It’s difficult to tell the story of much of alternative West Coast art, performance, painting and punk rock without recognizing the genius of Tomata du Plenty. His troupe, Ze Whiz Kidz are also an important element in the evolution of the Seattle alternative social and arts scene…but they deserve to have their complete story told, so we will leave their history for another post.
Tomata du Plenty (David Xavier Harrigan) was born, depending on who you choose to believe, in New York State, in Queens NYC, in Brooklyn near Coney Island or in Coney Island”). The facts seem to point to Queens, but I prefer to think he was born in Coney Island simply because it conjures up delightful, weird entertainments, a certain amount of artiface and slightly tattered around the edges. It reminds me of the jumbled construction that improbably holds up the famous Cyclone Roller Coaster and zillions of uncovered treasures that are, in fact, nothing more than metaphoric “glad-rags”. These were all the wonderful characteristics I associate with the singer/performance artist/painter Tomata du Plenty.
Wherever he was actually born he was brought up in Montebello, California where his Irish-American parents moved when young David was nine years old. Tomata claims he ran away to Hollywood at age 15-not as daring as it may seem since Montebello is adjacent to Los Angeles and only about 15 miles to Hollywood and Vine. It’s unclear if he kept in contact during that period with his parents, but there’s nothing that points to him being thrown out of his parents’ home because he was gay. If his parents were welcoming it would have made a convenient escape from the streets of Hollywood.
In 1968 he hitchhiked to San Francisco and wound up in the Haight-Ashbury. The twenty-year-old David Harrigan met George Harris and became a member of the psychedelic gender-fuck troupe, The Cockettes. The Cockettes were founded by the transplanted New Yorker Harris (1949-1982) and were influential in helping to usher in not just the modern Gay Liberation movement, but Glam Rock as well. When Harris moved to San Francisco he’d undergone a metamorphosis. He changed his name to Hibiscus and fell in with a vanguard circle of flamboyant, LSD dropping, hippie drag queens that performed gender-bending free theater on the streets. Hibiscus would eventually organize the entourage into The Cockettes. The Cockettes would later make silent films, produce their own plays and open for film screenings-including the San Francisco premier of John Waters’ Pink Flamingos starring the gay underground’s superstar Divine (Harris Glenn Milstead) or as People magazine dubbed him ” Drag Queen of the Century”. That would be the 20th century since Divine died in 1988 at age 42. Divine himself would later become a member of The Cockettes after they’d become a theater troupe, taking part in Les Etoile Du Minuit, the final version of Pearls Over Shanghai, Journey to the Center of Uranus and their final show, Hot Greeks. In Journey to the Center of Uranus Divine sang the song “A Crab On Your Anus Means You’re Loved” while dressed as a lobster. He was on his way! Sadly Hibiscus (George Harris) would become one of the first of the many gay men that would be struck down by AIDS. He died in 1982 at the age of 33. The New York Times headline referred to the disease that struck him down as the “homosexual disorder” then known as GRID (Gay Related Immuno-deficiency).
By this time David Harrigan, who was now Tomata du Plenty had long since left. His principle work with The Cockettes had been as “Hazel The Maid” in their film production of “Tricia’s Wedding” (1971); a take on then-President Nixon’s daughter’s wedding. In the film, characters as diverse as Phyllis Diller, Jackie Onassis and the Pope are in attendance at the wedding as well as some of the most well-known or notorious politicians and celebrities of the day. All were played by various members of The Cockettes. IMDb’s mini-review of the film says:
“The ever-outrageous Cockettes reenact Tricia Nixon’s 1971 wedding to Edward Cox. Hurtme O. Hurtme, television correspondent, covers the wedding and interviews faux celebrities in attendance. Once Eartha Kitt spikes the punch with LSD, events unravel quickly”.
