Tomata DuPlenty, 52, Punker and Painter
Whose Career Spanned Several Eras
Tomata du Plenty, 52, a prolific stage performer and artist whose 33-year career stretched from the Summer of Love to the New Orleans art scene, died of cancer August 21 in San Francisco.
Best known as the lead singer of the late ’70s Los Angeles punk band The Screamers, Tomata seemed perpetually ahead of his times. He was in the forefront of the late 60s glitter scene as a member of San Francisco’s gender-bending drag troupe, The Cockettes, and was later a founding member of Seattle’s Ze Whiz Kidz, another performance troupe. He stopped performing in the early 1980s to become a painter, turning out hundreds of vivid portraits that he exhibited in storefront galleries across the country.
Tomata du Plenty was born David Xavier Harrigan in Queens, New York, of Irish immigrant parents. His family migrated to Montebello, Calif., when he was 9, and Tomata ran away to Hollywood at the age of 16.
He moved to San Francisco in 1967 where he joined the Cockettes, the hippie-glitter theater troupe that staged legendary midnight musicals at the Palace Theater in North Beach. The company’s freewheeling shows and rhinestone-studded costumes anticipated and inspired the glam rock scene of David Bowie and “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” Their shows were attended by Diana Vreeland, Truman Capote, and Gore Vidal; their then-scandalous film, “Tricia’s Wedding,” recast the marriage ceremony of first daughter Tricia Nixon as a psychedelic drag show. John Waters once described the Cockettes as “ the first hip drag queens…on stage and off..”
In the early ’70s Tomata wrote, acted, sang and danced with Ze Whiz Kids, a Seattle troupe that blended counterculture comedy with drag theater. The group staged nearly a hundred mini-musical revues with a cast that featured performers like Satin Sheets, Co Co Ritz, Daily Flo, Benny Whiplash, Michael Hautepants (costume designer Michael Murphy), Leah Vigeah and real females Louise Lovely (Di Linge) and Cha Cha Samoa (Cha Davis, now a painter). The group was widely credited with sparking a local renaissances in modern dance, performance art, punk and the gay underground in Seattle.
In 1972, Tomata joined friends Gorilla Rose and Fayette Hauser to bring guerrilla comedy to CBGB’s and other East Village clubs, working with then-unknown bands like the Stilettos (later Blondie) and the Ramones. “I used to do Pat Suzuki between their sets,” he said.
In 1972 -73 Tomata and company staged two Palm Casino Revues at the Bowery Lane Theater. In between shows, he found time to write an advice column for a pornographic newspaper and operate a thrift store.
Returning to Seattle, Tomata formed a drag-rock band called The Tupperwares with Melba Toast (later Tommy Gear). The band re-formed in Los Angeles in 1977, picking up drummer K.K. Barrett and keyboardist David Brown, and a new name, The Screamers. Brown was later replaced by Paul Roessler.
As much theater as rock band, The Screamers eschewed guitars and featured two keyboards, one drummer and assaultive lyrics mostly written and sung by Tomata. Their sound and anticipated the techno rock of the early ’80s. Their look–foot-high hair and ripped clothes–was achieved with the help of hair sprays, gels and a full-time stylist (Chloe Pappas).
From 1977-81 the band played consecutive sold-out performances at L.A.’s top music venues, including the Whisky, the Starwood and the Roxy, but despite several offers never signed a record deal.
The band’s last performance, without keyboardist Gear, was at the Whisky-A-Go Go in 1981. Two years before MTV, it incorporated music video with live performances by Tomata, K.K., Shari Penquin and the Fabulous Sheela. Much of the film was later used in a full-length feature, “Population: One,” produced and directed by Dutch filmmaker Rene Daalder and featuring a cast of L.A. musicians and scene-makers, including a preschool Beck Hansen.
Tomata was a prolific writer, scenarist and lyricist who wrote scores of songs, plays, sketches, and musicales. His stage presence was magnetic, his voice loudly unconventional. He was fond of quoting an old review by Rex Reed, “No talent is not enough,” but hundreds of avid fans disagreed.
Tomata returned to the stage several times in the early ’80s with Gorilla Rose and other friends at the Anti-Club and L.A.C.E. for the Weird Live Show. He produced “A Shakespeare Travesty” in 1985, blending the work of the real Bard with camp comedy.
In 1987 he moved to Miami’s South Beach, where he continued the painting career he had started three years earlier. His exhibits–in bars, restaurants and small galleries–were often arranged around a single theme, saluting his favorite poets, TV stars, country Western singers and boxers.
Tomata once said he would rather sell 100 pictures for $25 than one picture for $2,500.
In the early 1990s he directed a series of short films with Los Angeles filmmaker Kevin Kierer, including “Mr. Baby” featuring Styles Caldwell, and “Pick Up on Olvera Street” featuring Juan Garza. He coaxed ’50s TV horror-movie hostess Vampira out of retirement, and featured her in several performances and films.
Last July, he returned to Los Angeles for an exhibit at Beyond Baroque in Venice. His opening reception included readings and performances by an eclectic assortment of longtime friends, including the Oh! Sisters, the Groovy Rednecks, Pleasant Gehman and Vampira.
Tomata’s last major show, “Black Leather Kerouac,” featured watercolors of the beat generation and was held at Cafe Vesuvio in San Francisco’s North Beach. Fellow punk veterans Jello Biafra and Penelope Houston performed at his opening.
At the time of his death Tomata was researching opera singers for a planned exhibit at the Glendale Art Library.
– ROBERT WRAY