Tomata du Plenty, 52, a prolific stage performer and artist whose 33-year career stretched from the Haight-Asbury to the French Quarter, died of cancer August 21, 2000, 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; he then formed Ze Whiz Kidz, his own counter-culture theater group in Seattle. In the late 80s he abandoned performing to become a painter full time, turning out hundreds of vivid portraits that he exhibited in storefront galleries across the country.
Tomata du Plenty (his name was a play on "do 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 1968 where he appeared in 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 described the Cockettes as " the first hip drag queens...on stage and off.."
Tomata lead Ze Whiz Kids, a Seattle troupe that blended counterculture comedy with drag theater from 1969–1972. The group staged nearly a hundred 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).
From 1972–1974 Tomata joined friends Gorilla Rose and Fayette Hauser in New York City 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 and 1973 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 an adult newspaper and operate a thrift store.
Returning to Seattle in 1975, Tomata formed a band called The Tupperwares with Melba Toast (later Tommy Gear). The band re-formed in Los Angeles in 1976, 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 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 Screamers were L.A.'s leading punk band, and one of the city's leading club draws. They 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., Paul Ambrose, 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. "Population: One" was screened in 1986 at the Cannes and Seattle film festivals. In 1987 it was screened at the Chicago Film Festival and was later released in Europe and Japan.
Tomata was a prolific stage producer, playwright 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. In 1985 he wrote and performed "The Weird Live Show," a series of unconventional shows at the Anti-Club and LACE Gallery in Los Angeles. Tomata assembled "The du Plenty Players" and staged "A Shakespeare Travesty" at the Ocasco Gallery in 1985, blending the camp comedy and the work of the Great Bard. He joined Fayette Hauser and the artist Gronk in writing and performing in "The Royal Family" at the Lhasa Club in Los Angeles in 1985-86. In 1986 he appeared on stage at the L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art in conjunction with Gronk's "Morning Becomes Electricity" show.
In the late 1980s 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.
Tomata began his art career in 1983 with a one-man exhibit of watercolor portraits at the Zero One Gallery in Hollywood. Three years later his first paintings on canvas were exhibited at L.A.'s Cheap Racist Gallery at a show called "Whores, Sluts and Tramps" (at the opening party, guests appeared dressed as their favorite low-life heroes). In 1987, he won the L.A. Weekly's Best Set Design Award for his work on John Fleck's one-man stage show, "I Got the He-Be She-Be's." He directed the Compulsive Players in a performance at L.A.'s MOCA that same year and exhibited at the Bye Bye Gallery with artist Diane Gamboa. An exhibit called "Knock Out!," featuring portraits of boxers, appeared in 1988 at the Zero One Gallery in Los Angeles. That same year he was the regular art critic on the cable television series, "What's Bubbling Underground," and he guest lectured at the Fashion Institute of Los Angeles. In one of his last stage performances he appeared in "The Loves of Edgar Allan Poe" with Gronk, Fayette Hauser, Janis Segal and Styles Caldwell at L.A.'s Casa Confetti.
Tomata continued his painting career after moving to Miami's South Beach in 1989. His exhibits--in bars, restaurants and small galleries around the country--were often arranged around a single theme, saluting his favorite poets, TV stars, country Western singers and boxers. Tomata painted people he admired, from historical figures to friends from the punk world, in a style that was emotional, provocative and accessible. He was proud of his status as an outsider artist--he once observed he would rather sell 100 pictures for $25 than one picture for $2,500. In the mid-1990s he moved to his studio to New Orleans. Several times a year he would hit the road for exhibits in California, New York and Florida. In January 1999 he appeared in a CNN interview, along with series of paintings featuring Lucille Ball, Elvis Presley and other pop-culture icons.