Another, recent reviewer at letterboxd.com remarked
“If you like flaming creatures this is its educated technicolor grandbaby. Brilliant camping of political figures I have vague frame of reference for. Thoroughly enjoyed”
Tricia’s Wedding is a gay cult classic, but is hardly seen these days. Unfortunately the short was not packaged with 2002’s popular documentary “The Cockettes” when it became available on DVD. “Tricia’s Wedding”was released on VHS several years ago-before the Cockettes documentary, but it seems to be unavailable now. Luckily the film can be found among several online libraries. It takes a bit of looking, but thoroughly worth the time if you want to get a glimpse. The film is not only a document of the times, it’s also the first work of someone who would go on to be a towering figure in film. “Tricia’s Wedding” was produced by Mark Lester, who later went on to become one of Hollywood’s most bankable directors, with über-hits like Stephen King’s thriller Firestarter (1984) and Commando (1985) starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Many of du Plenty’s biographers and casual observers have posited that it was his time with The Cockettes was responsible for his understanding of production and direction. These skills were useful, but it was Tomata’s natural talent, his charisma and his native understanding of society and satire that were probably more important traits he’d already acquired…after all, his major influence was as an agent provocateur (although a very nice one) and his ability to engage in on-the-spot guerilla theater whether in the streets, in the theater or onstage with one of his bands
After leaving The Cockettes, (before the release of Tricia’s Wedding) Tomata headed north to Seattle. in 1970 he began to put together his own gender-bending, street performance art troupe-cum-hippie drag community, Ze Whiz Kidz. This was at a time that street art and off-the-cuff public performances were burgeoning in Seattle. One notable performance artist working at the time was Seattle native Johanna Went, who would eventually land in L.A. and become one of the most provocative, most extreme performance artists of this or any other era. It’s said that Tomata du Plenty was a recipient of Seattle’s “one-percent-for-art” program when he arrived in Seattle. It’s true that Seattle was one of the first U.S. cities to adopt funding the arts in public spaces, but the “one-percent-for-art ordinance” was not enacted until 1973. Perhaps du Plenty was partially funded by some other program in the early days, or past biographers have simply misidentified the period that he was funded. In any event he quickly went about forming the core of his troupe that included Gorilla Rose (Michael Farris), Satin Sheets (Dennis Weikel, later known as J. Satz Beret of The Lewd), Melba Toast (who would become Tommy Gear when he and du Plenty formed the band The Screamers), Rhina Stone, Palm Springs, Co Co Ritz, Rio de Janeiro (David Gulbransen), Daily Flo, Benny Whiplash, Michael Hautepants (costume designer Michael Murphy), Leah Vigeah, Louise Lovely (Di Linge), Valerie Allthetime (DePonty), and Cha Cha Samoa (Cha Davis).
Roger Downey authored an overview of a 2006 celebratory exhibition of Ze Whiz Kidz at Seattle’s annual arts and music festival, Bumbershoot called “Between Garage & Grunge: Glitter, Glam and Proto-Punk in Seattle’s Subversive ’70s“ He took time to speak with Larry Reid, Seattle’s doyen of alternative arts and music, who was a co-curator of the exhibition. Downey reports;
“No one would write about these shows, recalls Larry Reid, then a young man in the early ’70s. The Times and P-I (daily newpapers) couldn’t have cared less about one-night cabaret performances and non-theatrical happenings that featured queer content, improv, drag comedy, loud music, and calculatedly poor taste. The Weekly—launched in 1976—was too snooty, and The Rocket (Seattle’s authoritative magazine concerning local and national music and culture) didn’t yet exist”. And the scene that Reid and Martin Imbach document in ‘Between Garage & Grunge: Glitter, Glam and Proto-Punk in Seattle’s Subversive ’70s’ would no longer exist by the ’80s. It morphed away from pansexual stage performance to traditional music categories—punk, New Wave, and (much later) grunge—and was mostly forgotten.
