This column originally ran in November 2015 and is being republished in antici … pation of tonight’s remake on FOX.
Music, Movies & Moods is a regular free-form column in which Matt Melis explores the cracks between where art and daily life meet.
“I would like, if I may, to take you on a strange journey.”
The Criminologist’s opening proposal offers as fitting words as any to begin an account of our staff’s virgin voyage to The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Except for maybe the question that invariably gets shouted back by the audience in late-night screenings worldwide: “How strange was it?” That simple talk-back moment so perfectly captures the dynamic of the Rocky experience. You may venture out to watch Richard O’Brien’s bizarre, rock-and-roll, babes-in-the-wood tale of Brad (“Asshole!”) and Janet (“Slut!”) becoming ensnared by an egomaniacal, cross-dressing alien mad scientist, but you soon find the real show goes on not on-screen but all around you.
“I’m really an old-fashioned girl,” O’Brien once said, explaining the rudimentary structure of Brad and Janet’s night out at Frank’s castle. “I like a beginning, middle, and an end.”
Our journey, however, can’t be so neatly trisected and labeled. Did Rocky Horror for Michael Roffman (our Frank), Heather Kaplan (our Janet), Sasha Geffen (our Rocky), Justin Gerber (our Transylvanian), and me (our Eddie) begin when I purchased our advance tickets or when Mike slid those fishnets up his legs for the first time? When we pledged allegiance to “The Lips” (with hand on heart or crotch) or when we took that first collective jump to the left with 800 others? I’m pretty certain the middle stretch came somewhere around the time I stood at a urinal, a hunchbacked handyman to my left and a linebacker in garters and a ruby-red, sequined corset to my right coaxing, “Pee it, don’t dream it.” To borrow a line from Tim Curry: “It’s so comforting to know that there are people in this world sicker than I am.”
As for the ending of our journey, well, that’s more difficult to determine. Now that we’ve tasted blood, will we, like countless others over the last 40 years, want more, more, more? The film’s executive producer, Lou Adler, has spoken of the strange phenomena of sitting outside LA’s Mann Festival theater – where the film first opened – and seeing the same few people return each night, even after the movie had been officially dubbed a critical and commercial disaster. Then followed the marketing invention of the midnight (or even two a.m.) movie; the audience-participation explosion out of Greenwich Village; the badge-like boasts from veterans of having seen the film in theaters hundreds and even thousands of times; and the idea of Rocky as a weekend safe haven for those who felt marginalized (sexually or otherwise) in their daily lives. All of it inexplicably adds up to the longest-running theatrical release in movie history. So, while the five of us may no longer be virgins, history suggests that we’re probably not spent just yet either.
Standing in line last Friday with hundreds of our fellow unconventional conventionists outside Chicago’s Music Box Theater felt surreal. Though tame in comparison to the footage of devotees camped outside theaters like New York’s Waverly in the late ‘70s, we still shivered with an antici… (“Say it!”) …pation that couldn’t be blamed on scant costumes and a crisp Chicago evening. While we waited to be frisked for prunes, hot dogs, and toast rather than weapons (okay, maybe squirt guns), we compared last-minute shopping scores that had completed our ensembles: a plastic saxophone, gold Rocky sneakers, a Transylvanian vest, and a pair of women’s size 14 black Frank N Heels. We hadn’t really discussed our plans, but everyone took it upon themselves to make our first time memorable. After all, you’re only a virgin once.
Our MC for the night (apart from that beautiful woman who owns that castle) was Midnight Madness, a rotating theater group that has hosted and performed at Rocky screenings since the late ‘80s. In addition to shadow-cast performances, groups like Midnight Madness are largely responsible for keeping the traditions of Rocky alive. They provide prop kits, nudge the audience participation along, lead the Rocky oath, judge the pre-show costume party (none of us won), and, most importantly, initiate virgins. On our night, as part of the induction, three virgins had to simulate orgasmic screams onstage. While none of them gave Meg Ryan (“I’ll have what she’s having”) a run for her deli meat, it’s the type of silly and naughty fun that cues Rocky goers to loosen up (not their corsets) and let everything but their stockings down.
