The film follows the zany adventures of Les Nickelettes, an outrageous feminist satirical musical-comedy troupe from 1970s and ‘80s San Francisco. In the midst of the seriously earnest second-wave feminist movement, Les Nickelettes turned the patriarchy inside out and upside down with scandalous female humor.
The idea of Les Nickelettes was hatched as a ‘70s vaudeville act at the People’s Nickelodeon, a midnight movie series that ran after-hours at the Mitchell Brother’s O’Farrell Theater. A pornographic film venue was an unlikely beginning for a feminist theater company but sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. Les Nickelettes evolved into a brazen women’s lib troupe whose members wrote, produced, and performed original skits, stunts, and musical comedy theater in San Francisco for thirteen years. Anarchy in High Heels addresses the neglected topics of comedy’s role in feminism and the power that arises when women bond together through a shared sense of humor. We seek to disrupt the narrative that second-wave feminism was humorless, and bring to light its satirical, bawdy side as embodied by Les Nickelettes. For Millennial and Gen Z women, this may come as a surprise and serve as a connection between second-wave feminism and today’s burlesque, drag strip shows, gender fluid identities and comedy as a political statement. According to Ellin Stein, author of That’s Not Funny, That’s Sick: The National Lampoon and the Comedy Insurgents Who Captured the Mainstream, Les Nickelettes “served notice that women could be outspoken, raunchy, and above all, funny.” They were part of the tumultuous countercultural adventure that began in San Francisco in the late ‘60s and took the country by storm. Anarchy in High Heels is a snapshot of that unique era.
This troupe is such an important part of the history of second-wave feminist innovation, defiance, disruption, and creativity that it is surprising that it hasn’t already been made, aired, and assigned in the curricula of college classes across the nation! I have written for a few decades about how social movements can “speak mirth to power” for enhanced cultural and policy impact, and Les Nickelettes are a prime example whose herstory must be elevated and amplified for a contemporary audience. Humor has so often served as a survival mechanism, a mobilizing tool, and a unifier across borders of identity in social movement activism. With the pleasure it yields, transgressive political humor, breaking gender stereotypes and satirizing the oppressor, can awaken joy in collective defiance, nurturing subcultures that can eventually impact the dominant public sphere. The Nickelettes are a brilliant case study of this phenomenon. This documentary will be a valuable contribution to the ongoing conversation in the humanities on the lasting value of satire and irony in the history of U.S. feminism and political theatre.
— Larry Bogad, Professor of Political Theater, UC Davis
Director Betsy Newman
Betsy Newman attended Antioch College during the tumult of the late 1960s, earned an MA in theater from the University of North Carolina and shortly thereafter moved to San Francisco. She lived in the Goodman Building artists’ collective, which was at the center of the alternative arts scene of the 1970s and has been described as “the last survivor of low rent, easy access, communal living spaces in the city.” There she helped to create a storefront theater where Les Nickelettes and many other theater groups rehearsed and performed. She joined Les Nickelettes in 1974, co-writing several plays with the company, performing at the Mabuhay Gardens, the Intersection other notorious venues, and becoming the group’s first female director. Betsy moved to New York City in 1981, where she became involved in the early video art scene and produced a series of video installations based on feminist themes and presented in “women’s spaces” such as a laundromat and a beauty parlor. In addition to working as an independent filmmaker, she taught video production at New York University and the Educational Video Center. She has produced more than a dozen documentaries which have been broadcast nationally and have screened at numerous film festivals, museums, clubs and archives, including the March on Washington Film Festival, the World Wide Video Festival, the Brooklyn Museum and the Smithsonian History Film Festival. Her films have won a Telly, a CINE Golden Eagle Award, a Southeast EMMY and five ADDY Awards.
Debra Pollock, Executive Producer. Debra Pollock, a proud member of Actors Equity, has performed professionally around the world as a singer and actress. She was a company member of Les Nickelettes in the early 1980s and performed in multiple productions including Spaced Out a Sci-fi Musical, The Didi Glitz Story, and Anarchy in High Heels; directed The Didi Glitz Story and the infamous NYC production of Anarchy in High Heels. She went on to sing professionally in Italy and toured internationally with multiple performers and bands. Debra last trod the boards with a three plus year stint in Always, Patsy Cline at the Denver Center for the Arts. Professionally, today, she is a LGBTQ advocate and non-profit executive, having worked as the CEO of the Center on Colfax – LGBTQ Colorado. Debra and her wife Maureen, of 28 years, live in Palm Springs, CA.
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