Downey goes on;
“What were the shows like? Loud, campy, joyous, with the audience sometimes joining the Kidz onstage. “We would call it performance art today,” says Reid. “There was no template to it”—more an amalgam of rock, glam, drag performance, and lingering hippie culture. ‘There’s a very direct connection. Seattle had a long hangover from the ’60s.’ For those who weren’t there, the spirit would later be codified somewhat by ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ and in John Waters movies.
In 1973 Tomata du Plenty would bow out from Ze Whiz Kidz and return to his hometown, New York City. He and one of The Cockettes, Fayette Hauser joined him to create ‘guerrilla comedy’ at various East Village clubs, including CBGB. The two opened for bands then-unknown outside NYC like the Ramones and Blondie. “I used to do Pat Suzuki between their sets” said du Plenty, in reference to the Japanese-American Broadway performer known for her song ‘I Enjoy Being A Girl’ in ‘Flower Drum Song’. Other former Cockettes and Whiz Kidz showed up in New York City; Gorilla Rose, John Flowers, and Sweet Pam Tent. In 1973 Tomata and his cohorts produced two Palm Casino Revues at the Bouwerie Lane Theater, an off Broadway theater that had been transformed from a late 19th century bank. Tomata du Plenty and Fayette Hauser opened a vintage store on Mott Street that remained unnamed during it’s life. They also wrote a gossip column called “Hollywood Spit“for an adult journal called Naked News. Eventually ‘Hollywood Spit’ would be taped and shown on public access TV. Clearly, there was always a project to work on as well as planning one for just around the corner.
That next project around the corner would be Tomata’s return to Seattle in 1974. The times and cultural zeitgeist had changed. The geurilla theater that had been so useful earlier in the decade was making way for newer, more provocative tactics and attitudes. As time moved on he set his sites on creating a band called The Tupperwares. The band included other seminal figures on the Seattle scene….and beyond. The Tupperwares included ex-Whiz Kidz Tomata du Plenty, Tommy Gear (who was still using his drag name “Melba Toast”) and Rio de Janeiro (David Gulbransen) who’s mother Laurie had been the decades-long owner and manager of beloved Dog House restaurant-where “friends meet friends” and featured on it’s menu “Rib Eye Steak (Tenderness not guaranteed)”. After Laurie Gulbransen’s death, her son David would take her place until the restaurant was closed in 1994 ).
Back-up vocals were provided by Pam Lillig and Ben Witz (Ben Rabinowitz,later of The Girls) and Bill Rieflin on drums who would go on to play for The Blackouts, Ministry, Pigface, Revolting Cocks, R.E.M. and most recently the newly the re-formed King Crimson. The band also included a very young Eldon Hoke who later became the notorious “El Duce” of The Mentors.
According to synthpop.com
“The first Tupperwares show was a short concert at the Moore Theater in Seattle. The event was the premiere of the John Waters movie, “Pink Flamingos,” and the theater wanted to have some sort of musical event to open the night. The Tupperwares, Tomata du Plenty, Rio de Janeiro and Melba Toast, each on vocals, were backed by The Telepaths. Each Tupperware sang one song on lead, with Tomata doing “I’m Going Steady With Twiggy” and Rio doing “Eva Braun.” (cowritten by Erich Werner and Bill Rieflin of the Telepaths). A third song, “Instamatic Fanatic,” with Melba on lead, was pulled at the last minute”.
A second show had been planned for April 18, 1976 at Seattle’s Polish Hall. The show was to be called ‘The T-T-Oh! Show’ since the line up was The Tupperwares, The Telepaths and Oh! Henry. Unfortunately the show was cancelled
On May 1st 1976 The Tupperwares joined The Meyce and The Telepaths to perform for the “TMT Show” at Seattle’s Oddfellows Hall (915 East Pine St.); a show that is one of the touchstones of Seattle music history. It is regarded by many in the musical community as the first departure from the local popularity of big arena bands and top 40 radio to a wider, more experimental and all-encompassing D.I.Y. culture. In short it is considered the beginning of punk rock in Seattle. TMT was the acronym for the Tupperwares, Meyce and The Telepaths.
