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Offering Pieces of Gay Pop Culture

May 2, 2013
by Leo Buck

Todd Trexler and Sylvester 1971
Todd Trexler and Sylvester 1971

As the daily headlines show, this year has been a momentous period for the LGBT community. But every breakthrough is built upon that which came before, and one man who was both a witness and, in his own inspired way, a contributor to our history is artist Todd Trexler.

Trexler’s work came to define a period in gay pop culture after the Stonewall riots of 1969 — particularly within the San Francisco region. As he saw history unfold, he worked with a plethora of famous individuals.

A native of San Mateo, Calif., a small town on the San Francisco peninsula, this visual craftsman said his interest in art was ignited back in high school.

“In biology class, we had to draw plants — and I was good at it,” he recollected. “So you could say the seed was first planted there.”

On weekends, Trexler would travel into San Francisco to work downtown.

“I loved the city from the start and moved there at age 19 as an undergraduate at San Francisco State,” he said, adding that not long after, in 1965, he took up permanent residence in the city’s renowned Castro neighborhood — just as it was becoming the center of a vibrant counterculture movement.

Trexler even opened perhaps the first gay business on Castro Street, called the Peaches Dream Galleries, in 1969. He was determined, he said, “to dedicate my art to the expression of post-Stonewall gay life in San Francisco during the ’60s and ’70s.”

During this time, the designer, who also holds a master’s degree in sculpture, began displaying his imaginative renderings at the Upper Market Street Gallery, one of the most progressive art salons in the Bay area. He went on to design posters for their edgy exhibitions and events.

Trexler was soon to succeed beyond anyone’s wildest imaginings. He met Milton Miron, an associate of legendary rock promoter Bill Graham, who called himself “Sebastian.” A cinema enthusiast, Miron had begun holding midnight screenings of old movies every weekend that soon gained popularity as “The Nocturnal Dream Shows.”

“Having secured the use of the Palace Theater in the North Beach section of the city every Friday and Saturday at 12 o’clock, Sebastian’s plan was to show some of his favorite little-known and often bizarre films,” Trexler said. The audiences for these shows, he said, were “a mix of beatniks, hippies, intellectuals and gays.”

To advertise each month’s selections, Sebastian asked Trexler to craft catchy, yet inexpensive handbills for which he’d be paid with bags of weed.

“My line drawings then were influenced by Aubrey Beardsley [an English illustrator”> and the Art Deco style of the ’30s,” explained Trexler. Although the style was simple, their unique vintage appeal did indeed help bring in crowds. As time passed and the success of the shows increased, his posters evolved from pen-and-ink sketches on white paper to lush multicolored images, incorporating illustrations and photos.

Sebastian also worked with a local producer-director named Steven Arnold, who had made a movie that featured a group of hippie drag queens.

“Their drag was a huge departure from traditional drag, where men attempted to look like real women,” Trexler said. “They had beards and extreme makeup and wore imaginative costumes that were more surreal.”

The group members called themselves The Cockettes, and from the late 1960s through the early 1970s, this pan-sexual drag troupe regularly performed outrageous parodies of the movies being seen after-hours. Eventually, they started writing and enacting their own original musicals (likewise borrowing from arcane and often quirky films), ultimately gaining a substantial cult following for their efforts.

Along the way, Trexler’s posters promoting it all were themselves developing a life of their own and could be found decorating the walls of free spirits, flower children, trendsetters and gay men alike throughout and beyond the city by the Bay.

The late-night extravaganzas even caught the attention of a Baltimore-based underground filmmaker by the name of John Waters. In fact, Waters was so impressed by the group that he introduced them to his “star”– a 300-pound cross-dressing force of nature named Lady Divine, who joined them to “strut her stuff before the footlights” on several occasions.

Moreover, Divine’s San Francisco appearances provided a terrific opportunity for Trexler to take his design talents to a whole new level.

“Working with Divine was memorable for sure!” he said. “And that gorgeous Vice Palace poster is one of my all-time favorites.”

The sultry black-and-white image promoted the Cockettes’ last musical, a 1972 stage spectacle that was based on Edgar Allen Poe’s classic “The Masque of the Red Death,” in which Divine portrayed Signora Divina.

“The day that we took the photos for the Vice Palace poster, we drove around San Francisco trying to find a good backdrop, and we ended up at the Palace of Fine Arts,” Trexler said. “Divine was in makeup and wearing bib overalls with the sides split to accommodate her impressive size. When she got out of the car, she took a couple of net prom dresses and just wrapped them around herself as I shot pictures.”

Another member of the group who went on to success was a soon-to-be disco diva named Sylvester– who is best remembered for one of the 1970s major dance hits, “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real).” Many of Sylvester’s concert posters were also created by Trexler, and on occasion, he even accompanied the recording superstar and his group, The Hot Band, on tour. He fondly recalled several gigs in the Midwest.

“The concert in Detroit was spectacular, and the audience went wild,” Trexler said. “Then he played Dayton, Ohio, on Saturday night.”

The following morning, Trexler and “Baron” Michael Miller (co-owner of the Upper Market Street Gallery, who had also gone along) went down to the hotel restaurant for breakfast, leaving Sylvester to sleep in.

“The restaurant was filled with conservative-looking people, all dressed up, who had come there after church services,” he remembers. “So we ordered and tried not to attract attention. Suddenly, Sylvester appeared in a long woman’s chenille bathrobe, making his way to our table, singing “Good morning, girls!”

Leaving the Golden State for a time during the ’80s and ’90s, the man whose talents captured such magical bygone times turned his attentions to serving a more pressing need by becoming an HIV/AIDS educator and activist. But given the interest from younger members of the LGBT community, he feels the time has come to turn his attention back to his emblematic artwork.

“I love how young GLBTs have embraced their heritage of artists like Sylvester, Divine, and the Cockettes,” he said with a smile. “When I returned to California, I was contacted by author Strange de Jim regarding his wonderful book San Francisco’s Castro, and it was then I started thinking about my life in the city and my posters.”

Upon donating a collection to the GLBT Historical Association of Northern California, he considered publishing an art book himself, but later decided that a website could reach many more people.

“Finally I decided on a website where the posters could not only be viewed, but where reproductions could be made available,” Trexler said. “So I’m centered on the resurrection of my San Francisco poster art through this website.”

Now these eclectic and historic masterpieces of gay pop culture can be anyone’s. For more information or to order copies, check out