Some of the roots of punk rock in Seattle, and therefore the grunge that would help make the city a cultural hotspot, can be traced back to a little known arts collective known as Ze Whiz Kidz. In the early 1970s this troupe of gay, glam singers and performers made their home base in the basement of the Smith Tower downtown. And they would go on to open for some big touring bands. Though their tenure was short lived, they left a lasting mark on the city.
Before Seattle had a prominent gay neighborhood, before it had all that much alternative culture or art to speak of, there were Ze Whiz Kidz:
“They were a street performing group that had gender benders to assault the sensibilities of the quiet culture of Seattle. They were just like a nail sticking up from the sidewalk.”
That’s Michael Campbell, who lived with and occasionally performed with the troupe.
“They were campy, they were vocal, they sang, and there were several piano players as well. But it was just a visual feast.”
Campbell serves as Ze Whiz Kidz archivist. He has obsessively collected handbills, posters, photographs, and testimonies from those heady years at the tail end of the hippy era.
Unless you were one of the lucky few to have seen it in person, it’s hard to picture exactly what a Whiz Kidz show in 1970 might have been like... and how Seattle would have reacted to it. The gay scene was fairly small and not all that visible. But photos of the group from that time show outlandish costumes, makeup, wigs, and a lot of glitter.
The group had humble beginnings on the outskirts of Seattle’s gay arts scene. Michael Campbell said Ze Whiz Kidz didn’t fit neatly into Seattle’s existing drag culture.
“Some of the photos that I do have show exaggerated drag, like one of Sats which has like three foot big boobs sticking out and a wig on top. The guys would look, would dress kind of femenine, but have beards. And glitter was usually all over their beard as well.
Ze Whiz Kidz were founded in Seattle in 1969 by Tomata du Plenty. They started by performing impromptu shows on the streets of the city. Among the band of fantastically named performers was a young member called Satin Sheets, who now goes by J. Sats Beret. Sats says he secured the group a sort of speakeasy in the basement of the historic Smith Tower in 1970.
“Originally the Sub Room was a gangster club. They sold sub machine guns and a lot of drag queens was in the club. Well anyway they got busted. So the owner was sitting down there for about two weeks with nothing to do. And so I discovered this club. And at the time I was only 17, but I looked a lot older, being tall. I told him I was 21, and I told him we had a theater group, and if you let me take it over we’d bring shows in, and you wouldn’t have to be here, and blah blah blah.”
The Submarine Room gave Ze Whiz Kidz a stable home base and steady (if small) audience to develop their acts. They would put on almost 100 shows in their few years together. Sats said their cabarets were written quickly, and usually only performed twice before being retired.
“Wednesday we’d write a show, Thursday we’d call people, we’d rehearse it. And Friday we’d put it on, and by Saturday it would be the end of the show. So we’d do two shows of a show that was written Wednesday of that week. And that was great, it was just a great time in my life.”
J. Sats Beret would go on to form The Lewd, one of Seattle’s very first punk bands, in 1977. He lives in San Francisco and still performs with his band.
The Whiz Kidz wild aesthetic and counter culture sensibilities would inspire other proto punks. Larry Reid says he was 16 or 17 when he first saw the group perform at The Eagles Auditorium.
Reid would later found a series of punk rock art galleries in the late 70s and early 80s, host underground bands, and manage influential Seattle group The U-Men. But when he saw Ze Whiz Kidz at the Eagles, and later at The Submarine Room, he was a naive suburban teen.
“I remember being a little bit shocked, because it was the very first out gay perforfance I’ve ever seen, though there were straight people in the group. It was more of a guerilla theater group, it wasn’t a band. People think of Ze Whiz Kidz as being a band, it was more like guerilla theater.”
Reid said these Whiz Kidz shows were the first references he had ever heard to explicit gay sex.
“That was breaking taboos in a major way, and that was after the hippy era had already broken a lot of taboos. And I just found it really bold and kind of endearing, and it was a great sense of humour about the work.
