If Ze Whiz Kidz had truly ruled Seattle, every day here would likely now be Halloween.
Instead, they merely haunted Seattle fabulously during the early 1970s, bringing a grandly countercultural ruckus to our infamously stoic Northern city. Along the way, they flamboyantly forged the evolutionary glam-rock link between Seattle’s circa-1968 hippies and our circa-1978 punks.
Ze Whiz Kidz were a drag cabaret and performance art troupe founded in Seattle circa 1969 by the legendary West Coast punk provocateur Tomata du Plenty (birth name: David Xavier Harrigan, 1948-2000). While the troupe’s name remains absurdly obscure today, much of the past five decades of Seattle’s counterculture can be traced back influentially to Ze Whiz Kidz — especially within our city’s music scene. Among other brazen trails they blazed during their brief time here, they paved the way for punk rock in Seattle, and thus ultimately set the stage for grunge and other more recent countercultural developments within our city.
Providing a precise date for the birth of Ze Whiz Kidz is an apparently elusive goal, given the infamous wildness of their time. One possibility would be the third and final Sky River Rock Festival, held near Washougal, Washington, during Labor Day weekend 1970, where and when they first performed for a large audience. Yet it seems most appropriate, given their fundamentally flamboyant nature, to nominate the date in focus here, when the troupe performed the second of two Halloween weekend shows at the Eagles Auditorium in downtown Seattle.
At the time of the Kidz’ concerts there, the Eagles Auditorium was the premier rock concert venue in Seattle, our city’s contemporary countercultural counterpart to San Francisco’s legendary Fillmore Auditorium — and the 1970 Halloween weekend shows were the Kidz’ first on a large indoor stage. Prior to Sky River, they had performed clandestinely around Seattle: on the street, at bus stops, at an A&P grocery store, and several shows in the basement of Smith Tower in the Submarine Room, a lesbian dive bar run by the local mob where it was rumored that one could buy authentic Tommy Guns from the bartender.
Gay subculture was obviously the milieu within which Ze Whiz Kidz were created — and they were thus yet another historical example of Seattle following where San Francisco once boldly led. Prior to co-founding Ze Whiz Kidz, du Plenty (a New York state native) was a veteran of the Cockettes, a San Francisco hippie-glitter drag musical theater troupe founded in 1968. The Cockettes created flamboyant stage shows that predated both David Bowie’s glam rock and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Ze Whiz Kidz similarly staged nearly 100 mini-musical revues in Seattle with an amorphous cast whose many wild stage names included Gorilla Rose (Michael Farris), Satin Sheets (Dennis Weikel, later known as J. Satz Beret), Melba Toast, Rhina Stone, Palm Springs, Co Co Ritz, Rio de Janeiro (David Gulbransen), Daily Flo, Benny Whiplash, Michael Hautepants (costume designer Michael Murphy), Leah Vigeah, and real, actual women Louise Lovely (Di Linge), Valerie Allthetime (DePonty), and Cha Cha Samoa (Cha Davis).
Among other highlights of their local countercultural career, Ze Whiz Kidz opened for shock-rock icon Alice Cooper on July 9 and 10, 1971, at Seattle’s Paramount Theatre, where they performed an original 1950s-themed show titled “Puttin’ Out Is Dreamsville.” Apparently, their collective flamboyance then intimidated even the infamous Cooper. According to J. Satz Beret, “Who else would you put on the bill with Alice Cooper, except the Whiz Kidz? Alice said at the end of the show — being as outrageous as he is — he said to us, ‘You scare me!'”
Tomata du Plenty’s birth state of New York played a reciprocal role in the Whiz Kidz tale when he and Gorilla Rose left the troupe to move to New York City in 1973. After arriving there, they witnessed the nascent punk rock scene at the now-legendary club CBGB, and du Plenty eventually opened there for the Ramones, Blondie, and other such then-obscure acts as a one-man cabaret performer. Catalyzed by the CBGB scene, du Plenty and Rose returned to Seattle in 1975. During their NYC sojourn, Ze Whiz Kidz had become a relatively conventional rock band, similar to the New York Dolls, for whom they opened at Seattle’s Moore Theatre on March 14, 1974, before finally drifting apart circa 1975.
Several early West Coast punk rock bands emerged from the demise of Ze Whiz Kidz. Tomata du Plenty, Melba Toast, and Rio de Janeiro went on to form the Tupperwares, who famously played at the May 1, 1976, TMT Show, generally considered Seattle’s first true punk rock concert. Their transgressive sound and style could best be described as “post-glam/proto-punk.” Later that same year, frustrated with the stagnancy of Seattle’s punk scene at the time, the Tupperwares moved to Los Angeles, where they changed their name to the Screamers (reportedly after legal threats from the Tupperware trademark owners), then quickly became notorious and therefore very influential within that city’s early punk scene. Meanwhile, circa 1977, J. Satz Beret formed the Lewd, who would soon move from Seattle to San Francisco, where they would eventually record and release the now-classic 1982 punk rock album American Wino.
Ze Whiz Kidz’ ultimate legacy continues to thrive locally today, since certain former members of the troupe would eventually go on to join One Reel (for decades the organizer of Seattle’s annual Bumbershoot arts festival), Teatro ZinZanni, and other crucial Seattle-area arts organizations.
–Jeff Stevens. Sources: Brendan Mullen, “Goodbye, Tomata du Plenty,” L.A. Weekly, August 23, 2000; David Weissman and Bill Weber, “The Cockettes” (documentary film, 2002); Roger Downey, “Glitter and Be Gay: The inspirational extravagance of Seattle’s Whiz Kidz,” Seattle Weekly, June 27, 2002, p. 30; Gary L. Atkins, “Gay Seattle: Stories of Exile and Belonging” (University of Washington Press, 2003); Peter Blecha, “Sonic Boom: The History of Northwest Rock, from ‘Louie Louie’ to ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit'” (Backbeat Books, 2009); Jacob McMurray, “Taking Punk to the Masses: From Nowhere to Nevermind” (Fantagraphics Books, 2011); Brian Miller, “Bumbershoot: Remembering Ze Whiz Kidz and Their Glam-Punk Descendants,” Seattle Weekly, September 1, 2015.