantic fantasies about, firemen, of course. And of course, there were some famous pictures, which you have seen —of one of his boyfriends [Stevy] in the bathtub with the fireman’s hat on his head. So let’s say he liked to role-play. [Laughs.] Let’s put it that way. That’s sort of something that a number of gay men like—to role-play. And so he certainly did like his role-playing and stuff like that.

Travels in Europe and Asia, 1971

View of page 8 from album “Trip to Europe and India 1971,” courtesy of the Martin Wong Foundation.
View of page 13 from album “Trip to Europe and India 1971,” courtesy of the Martin Wong Foundation.
View of page 20 from album “Trip to Europe and India 1971,” courtesy of the Martin Wong Foundation.

WARE: I think he went to Amsterdam first. Then he met up with some kids who took him on a visit down through the Balkans to Greece. From Greece, he kept going east. He went through Greece, through Turkey, and… then across through Afghanistan and Pakistan, and then on into India and to Nepal. . . He just kept going east. Finally, he came back to the city, maybe by way of Japan. But he brought back a lot of stuff, and he sent back some things, too. He was collecting stuff while he was there. He was collecting calligraphy. He also started collecting amber jewelry. He wasn’t just taking a tour. He was studying while he was there. He was absorbing all this stuff. And I think when he went, he had an idea in his head [of] what he wanted to see in person.

KWON: How did he decide on that?

WARE: Well, he always had a pile of books, and he studied everything under the sun. His parents’ house was full of books. He studied pre-Columbian art. He studied Egyptian art. He certainly studied Indian art and art from Nepal and Buddhist art and stuff—all this stuff he had been studying on his own before he ever went off to see it. So he was an educated traveler, because when he got there, he recognized what was good and what was not. “Oh, this is a touristy thing, but this is the real thing here. I want these.”

KWON: Do you know anyone who was on that trip with him?

WARE: I think he kind of picked up people and left people as he went. One of the things that he did mention to me was because he was Asian, it gave him a bit of what I used to call diplomatic immunity because he didn’t stand out as an American when he went to Nepal and places like this. They knew that he was Asian, but he didn’t have that gringo thing hanging around his neck, so to speak. And he didn’t come across as heavy duty as an American might. So he had that on his side. I remember him saying that there was somebody he was traveling with when they were in Kabul. And he said it was kind of funny because he said the Caucasian sidekick did not get a very good reception in Kabul. But Martin said he got a great reception. He said, “In fact, a lot of the men were hitting on me.” [Laughs.] He said, “Can you believe it? These guys are running around hitting on me. And they’ve got these big knives in their belts and stuff.” [Laughs.] He thought that was very amusing. So there was that, too.

View of page 22 from album “Trip to Europe and India 1971,” courtesy of the Martin Wong Foundation.
View of page 27 from album “Trip to Europe and India 1971,” courtesy of the Martin Wong Foundation.
View of page 34 from album “Trip to Europe and India 1971,” courtesy of the Martin Wong Foundation.

KWON: How did he pay for all of this?

WARE: His parents subsidized the trip pretty much. But he certainly didn’t stay in big hotels or anything like that. He sort of lived on the road as he was going, as kids did in those days. I did the same thing a year later. I got on the road and went out there myself to see it myself. And you could travel cheap. As long as you didn’t care about any niceties and things like that, you could travel pretty cheap and get away with stuff like that.

KWON: In his Resumé de Consumé, Wong mentioned that he went to Afghanistan to visit the ceramic workshops in Herat.

WARE: No. He didn’t talk much about that. I do know he was very interested in Islamic ceramic and tile work and calligraphy. The exquisite Islamic calligraphy made a big impression on everybody who has ever seen it, and the way it was worked into the buildings. The buildings were crawling with it. It was stylized to the point where it was almost unrecognizable, even to people who could read it. It reminds me of some of [Martin’s] early handwriting, the lowercase letters, especially the lower arcs. But that was long before he was over there. But I think he knew about it. He certainly knew about Islamic stuff.

Martin’s studio in Eureka, ca. 1975. From the album “Paintings I,” courtesy of the Martin Wong Foundation.

KWON: When he got back, do you feel like his work changed?

WARE: He got back in ’72. When he was in Eureka, then he was doing all sorts of Tibetans things. It was a little more philosophical, too, in those days, with the checkerboard. He did all of his spiky, acidy sorts of things around ’69 or '68, when Haight-Asbury was going full blast, but when he came back the spiky stuff stopped.

Then the Porky Pig things happened. He was making connections between Warner Brothers comics and Tibet and Buddhism because people sometimes would ask him, “Oh, what religion are you?” And he sometimes would just say, “Oh, I’m a Taoist.” He would just say that just for the hell of it, not that he was devout or anything like that. But I think he always had a feel and reverence for nature, certainly. And he certainly appreciated Eastern religions for putting a face on that kind of thing.

KWON: What drew him to Buddhism?

WARE: Oftentimes, in the books that he would study, they would talk about Gautama and all these things. I think since his parents never took him to church specifically, he just sort of made it up on his own as he read about it and studied all this stuff and art. . . . Certainly the Angels and the Cockettes were aware of Tibetan stuff. In those days, it was pretty popular. I mean, a lot of people were reading about Tibet and Buddhism and were looking at the artwork. It was in the air. It was popular in those days. Many people were going to programs to study Buddhist meditation.

KWON: How did Martin make the connection between Porky Pig and Buddhism?

WARE: Well, he and his mother collected Warner Brothers and Disney comic characters anyway. For years, they collected those. I mean, Aunt Florence was always out looking through all the thrift shops and Goodwill stores. And she was always collecting on her own, picking up anything about that that she could get her hands on, as well as lunch boxes and all the rest of it. So the house was full of it. And the other side was they were spending a lot of time at Cost Plus [World Market], down on the waterfront, looking at the latest purloined antiquities that were on sale down there. I mean, there were statues on sale at Cost Plus and things that should not have been on sale. In this day and age, one would be horrified to see those things being offered to the general public, but way back in the early ’70s, everybody went to Cost Plus to see what the latest shipment was, what came in. And if you had a practiced eye, you could get some good stuff. So I think that’s where [Martin] got some of his African masks and things like that, because he certainly was interested in all that stuff, too.

He had a wonderful appreciation for everything. Not only that, he had a reverence, I would say, for everything. As humorous as he was and as much as he liked to make fun of things, there was a deep, abiding sort of reverence in him toward people and art and nature and the whole thing that he had defined himself in. So I think that reverence, when he saw and started reading about how people express that reverence in the East and in India and places like that—I think it was a natural fit for him. And he looked at comic book characters with a different eye than I used to look at my Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge comics. I mean, I looked at them as adventure stories—I love comic books. They were adventure stories, but he looked at them a little bit differently, with a different eye.

KWON: In what way?

WARE: I think they were more significant to him. They weren’t just cartoons. They were more than cartoons. They had significance and depth to them. It would take somebody like him to put that all together on a canvas and show it to you, which I think is the beauty of those paintings and the things that he did —he actually pulled all that stuff together and assembled it and said, “Here. Look. See.” And people did see it. They did see that.