Wednesday, October 25, 2006
You remember 1973, don't you? Elvis was in concert in Hawaii, Nixon began his second term, the Watergate hearings were in full swing, the Vietnam War ended, the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade, Secretariat won the Triple Crown, and Pink Floyd released "The Dark Side of the Moon." OK — maybe not.
Just in case you're not up on your '70s trivia, one other momentous happening took place in 1973: The first stage production of "Rocky Horror" opened in London.
If you Google "Rocky Horror" today, you will get some 9,240,000 results. To say that the quirky science-fiction, comedy-horror musical has a worldwide cult following is a gross understatement. There is one "official" fan club Web site, but many countries—from Austria to Japan—also have their own fan sites in their native languages. And, 31 years later, you can still find a weekly midnight showing of the movie (1975's "Rocky Horror Picture Show") somewhere—usually in a smaller, art-house theater on the funky side of town—and stage productions pop up frequently, especially around Halloween.
"Rocky Horror" is a unique phenomenon in the annals of cult movies. If there's another movie that stimulates the amount of audience participation that "Rocky" does, let me know. In my Internet travels, I ran across several sites providing full scripts of the movie with audience participation noted. To hard-core RHPS fans, coming to a show without costumes, makeup and props just isn't going to a show at all.
I remember my "virgin" RHPS experience—in "Rocky Horror" lingo, a "virgin" is anyone who has never seen the movie. It was the autumn of 1979 in New York City. I was visiting my friend, Lenny, and we went to the film on a lark. I had read about the show, but honestly, I had no clue what I was getting into. As we neared the theater, there were several Frank-N-Furters, Riff Raffs and Magentas in the crowd, and, of course, there were a number of Brad and Janets who looked about as out of place as I did. The only difference was that there were dozens of them and only a few, like me, who weren't costumed or carrying bags of props.
Inside, Lenny pulled me back from looking for a seat up front. "Trust me," he said, and we took seats near the back row. I watched, slightly awed and a little intimidated, as the audience took over and became the show. The most audacious Frank-N-Furter wannabe was struttin' his stuff in what had to be 12-inch platform shoes. Those shoes and that bustier—my jaw must have been on the floor. Not exactly what this lily-white, middle-class Northern Virginia suburban girl was used to.
Even after the lights went down and the movie began, it was more fun watching the audience than the screen. I laughed out loud when the crowd shouted comments in unison to the screen, and of course, the movie obliged with exactly the right next line. I couldn't stop myself from joining the second or third chorus of "Time Warp," much to Lenny's chagrin. We sat far enough back not to get wet or hit by flying rice or toast (for which I had Lenny to thank), but it was still an unforgettable experience.
I saw the show twice more in Washington, D.C., in the now-defunct Key Theater in Georgetown, where the movie played every midnight for several years. While the costumes and makeup weren't up to New York standards, the D.C. audience did its thing with aplomb. The first several rows of seats came prepared with their own clear plastic drop cloth so occupants would not be drenched when the squirt guns came out.
Where it all began
So how did "Rocky Horror" become such a cult phenomenon? First, "Rocky" was a real ground-breaker for its time (remember, it was the '70s). Presenting taboo subject matters like homosexuality, transvestism, cannibalism, adultery and incest with campy good humor gave sophisticated audiences in large, metropolitan areas a great opportunity to blow off some steam. Writer Richard O'Brien also filled the script with references to popular and arcane films, making it a film buff's Mecca.
Critics honored the original London stage production with an award for Best New Musical, and the show ran non-stop for three years on Kings Road. As often happens with award-winning stage productions, it spawned a film version before the stage show closed. In 1975, with something piddly like $1 million invested in the production, "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" premiered in the U.S.
Conservative communities like Santa Barbara, Calif., weren't amused. The film received a lukewarm reception and miserable critiques, and was quickly pulled from theaters. At midnight, April Fool's Day, 1976, the film re-opened at the Waverly Theatre in New York's Greenwich Village—the perfect venue.
Thanks to theater manager Denise Bordon's promotion efforts, the film became a Village "must see" in short order. Bordon played the soundtrack album before every show to create a party atmosphere, and audiences responded during the film by booing the bad guys and cheering for the heroes—just like the kids at Saturday matinees.
Before long, the film had its own set of regulars who jealously guarded their seats in the first row of the balcony. Louis Farese, a kindergarten teacher from Staten Island, is credited with being the first person to actually interact with the movie on Labor Day of '76—he called it counterpoint dialogue. "Buy an umbrella, you cheap bitch!" Louis called out as Janet walked through the rain getting drenched, and, "How cheap was it?" to the criminologist.
Once the interactivity cherry was broken, pure spontaneity kicked in. Participants began lip-synching the pre-show soundtrack in the best New York drag-show tradition. Someone would yell out a comment during a show, and someone else in another performance copied the first guy. Soon, the regulars knew exactly what to say and when to say it, and they were doing it all in unison. Ad-libs were constantly added, and the audience just naturally started repeating the best ones. In one performance, Sal Piro added his voice when Frank asked, "Whatever happened to Fay Wray?" "She went ape-sh*t!" he yelled out, and the audience did just that.
The use of props supposedly began in '77 when a regular tore up a piece of paper and threw it like confetti during the wedding scene. Ripped paper quickly morphed into rice, and rice was followed by playing cards, candles and newspapers—that appeared even during the city's newspaper strike in '78.
Costumes first showed up at the New York Halloween show in '76, when many of the regulars came dressed as the characters. Dori Hartley took it a step further in 1977 when she showed up at her 13th viewing in Frank-N-Furter makeup and cape, her hair permed and dyed to look exactly like Frank. The regulars loved it, and, as with other participation efforts, quickly integrated costumes and makeup into the weekend RHPS shows.