In a May 1981 issue of Rescue Magazine (Seattle) Neil Hubbard recounts that for The TMT Show The Tupperwares played the songs ‘I’m Going Steady With Twiggy’, ‘Eva Braun’, ‘Instamatic Fanatic’ and ‘possibly other songs’
Neil went on to say “Admission to the TMT Show was one dollar (yes, $1), about a hundred people showed up, the groups paid for the room and made their nut. This show (please correct me if I’m wrong) was the first self-promoted show in town. The bands rented the hall, got a P.A. and DID IT. It was as much fun or more than many of the shows now.” At the time Hubbard believed a tape existed.
Meyce consisted of Jim Basnight on guitar and vocals, Paul Hood on Bass and vocals, Pam Lillig on guitar, Lee Lumsden on drums and Jennie Skirvin doing vocals) Basnight would go on to form the power-pop group The Moberlys, Paul Hood who went on to play with The Toiling Midgets, The Enemy and Student Nurse among other bands. Pam Lillig would later join The Girls on guitar. Lee Lumsden became the chronicler of all things first-wave punk in Seattle (and beyond) with Chatterbox, a fanzine he co-created with future promoter and later head of Engram Records, Neil Hubbard. Lee later recorded with James Husted under the name The Celestial Pymies, and co-founded The Guardians. In his 2011 book The Strangest Tribe author Stephen Tow asks;
“Don’t know Lee? You should, if you have any interest in Seattle music. Along with a handful of folks like Jim Basnight, Neil Hubbard, and Rob Morgan, Lee essentially created the Seattle music scene out of thin air in the mid-’70s”. Jennie Skirvin (now Jennie Brott) was a regular on the Seattle punk rock social scene during the 1970’s and ’80s, but gave up performing. She now keeps up with all her old friends and makes her way to the odd concert here and there. She has many many friends who adore her.
The third band included in the TMT Show was The Telepaths. Between the years 1975 and 1978 The Telepaths included (in various line-ups) Geoff Cade, Mike Davidson and Allen McNabe/Michaels on Bass, Dean Hegleson and Bill Rieflin on drums. Dave Demetre played saxophone at one point, and Homer Spence, Erich Werner and Reid Vance played guitars in the bands’ many incarnations. Over the course of the band both Gregor Gayden and Curt Werner were vocalists. The band transformed itself as The Blackouts over the years, with Mike Davidson, Bill Rieflin and Erich Werner at the band’s center. They were joined by Roland Barker, first on synthesizer and later on saxophone. In 1981 Davidson left the band and was replaced by Roland’s brother Paul Barker. The Blackouts are arguably the most innovative and fearless band to come out of Seattle. They became incredibly popular but eventually moved to greener pastures. After failed attempts at gaining wider recognition in Boston and L.A. bassist Paul Barker and drummer Bill Rieflin eventually hooked up with Chicago’s Al Jourgenson and became crucial members of the industrial/metal band Ministry.
Both Gregor Gayden and Homer Spence have passed on. Spence suffered a fatal heart attack in 1991. Aside from The Telepaths Homer Spence had been involved with several projects, including Engram Records, The Blackouts, Pink Section, The Macs and The Fastbacks; but he will probably be most well known as the smartest, most affable and interesting Economics Professor turned Cab Driver turned bartender to ever sling a beer in Seattle. For years he worked behind the bar of First Avenue’s Virginia Inn. He could often be found extending his working hours to include hours on the other side of the bar holding forth, dispensing his vast experiences, politics, talking philosophy and baseball. Gregor Gayden went on to form his own band The Look and was another regular on the punk rock and alt rock circuit. He died on January 30, 2008 of organ failure. His obituary, in the Seattle Times of January 30, 2008 reported quite correctly that:
“Gregory touched so many with his great, big spirit; his sensibilities, as a performer in Seattle’s early punk era,political, historical, cinematic; his verbiage deft (“oops, did I say orientate? Sorry, that was an occident!”). He was amazed and amused by wildlife, Alaska fishing crew, spectacular food, sartorial splendor. He loved life. His heart failed. Our hearts broke.”
