The familiar Rocky Horror logo has graced theaters for 35 years.
The Devil’s Clackdish: A column
By HAP MANSFIELD
On June 16, 1973, a new musical play made its unauspicious debut at at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs in London.
The play was called “They Came From Denton High,” written by a young actor named Richard O’Brien. The plot was basically about a group of aliens from a planet called Transylvania, led by a character called Dr. Frank-N-Furter. It was the world’s first glimpse of a production that would later become a movie known as “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”
On Halloween night this Sunday, members of the band Chasca and an assortment of other local musicians will stage a Rocky Horror Review at the Gray Horse Saloon (1904 RR 12) at 10 p.m. Chasca has been doing a yearly Rocky Horror Review show for the last several years to the delight of their fans and some critical acclaim. It should be a mighty fun night.
It got me to thinking about “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” (RHPS) the only movie that has been in continuous release since it was first shown in 1975, a whopping 35 years. The gender-bending movie established a midnight movie cult following that is unprecedented in the annals of entertainment, not to mention beginning the careers of Tim Curry, Susan Sarandon and Barry Bostwick.
It still thrives.
What a long, and rocky, road that has been. It’s the only movie I can think of where audience participation is encouraged. It’s hard to imagine that anyone missed this phenomenon, since it still goes on today, but I’ll venture there are a few who don’t know the early experiences.
Let me explain it just a bit.
I first saw RHPS at the Rialto Theatre in Chicago in the late 1970s, when midnight presentations of the film were already an established tradition. As we stood in line waiting to get in, there were patrons dressed in costumes of characters for the movie and many of them were carrying grocery bags full of I didn’t know what. (Just as an aside, the Rialto is the theater in which John Dillinger was shot.)
Before the film, many of the people who were dressed in character got up on the stage and lip-synched with the soundtrack playing in the theater before the movie started. When the theater darkened, they returned to their seats.
From the very first scenes in the movie, I found out what the grocery bags contained. When the lead characters of Brad and Janet are attending a wedding, the movie audience whipped out bags of rice and started throwing it at the screen. When the movie couple’s car gets a flat tire and they are walking in the rain, out came the audience participants squirt guns gleefully spraying the theater (most theaters don’t allow this anymore.)
The Chicago audience participants were such die-hard fans that when the couple in the movie shield their heads from the rain, the participants got out Cleveland Plain Dealers (the paper the movie uses in parody) and sheltered themselves from the onslaught of squirt guns.
The audience would often speak in unison to the screen with “call backs” as the movie continued. When the “Transylvanians” do the Time Warp the entire theater rose en masse, sang along and did the dance with joyful enthusiasm. At the time, the experience was mind-bending. I came from a small town that shushed you if you coughed too loudly at a theater.
The grocery bags held more goodies for throwing at the screen, such as dry toast to throw at the screen when Frank-N-Furter holds up a glass and says, “A toast!” In addition, confetti was thrown at one point, and playing cards at another.
The “call backs” vary by region, but there are standard lines that are consistent anywhere I’ve seen it, from Atlanta to Los Angeles. Whenever a character in the movie says the name of the character “Brad Majors” the audience yells “A**HOLE!” When Frank-N-Furter pauses speaking the word “antici……pation”, the audience yells “Say it!”
About 20 years ago, RHPS went through another evolution as audience members, dressed as the characters in the movie, would be on the stage in front of the movie acting as the characters. Each area in the country had whole casts of people designated to do this. I had a roommate who, for several years, played the character of Riff-Raff on the movie stage.
The stage show has also had many incarnations and performers who have played the Rocky Horror characters on stage, including Tracy Ullman, Wendy O. Williams, Joan Jett, Russell Crowe, Jerry Springer, David Arquette, Sebastian Bach, Gilbert Gottfried and Dick Cavett.
There are now conventions devoted to RHPS, where attendees can listen to seminars on the movie and buy costumes for their own productions.
From this, the movie has morphed into what you can see on Sunday at the Gray Horse Saloon — a musical review with performers doing bits and pieces of the music and the dialog.
Recently, the cast of the Fox television series “Glee” did their own (sanitized) review of RHPS. While the episode created a lot of media hoopla, the music for RHPS is full of fun and, with a few careful tweaks, looked downright wholesome. The girl who played Columbia, Heather Morris, could dance circles around the movie’s original performer, Little Nell, although I suspect Little Nell was cast specifically less for dancing prowess and more as a send up of a tap-dancing performer.
The thing that is so extraordinary about RHPS is that it is bullet-proof. Whether you laugh with the participants or at them, they care not. They are enjoying the music, the odd characters, the drama, the art of RHPS. If you get it, fine. If you think it’s funny, laugh. If you are shocked, well, that’s all the better. If you take it seriously, that’s fine too. There is no wrong way to look at it.
There is a serious side to the subject matter of RHPS, too. Papers have been written exploring the movie’s subtext of tolerance for people of all sexual persuasions, whether they are gay, bi-sexual, heterosexual or something in between.
If you want to know more about the history of RHPS or the call-backs or the characters or the music, visit www.rockyhorror.com. It’s a one-stop shop for all your RHPS needs.
I, quite frankly, would just like to encourage people to feel the joy and the energy that courses through the music. It’s a great experience. You know how to do the Time Warp don’t you?
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