“It was possibly the best piece of street theater I had ever seen,” O’Brien has said about the first time he saw how audiences were interacting with Rocky. “It encapsulated live action, filmed image, and audience participation. And three out of three ain’t bad.”
It’s that sensory overload, in part, that must keep Rocky from ever growing tiresome — even 40 years on. While the movie itself plays normally, performers cast silhouettes on the screen and saunter through the aisles as they act out the film and lip-synch the songs. On-screen cues signal a variety of lighthearted participatory acts: waving glow sticks and illuminated phones in unison (“there’s a light”), TP-ing the entire theater (“Great Scott!”), and flinging playing cards through the air (“Cards for sorrow, cards for pain”). And, of course, from the first seconds of the film, there’s shouting back at the movie (Janet: “The owner of that phone might be a beautiful woman.” Audience: “Don’t worry. He is!”), either off a script or riffing in a game of verbal one-upmanship that can range from corny to playfully vulgar. From the time those luscious lips appear until the closing reprise of “Science Fiction/Double Feature” fades out, never is something not occurring, and even if the performances and audience participation were identical each time (not the case, of course), never could you process it all in the same way twice. Like its namesake, Rocky is a creation that lives, breathes, and can’t be neatly controlled.
Curry once called Rocky less a film and “more of an event — a mad rite of passage.” That felt spot-on as kids both half our age and adults twice our age filled the theater – virgins and veterans, both of whom, if not for Rocky, would never find themselves in each other’s company except for maybe in a checkout line or on a subway platform. Oddly enough, while prepping for the event, Mike found out that his father and mother actually met while she played the role of Magenta in college. I found out my own mother – the source of, among other traits, my thoughtful, reserved nature – attended Rocky in the late ‘70s at the Kings Court Theater on the University of Pittsburgh campus. All those nights I watched a worn VHS copy of Rocky in my bedroom growing up, I naturally assumed nobody else in my family had ever done the Time Warp. Again, where did our journey really begin — that night or maybe decades ago at midnight screenings before we were even born?
If trying to pinpoint that “elusive ingredient, that spark that is the breath of life” that keeps Rocky going, you can’t do much better than returning to Frank’s mantra: “Don’t dream it. Be it.” It’s a mindset that’s inspired many nights of absolute pleasure, provided refuge to outcasts, and even saved lives. At the most basic level, a night at Rocky comes with a free pass to step into that dream for a couple of hours without fear of judgment – that’s no mean invitation. As Frank sang the line “a weakling weighing 98 pounds,” I reached back for a response I learned at The Rocky Horror Show (the stage version): “He used to weigh 99 pounds, but he jerked off.” It got a couple laughs and surprised my group, but shouting out into the crowd and drawing attention to myself – something I would never normally do – felt like such a release. And that’s what the night meant to me: It was one huge, sweaty, pelvic-thrusting catharsis set to some of the grooviest and most enduring rock songs ever put on screen. By the time we emerged from the theater – virgins no longer and still largely immune to the realities that threatened to puncture our dream – we shared one thought: When can we go again?
As I’m putting these last thoughts down, it’s nearly midnight on a Friday. It’s both disturbing (in the best possible sense) and comforting (in the most bizarre sense) to know that somewhere around the world people are shedding (or have already shed) their dull, daily attire — and all the tedium, cares, and judgment that often come bundled with it – in favor of fishnets, corsets, and pancaked makeup and whatever that symbolizes to them. While filming Rocky, Curry commented that even after you wipe off your face at the end of the day, “there’s always a little [makeup] left in the cracks.” As I type, I can see the last remnants of the ‘t’ in “hate” on a left knuckle clinging for dear life – like the lone letter left flickering on a neglected neon sign — and part of me really wants to remedy that.
As O’Brien famously sang through Patricia Quinn’s seductive red lips: “I wanna go, oh-oh, to the late-night double feature picture show.”
Hot patootie, indeed.
Midnight Madness cast photos and video by Elaine Truver.