While these aren’t exactly random, rambling thoughts on what I watched today, in honor of the 40th anniversary, HBO is having a midnight showing. Not quite the same as seeing it in the theatre, but an homage all the same.
Gather around, children, and you shall hear of the midnight show called Rocky Horror. I’ve often thought that I should write about it, and the time is now. Since I was just totally ignored by the new generation.
It was my first week in NYC. I was young, headed to acting school and the world was my oyster. A friend of mine had come along on the moving trip to get in a little R&R. My family was staying a couple of days and he was staying two weeks, but I was there permanently. We were hanging out at a gay bar called The Ninth Circle in Greenwich Village, getting our drink on and meeting people. One of the people hanging out with us was the manager at the New Yorker movie theatre uptown. The Rocky Horror Picture Show had recently started its midnight run. He asked if we would like to go, tickets on him. I didn’t know much about it, but knew it was a musical, as I had seen the soundtrack for the L.A. production.
“Is it a horror film?” I asked.
“That depends on what you’re scared of,” he answered.
I was definitely intrigued and game for anything, so he told us to pick up the tickets at the box office that Friday night. He also handed us a joint. Smoke a joint? In a movie theatre? I wasn’t exactly naïve, but I had never heard of such a thing. Apparently, I wasn’t in Kansas Ohio anymore.
There weren’t too many people there, and my friend was pretty exhausted. He promptly fell asleep, leaving me to my own deductions, and an entire joint. At first, I didn’t know what to make of it, and it wasn’t because of the pot. When I saw Brad Majors (Barry Bostwick) dancing backward in a graveyard, I thought, Is this a joke? But by the end of the film, I thought if it was a joke, it was a well-written one.
A few weeks went by, my friend went back to Ohio, and I was already meeting loads of new people. The RHPS had stuck in my mind though, and I really wanted to see it again. I got together a few new friends, and we decided we would go to the Waverly in Greenwich Village, rather than schlep all the way uptown.
It was a totally different atmosphere there, crowded, the crowd brimming with excitement. We staked our claim on some balcony seats. At the time, there were no fans dressing up or yelling things, but there were a lot of joints being passed.
Rocky Horror had a highly addictive property, and it wasn’t the weed. It was a well-crafted film, to be sure. (Although, don’t shoot me, I actually think Richard O’Brien’s Shock Treatment is better and more relevant in a lot of ways.) The music is excellent, no stone left unturned in detail, and it couldn’t have been cast any better. But there was more to it than that. In 1976, the idea of “don’t dream it, be it” had found its perfect home in New York City. It was the right time at the right place.
At the time, I had also found the perfect home. While NYC will always be one of the greatest cities in the world, in the late 70s and early 80s, it was still affordable, and I’d landed there like Columbus discovering the New World. I was attending morning classes at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts (less impressive than it sounds) and living in the Webster Apartments, a women’s residence on West 34th Street. It was a cross between a dormitory and a Tennessee Williams play. Rooms with sinks, shared bathrooms on each floor, two meals a day included, and no men above the first floor (unless you were my dad, who insisted on inspecting it when I first arrived). If a guy showed up, you received a phone call from the front desk telling you that you had a “gentleman caller” and there were rooms on the first floor called “beau parlors” where you could receive your male company. You could also have a guy over for dinner, but he had to wear a jacket between October and May. If he didn’t have one, it could be provided for him at the desk, and that orange jacket got a lot of play from my friends. If you missed a meal, you could get a voucher for a friend, and broke friends need to eat. The meals were surprisingly good, cafeteria style, and there was often a sundae bar. Women weren’t excluded from the dress code either. While you were free to wear what you liked during the week, there were rules for the early Sunday dinner and you had to wear either a skirt or a pants suit. My grandmother had given me a polyester pants suit that I’m sure she thought was very chic (it wasn’t) and I can’t count the times I rolled out of bed on Sunday and into that suit and downstairs for the meal. It wasn’t always the most convenient place to live, but it was great for starting out and a good place to meet other women. I met my eventual roommate, Anna, there, who also became my cohort in Rocky Horror crime.
We started going downtown to the Waverly every Friday and Saturday. The line was long, the excitement was high (no pun intended), and I’m sure every merchant on West 4th Street hated us. Since the movie had originally bombed and been shelved, there was no soundtrack for the film, but the soundtrack for the LA Roxy cast was still available, so I immediately got a copy. We would often act out the musical numbers in our rooms after coming home. It wasn’t long before our private shows translated into audience participation.
