Rocky Horror at 40: Whatever Happened to Saturday Night?

ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW 4“I would like, if I may, to take you on a strange journey…”

These are the first lines of dialogue spoken by the narrator/host (Charles Gray, listed in the credits as “The Criminologist–an expert”) of that most cultist of cult films, The Rocky Horror Picture Show. And for about 100 or so Saturday nights between 1979 and 1982, they were also the first words I would speak–while standing in front of the simultaneous on-screen action–at midnight Rocky Horror showings at the long-since-demolished State Theatre in Newark, Delaware.

The 1975 film adaptation of writer/co-star Richard O’Brien’s sci-fi/horror/comedy/musical stage play is celebrating the 40th anniversary this month of its U.S. theatrical debut (a debut which, of course, met with little to no box office success. The midnight screenings wouldn’t start until the following April in New York City). The occasion is being marked with this week’s release of new commemorative editions on DVD and Blu-ray, including a deluxe Blu-ray set complete with fishnet stockings and rubber gloves. There’s also a midnight airing on HBO tomorrow night, various news articles from across the country, and–one can only imagine–a plethora of online reminiscences like this one over the next couple of days.

ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW 5The Rocky Horror Picture Show has been a part of American and global pop culture for decades, and homages and references to it can be found in such movies as Fame, Pulp Fiction and Men in Black and on TV everywhere from The Simpsons to That ’70s Show to Glee. As a result, I’m sure any readers out there who are still “virgins”–fan lingo for someone who’s never seen the film–have at least a passing familiarity with its plot (square hero Barry Bostwick and heroine Susan Sarandon are stranded in the woods and find a castle full of strange “folk dancing” people, corseted mad scientist Tim Curry seduces them both while making himself a perfect man, etc.) and the accompanying audience participation (dressing as the cast members, shouting back dialogue, singing and dancing in the aisles, throwing paraphernalia from one’s seat) that’s evolved over the years. Heck, even the soundtrack’s best-known song, “The Time Warp,” gets played nowadays on family radio stations and has become an often-requested tune at proms and wedding receptions.

mgid-uma-image-mtvBack in my day (and Lord, how old saying things like that makes me feel), however, the idea of going to a movie in costume and yelling at the screen was still a relatively new experience. All we on and around the University of Delaware campus in early 1979 knew was that this infamous and outrageous movie was finally getting a regular weekly berth at our local theater, the State. A late ’20s movie/stage venue located on Main Street (does it get more small-town Americana than that?) in Newark, the State had recently made the switch to a repertory cinema format in hopes of attracting the collegiate audience.

That move didn’t always work, but they could at least count on steady income from the Saturday night crowds…even when they had to pay overtime to the staff for staying late and cleaning up the rice, toast, toilet paper and other assorted debris that covered the auditorium floor and seats. Small wonder that places still showing Rocky Horror have banned most of these items…to say nothing of the matches and lighters that once illuminated theaters during the “Over at the Frankenstein Place” sequence.

It also didn’t necessarily help their bottom line, but the ownership would let those of us taking part in the “floorshow” performance in for free. We were even allowed to use the backstage dressing rooms to get ready. The main benefit that we “unconventional conventionists” came away with, though, was that Rocky Horror gave us a chance to be open and express ourselves. Closeted (and out) gays and lesbians, science-fiction nerds, would-be singers and actors, people who felt uncomfortable in or ashamed of their bodies; it was a diverse community that welcomed all for two-and-a-half hours every week (Meat Loaf and Tim Curry music videos and a Bugs Bunny cartoon usually played before the main feature), along with the occasional after-show meal at Howard Johnson’s.

Rocky-Horror-Picture-Show-Susan-Sarandon-Tim-Curry-Nipples-1024x746Heck, it even welcomed a bookish and usually quiet film geek like me. I started out by playing treacherous handyman Riff Raff because I just happened to own a tail-jacketed tuxedo coat, then moved on to motorcycle-riding delivery boy Eddie when it became painfully obvious that I was built more like Meat Loaf than Richard O’Brien. As a concession to the theater carpet, I used a bicycle–or tricycle–rather than a chopper when I made my entrance riding down the aisle. Eventually, though, I obtained another formal jacket and moved on to the vital, if thankless, role of the Criminologist–you know, the guy who “doesn’t have a f—in’ neck”–for the majority of my floorshow experience. At least I was the one who led the audience in how to dance the Time Warp (“It’s just a jump to the left…”). Before I moved to Philadelphia in the fall of 1982, I managed to play every character save for Dr. Frank N. Furter and Rocky himself, because I didn’t have the legs for it, at least once. And yes, I made a rather fetching Janet in blonde wig, bra and half slip, although I foolishly picked a frigid winter night for that performance (the State’s heating was notoriously suspect).

Once I came to Pennsylvania, my Rocky Horror ritual became increasingly less frequent. While I made it down to Newark a couple more times to bring my viewing total up to 150, I only saw it in theaters three more times from 1983 to 1985: in Seattle, London (where, surprisingly, no one was in costume and there was hardly any audience participation), and at the place where I lost my own “virginity,” Philadelphia’s TLA Cinema. After that, it was just the occasional home video or cable TV viewing for the next three decades. Then, last week–after spending the day working on MovieFanFare’s This Week in Film History column and noticing that Rocky’s 40th was coming up–I saw that there was a special screening (on a Friday, alas) in Center City Philly with a performance by a local troupe, Transylvanian Nipple Productions. I wasn’t sure that the experience would hold up, but at least, I figured, I’d get an article out of going.

Well, you know what? The Rocky Horror Picture Show still has (fishnet-clad) legs. The film itself is as cheeky, low-budget fun as it ever was, even if the punk and new wave scenes it predicted and then was topped by are passé and the shock value of its pansexual protagonist’s misdeeds seems almost quaint. The audience–of which I wasn’t the oldest member, thank goodness–was into the on- and off-screen proceedings, and the TNP players put on a fine floorshow (Check out their Facebook page for a shot of “Frank” in my lap during “I’m Going Home.” I’m flattered he chose me to fall onto.). I was even surprised by how many of the old shout-out lines were still in usage. Our Jimmy Carter-era references to Anita Bryant, The King Family and disco are long gone, but does anyone under the age of 35 get the “Master, dinner is prepared!” “And I helped!” couplet that harkened back to the old Shake ‘n Bake commercials?

It was, you’ll pardon the expression, a Time Warp of a evening, and it did take me back to my college days and those State Theater nights with Michael, Janet, C.J., Bess, Tom, and others whose names I’ve forgotten…and, most of all, my dearest friend and soul mate Melanie, who made a fine Magenta to my Riff Raff and who I like to think was with me in spirit, anyway. For a couple of hours I felt younger and my cares faded away, and that was always the promise of Rocky Horror, to “rose tint my world, keep me safe from my trouble and pain.” After all, as Frank himself sings, “Don’t dream it, be it!”