As Ze Whiz Kidz infamy grew in Seattle, they started to attract wider crowds. And so on July 9th and 10th, 1971 they were invited to open for the newly famous Alice Cooper at the Paramount Theater. This watershed moment was the biggest show, and audience, Ze Whiz Kidz would ever enjoy.
Ze Whiz Kidz opened both nights with a 50s revue called “Puttin’ Out is Dreamsville”, backed by a full band. The set showcases the campy, musical fun that characterized their shows. Their jukebox cabaret turned bubblegum rock on it’s head with a hefty dose of sexual humour, bizarre costumes, and even real live motorcycles on stage. The wild Whiz Kidz seemed a good match for Cooper. Or, at least according to Sats, it may have even been a bit much for the rising rock star.
“And Alice said, and being as outrageous as he is, he said ‘you scare me’ to the Whiz Kidz, so for what it’s worth, haha.”
Michael Campbell also fondly remembers the Whiz Kidz antics on stage that night, and its impact on Cooper.
“Alice freaked out. He said he would never perform with them ever again. I think he was jealous of them, actually.”
A few years after that Alice Cooper show, some Whiz Kidz members (including founder Tomata du Plenty) dropped out and moved to New York City. There they became involved with the nascent punk scene at the famous club CBGB.
Remaining Whiz Kidz in Seattle tried to rebrand as a glam rock band in 1974, and opened for The New York Dolls at The Moore Theater that year. But it was short lived, and infighting among the group brought them to an end soon after.
Tomata du Plenty returned to Seattle and founded a new band called The Tupperwares along with former Whiz Kids Rio de Janeiro and Melba Toast. They famously played Seattle’s very first DIY punk concert, the TMT show, on May 1st, 1976.
Later that year the band would move to Los Angeles and change their name to The Screamers. They were an influential and early electro punk group that helped establish the west coast punk scene before breaking up in 1981.
Tomata du Plenty would go on to focus on visual arts and painting. He died of cancer in San Francisco On August 21, 2000, at the age of 52. The Whiz Kidz may have been short lived, but they shined bright in a sedate city. From counterculture comedy, to gay glitter theater, to glam rock and proto punk, in the early 1970s Ze Whiz Kidz set the stage for much of Seattle’s culture to come. Or, as Whiz Kidz archivist Michel Campbell puts it,
“I think they fill a gap between hippy and punk, and they cross over somewhere in there. And they did a lot for, I think personally, Seattle. It kind of stirred up the pot a little bit so to speak. They were on Capitol hill before Capitol Hill became the gay center. It was a mixed neighborhood, but they would still stand out on the streets and wave at people and do chorus lines and things of that nature. They were not afraid to be in public. But they loved being themselves.”
Ze Whiz Kidz legacy lives on locally, as some former members of the group would go on to join One Reel, who for many years organized Bumbershoot Fest, as well Teatro ZinZanni. Former Whiz Kidz have had their hand in fashion, theater, music, and arts organizations. They left a lineage that would make way for punk in Seattle, which in turn gave way to the explosion of underground music that would become popularized as grunge.
But before all that, Tomata du Plenty and his band of queer weirdos in Ze Whiz Kidz would make their own mark on the Emerald City.
“Well it’s like Stonewall, it’s like history. It’s a part of what the Northwest was doing at the time. And it was very isolated. There were groups in San Francisco and probably LA. But Seattle had its own version of style, and a message that was different than everybody else. Seattle was unique.”
Special thanks to the Museum of Pop Culture, who shared their interview with J. Sats Beret recorded in 2008. Thanks also to Howie Wahlen who shared his reel to reel recording of Ze Whiz Kidz opening for Alice Cooper in 1971. For more on the roots of Seattle’s punk and underground music, check out Stray Dogs from Every Village: Seattle Underground Music 1978-1988.
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