The first person to dress up has never been mentioned in any of the books. I don’t know his name; otherwise, I’d totally give him props. One night, when it got to the part where Frankie asks if Janet heard “a bell ring,” someone in the balcony rang a bell, causing us all to convulse into laughter. I noticed the guy was dressed up like Eddie, the motorcyclist jazz musician played by Meat Loaf in the film. Afterwards, I sought him out and complimented him on his costume, which included the LOVE/HATE tattoos on Eddie’s knuckles. I asked him if they were real. “I’m a psychiatrist,” he told me. “If they were, my patients might get a little disconcerted.” Good point.
RHPS was a little like therapy, a way to let off some steam, without waking up with a hangover. At least I didn’t. I don’t know what other people were doing. Ironically, it was both therapeutic and addictive; both the rehab and the habit. We had made our home in the balcony, and made friends we saw week after week. The party started in the line that stretched down the block, where we waited to get in. We were always early, getting ready by nine and out by ten.
Louis, who sat in our row, was the first one to shout back at the screen. As Janet holds a newspaper over her head in the pouring rain, he yelled out, “Buy an umbrella, you cheap bitch!” A line that lives on to this day.
I went home for Christmas break, and it wasn’t long after my return that I got my first apartment, on West 27th Street, not far from where I was already. We walked most of my stuff over. I had a roommate for a while, a woman I had met at Webster, but it didn’t last very long. She had trouble adjusting to the city and decided to move back home. By then, I had my first job at Chargit. They took ticket orders for Broadway shows before Ticketmaster was the place to go. I’m sure it got absorbed by them at some point. Anna moved in with me, making it easier for us to be Rocky Horror fangirls together.
Our place was even decorated in early Rocky Horror. We purchased everything we could get our hands on. There wasn’t much merchandising , and certainly nothing like there is now. The only T-shirt you could get was one being sold at the record store near the Waverly. It was black with the dripping words The Rocky Horror Show, sans Picture because it was from a stage play. My guess is that the store bought out someone’s stock and made a nice buck. There were a couple of tchotchkes that had come with the Roxy soundtrack, but the Mecca of Rocky Horror movie stills, lobby cards and posters was Jerry Ohlinger’s Movie Material Store. We bought practically everything they had.
We also knew a couple who lived out in Queens, but attended the midnight show at the Waverly. He was a photographer and often took stills of the screen during the movie that he made into 8 x 10s. I still have those stills (ha-ha). The best part was that no one else had those same pictures. When fans started selling buttons and T-shirts, we got those too.
People were starting to dress up, and found glitter platforms, fishnet gloves and stockings, and feather boas at the hooker stores in Times Square. NYC has everything, so costumes were not that difficult to put together. While Anna and I always dressed fabulously, we didn’t wear costumes and Rocky makeup as a general rule. Speaking of which, it’s so much easier today to find black lipstick and eye shadow. Back then, it was nearly impossible. We found it, but it took some work. We did do the full Rocky regalia one night when we were having an after party. I wasn’t about to wear a garter belt and fishnets on the subway, but I had this incredible 1940s black velvet coat with a beaver fur collar that I’d gotten for ten bucks at Trash & Vaudville on St. Mark’s Place and I wore it over my outfit.
Our apartment wasn’t big – a railroad flat, two rooms and a bathroom – but mostly college and acting students lived there, so no one cared about the late night noise, guests spilling out into the hall, or the funny smelling cigarettes some people were smoking. At one point, there was a banging on the door with the shout, “Open up! Police!” but it was only our upstairs neighbor, Jeff, wanting in on the fun. Later on, he became known as “Naked Jeff.”
After a night of such fine partying that someone drank the bong water (no, it was neither one of us), we had the brilliant idea to watch the sun rise from the apartment rooftop. What we forgot to think about was the height of our building, which was considerably shorter than those surrounding it. No sun rise for us, but we still enjoyed ourselves, chatting, smoking and wandering around. Until Jeff scared us half to death. All of a sudden, his head was peeking over the edge of the roof, which none of us had expected. He actually had every right to scare us, since we’d woke him up. As he came up the fire escape, we realized he wasn’t wearing anything. He wasn’t about to put on any clothes either, but at least he wasn’t mad, and hung out (literally) with us for a while as we watched the sun not rise.
