If you went into Magnet, the gay men’s health clinic in the Castro District, and looked at the art on display, you might think that whoever in charge of decorating has a deep love for Divine and pen drawings from the ’70s. But what you’re looking at is the work of queer poster artist Todd Trexler, whose images could be found on utility poles and in apartments all over the city four decades ago.
A San Mateo native, Trexler is best known locally for designing fliers for The Cockettes, Nocturnal Dreams, Sylvester, and of course, Divine; and his poster exhibit at Magnet is his first in over 40 years. Sadly, he won’t be enjoying it; he passed away back in February of this year, and proceeds from sales of his work will go to his longtime partner, who is suffering financially after Trexler’s death.
According to his website, when Trexler was an art student living in the Castro in the early to mid ’60s he became friends with “Sebastian” (whose real name is Milton Miron, according to IMDB), who was the accountant for Bill Graham. Around that time, Sebastian hooked up with a venue — the Palace Theatre — and began showing underground films after midnight on the weekends. Trexler was pulled in to design the ads for the movies, and instead of handbills, he went with large, hand drawn posters that were as bizarre and beautiful as the movies that were being shown. He later said he was paid in weed for his work.
Sebastian’s “Midnight Movies” grew in popularity and a connection to local director Steven Arnold later led to his work promoting The Cockettes’ midnight musicals, which became the weekly event for San Francisco’s freakiest. Director John Waters, a fan of The Cockettes, hooked Sebastian up with Divine, star of Waters’ earliest, trashiest films, such as Mondo Trasho, Female Trouble and the truly groundbreaking Pink Flamingos. Not only did the iconic drag queen begin performing with The Cockettes, he started a singing career, with Trexler designing many of the posters for his popular concerts.
As the scene grew around the Palace Theatre’s shows, so did Trexler’s poster budget (he began being paid in actual money for his work). From line drawings reminiscent of Aubrey Beardsley’s work in the ’30s, Trexler pushed his art with expanded media choices, including photographs and color-separation.
A great example of this is the poster he made in 1972 for The Cockettes’ last musical, Vice Palace, that featured Divine standing in front of the Palace of Fine Arts.
“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 told Camp Magazine in 2013. “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.”
Just before the ’80s rolled around and San Francisco was ravaged by the AIDS epidemic, Trexler left town and stopped doing art altogether. Instead, he went back to college, became a nurse and dedicated his life to fighting against a disease that killed almost 20,000 people in San Francisco alone within a 15-year period.
After retiring from nursing in 1998, Trexler lived a quiet life on the Monterey Peninsula until his work was suddenly in demand again, thanks to a series of art books and documentaries on the scene that encompassed over a decade of his life. Realizing that he was not only proud of his work, but that there was a real demand, he set up a website to sell reproductions of his posters. Then he began creating new work, which he showed as part of the Nocturnal Daydreams show at Alley Cat Books in January of this year.
Though he had set up plans for the Magnet exhibit soon afterward, Trexler reportedly passed away unexpectedly on Feb. 9 of this year.
So, if you do happen to pop into Magnet for whatever reason, take a second and stare at the art on the walls. Allow yourself to enjoy Trexler’s vision and, if you were there, wax nostalgic on a time period all of its own — one that makes today’s party scene look like child’s play and where it seemed like everyone was invited.
Watch a 2013 interview with Trexler on the show 10 Percent below.