In a 2017 essay, Seattle cultural and musical historian Jeff Stevens revealed his upcoming book ‘City of Anxiety: An Alternative History of Seattle’ included a summation of the TMT era by Erich Warner;
“Our whole attitude as a gang was a perpetual state of anger about our environment. We opposed just about everything we felt Seattle stood for. We hated suburbia; we were completely opposed to complacent happiness, and we felt the world at large wouldn’t tolerate us. People constantly called us names because of how we looked, so we had a strong identity, a them-and-us polarity.”
So it was with this attitude that Tomata du Plenty, Tommy Gear (who’d dropped his drag name “Melba Toast”) and Rio de Janeiro (David Gulbransen) decided to leave Seattle to find success in Los Angeles. Seattle lore clams that in late 1976, after legal threats from Tupperware Brands, the owners of the name, the band renamed themselves Gianni Bugatti, then settled on The Screamers. The final name would be a good change since it carried with it a very punk rock image…one that would represent the sound they created better than The Tupperwares….better than just about anything.
This article has been cobbled together from multiple sources. Some of them are living people. Some are simply quotes from books (which are noted). In some cases the sources are in conflict. Many of Tomata du Plenty’s friends and colleagues are still with us. If you have a correction, suggestion or omission please leave a message in the comments section.
-Dennis R. White. Sources: Mark Vallen; “Who was Tomata du Plenty?” (Art For a Change [blog], May 4, 2014); Brian Miller “Bumbershoot: Remembering Ze Whiz Kidz and Their Glam-Punk Descendants” (Seattle Weekly, August 23, 2000); Mark Deming “The Screamers: The Great Lost Band of the First Wave of L.A. Punk” (Nightflight, September 14, 2015) “Population: 1” (IMDb http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0091781/, Retrieved January 31, 2018); Dave Lang “The Screamers” (Perfect Sound Forever, March 2000); “Screamers” Various reviews (fusetron, www.fusetronsound.com/label.php?whomart=SCREAMERS , Retrieved January 30, 2018); “The Life and Times of Tomata du Plenty” (kickstarter, https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/2147432630/the-life-and-times-of-tomata-du-plenty/description); Mark Deming “The Screamers Biography” (allmusic.com retrieved February 1, 2018); Mark Spitz & Brenden Mullen “We Got The Neutron Bomb: The Untold Story of L.A. Punk” (Three Rivers Press-New York, 2001); “The Tupperwares” (Synthpunk, www.synthpunk.org/screamers/history75.html , retrieved January 1, 2018); Roger Downey “Glitter and Be Gay: The inspirational extravagance of Seattle’s Whiz Kidz. (The Seattle Weekly, Oct 9 2006); Stephen Tow “The Strangest Tribe: How a Group of Seattle Rock Bands Invented Grunge” (Sasquatch Books, 2001); Paul Hood “Meyce” (pnwbands.com September 2002. Retrieved January 28. 2018); Jacob McMurray “Taking Punk to the Masses: From Nowhere to Nevermind” (Fantagraphics Books, 2011); Art Chantry “Tomata du Plenty, Primal Screamers” (Madame Pickwick Art Blog, madamepickwickartblog.com/2011/08/tomata-du-plenty-primal-screamers . Retrieved January 2, 2018); “Tricia’s Wedding” (IMDb.com, Retrieved January 31,2018); Lee Lumsden “You Don’t Know Anyone Until You Know The Screamers” (Chatterbox issue 6, Summer/Fall, 1977); “Population: 1” (IMDb.com, Retrieved February 3. 2018) Leslie Meyers (Contribution, February 4, 2018October 31, 1970: Ze Whiz Kidz” (Countercultural Seattle Remembers, October 31, 2015); Brenden Mullen “Goodbye Tomata du Plenty” (L.A. Weekly,