Oh yeah, how it started. The first row of the balcony put you more on the level of the screen, and without seeing other audience members, gave you a certain intimacy with the film. One night, after Frankie sings I’m Going Home, several of us spontaneously stood up and applauded, along with the audience in the movie. It felt like we were in the movie. And that’s how the thought started. How fun it would be, I told Anna, if we tossed confetti during the Frankie/Rocky wedding scene, at the same time they do it on screen. It will fall on the audience below us and they’ll really feel like they’re a part of the movie. I was going back to Ohio for vacation and I’d also wanted to do something special, since I wouldn’t be at the Waverly for a while.
The audience was thrilled and, although it wasn’t the intention, the confetti throwing took off. Anna calls it a “private joke gone public,” and I tend to agree. When I got a letter (yes! we actually put pen to paper and wrote letters back then!) from my sister, who lived near a midnight showing in Cleveland Heights, telling me they were throwing confetti in the theatre there, I was astonished. Imagine my surprise that this even exists 40 years later, all over the world.
The confetti birthed holding newspapers over our heads when Janet did. The paper they hold in the film is the Plain Dealer and I was able to get copies from my father, and I gave them out. I recently sold the last one on eBay for $19.76, in honor of the first year I saw RHPS. Although several people tried it (not me!), it was a no-no to be holding candles so close to newspapers in a movie theatre (that pesky fire code), so that gave way to flashlights. Costumes started coming out, and a mini floor show. Lines were consistently being thrown back at the dialogue on screen. Some stuck and some didn’t. Luckily I got out of there before throwing toast and hotdogs started happening.
One night, after discussing how ridiculous it was that this was our entire social life, Anna and I decided to see another film. Had it been better – I believe it was The Excorcist 2; the title says it all – maybe we wouldn’t have still ended up at RHPS, but we did. By this time, we were getting in for free, although I have a ribbon with hundreds of ticket stubs attached to it. The film was already in progress, and as we approached the balcony stairs, there was a literal wall of smoke. We sat on the steps (breaking another fire code, I’m sure), spending another Saturday night the way we always did.
Probably about a year in, the floor show started to gain more prominence. The film itself started to gain more prominence. It had also lost a certain amount of spontaneity. It became kind of how socialism is good in theory, but someone always wants more and turns it into communism. A few people wanted to take charge of something that had taken flight from a genuine want to make the audience equal with the film. Individuality — don’t dream it, be it – was what the movie was all about for me, and it was time to move along.
Anna and I did attend one of the anniversaries, where our picture was also taken for Sal Piro’s book, Creatures of the Night. A great read – I highly recommend it, as well as his sequel. Although our perspectives differ somewhat, it’s a wonderful depiction of the phenomenon that RHPS became. He certainly doesn’t mention weed – and for all I know, he was squeaky clean back then; we didn’t really hang out together – and that was a big part of it. Hey, it was a big part of the 70s.
I’ve had a bootleg copy since the first one was made, but there’s nothing like seeing it on the big screen with those who are like-minded. Before I moved away from the city, Sal called and asked me to come to an anniversary event (the 20th?). Since my husband was a “virgin,” I thought it would be fun. And it was, but in some ways, it had already become homogenized. Little bags of props were being sold, along with rice for the wedding in the beginning. The audience also seemed to have a comeback for every line in the film. To me, this lessened the experience of the movie itself. If everyone was just waiting for their cue, how could they be comprehending what was on screen?
I can assure you, I’ve never once introduced myself like I need a 12-step program. Hello. I’m Theresa and I started the Rocky Horror Show cult. Although it has bumped into me along the way. Like the night at karaoke when it came up in conversation. This led to someone thinking I was making it up. Now there was a surprise. Who in their right mind would make something like that up? If I was going to choose my 15 minutes, it wouldn’t have been that. But to save my reputation, I brought Sal’s book with me the next time I was there. Even after all these years, it’s obvious that’s me. The even weirder thing was, someone mentioned it to the KJ who was working the sound. It turned out he was there at the Waverly back in the day. Talk about a small world.
I was almost at the 40th anniversary in Manhattan this weekend, but decided to write this instead and save my money for Halloween. Seeing it was sold out, I shot an email to the person in charge, asking for them to take pity on a RHPS “pioneer” (Sal’s term), and writing a little anecdote, along with a copy of the picture from the book. I could have heard an internet pin drop. They replied, but what they said was it was sold out, but I could get tickets for the midnight show at the Ziegfeld and sent me a link to the movie theatre. Ouch! Not even a nice-to-meet-you.
I got a follow up email, telling me someone was looking to sell their weekend pass, but I decided to take a pass, telling them thanks, but no thanks.
And with that, I officially retire my corset.