When the press picked up the story of the Village midnight happening, word of a good party time spread along with the film's distribution to other major U.S. cities. New York regulars would show up at theaters in other cities with props, not at all shy about repeating the audience lines they knew by heart. The local regulars came to the next show prepared. When theater managers nationwide gave up trying to control their audiences, they reaped the rewards with ticket sales.
Rocky Hits Jackson
This year, in addition to the movie, Jacksonians have the rare opportunity to see the original stage production, presented by the Fondren Theater Workshop at the Pix-Capri Theater in Fondren.
"I saw 'Rocky Horror' when I was 15 years old," actor/producer Richard Lawrence told me. "(A friend and I) wanted to see 'FM,' but it was at the Jackson Square Theater. I didn't know how to drive to South Jackson, so we looked in the newspaper—'there's a horror movie! Let's go see the horror movie.' So we went and saw it," he said.
Once they were in the DeVille Theater, however, they quickly realized that RHPS wasn't exactly what they were expecting. "I don't think this is a horror movie," they told each other. But they were hooked. "We went every weekend after that." Lawrence said. Asked how many times he's seen RHPS, he responded, "I would say at least 125 times. — I'm not one of those people who keeps count."
Nevertheless, RHPS became a big part of his life. "I stole the 'R' from the DeVille Theater so I could have 'R' for Richard and Rocky," he confessed.
It was the stage version that really captured Lawrence's imagination. "During the whole hype of the 'Rocky Horror' craze, the stage version came through Jackson. And, as much as love the movie, the stage version is better," he said. "It's very fast paced, ... and it's much more '50-esque. The music is more bebop-y and doo-woppy," he explained. "I loved the stage music much more than I loved the movie music."
Lawrence spent many, many years trying to convince people to stage the elaborate musical. "Richard has been thinking about this for decades," said actor/director JC Patterson. "He's been a fan for so long. He's been wanting to get someone to do it."
"Nobody would do it," Lawrence said, and I asked him why. "Because it's 'Rocky Horror!' he exclaimed. "You have guys running around in garters and bustiers!" Well, OK, not your typical southern theater fare. ... Last year Ole Miss did it. When I was at Ole Miss, I couldn't get them to do (it)."
Lawrence finally found allies in Cecil Fox of Club Fire, who is co-sponsoring the show, and Diana Howell of Fondren Theatre Workshop. "Diana blackmailed me," he told me. "I begged her to do 'Rocky Horror,' and she said 'OK. We'll do Rocky Horror if you'll do O'Dell in 'Sordid Lives'; he's only in one scene.' Well, he was only in one scene, but it lasted one-quarter of the play," he said with a laugh.
"Richard and I were both doing 'Sordid Lives,'" said Patterson, "and Diana says 'We got the go-ahead (for Rocky). Are you going to be able to do both shows?'" The team's immediate response, he said, was, "We'll make this work!"
Patterson continued: "We went from the last show of 'Sordid Lives' to working on music the very next day, getting the soundtrack together. Then we started blocking rehearsals."
Both Lawrence and Patterson give tremendous credit to Fondren Theatre Workshop for taking authentic theatrical risks. "Fondren Theatre Workshop will do the plays that no one else will do," Lawrence said. "(Diana Howell) did 'American Buffalo,' and that's a risky show. She did 'Sordid Lives'; that's a risky show. And 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolfe?' You don't see a lot of (municipal) theater doing 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolfe?'"
Adds Patterson, "The Center Players (in Madison) and the Fondren Theater Workshop are people who just want to do a real professional job in theater. (They) believe in going beyond what is 'regular' theater—going beyond the box, trying new things, being daring ... 'Rocky' is the most daring of all."
Both men explained that the stage production is different from the movie. For one thing, audience participation isn't encouraged during the play. "Not because we're mean SOBs; it interrupts the show. If you yell at a movie screen," said Lawrence, "it's going to keep going. If you're really loud at a play, it throws everything off."
"You can't throw things at us ... you can't scream things at us," said Patterson, expanding on the theme. "It's mainly a big cabaret. ... You have more music and less talk."
Lawrence added: "There's more songs and more verses to songs. If people are coming expecting to see the movie—that's not what we're doing." The team did change a few lines since they felt the lines from the movie simply worked better, and because, they told me, audiences would expect it. "They wouldn't think it was different," said Lawrence, "they'd think we messed it up. We try to ... keep the movie in our hearts."
I asked Patterson what audiences could bring to the musical. "Bring a folding chair!" he exclaimed, "because there ain't no chairs." Sure enough, the Pix is a big empty space except for the stage up front. "Richard and a few of us built the stage in one day," he said.
"This is the most fun cast I've ever worked with, beyond a doubt," Patterson said. "They love singing, they love dancing, and they want to make it a fine performance, so it's going to be a very professional job. This is the most fun I've ever had."
Still, I felt something was missing. Lawrence, who also plays Riff Raff, was in full makeup and costume when I spoke with him, but he didn't have a hump. "I'm going to try the hump tonight, just because Frank beats me with a whip. A hump is a nice thing to have when you're being beaten with a whip," he said. I'll have to remember that.
Lawrence told me about his first venture as Riff Raff during a "Rocky" birthday party at the DeVille (traditionally Oct. 31). "We were in the car, and I had my list. The only thing I didn't have was a hump. ... And my friend Wayne said, 'Richard. Darling. We all need a hump, we just don't talk about it.'"
I'll pelvic thrust to that!
"The Rocky Horror Show," is sponsored by Club Fire and its affiliates, and is presented by the Fondren Theater Workshop. Shows are Oct. 26 through 29, and on Oct. 31, 7:30 p.m., at the Pix-Capri Theater, 3023 N. State Street, in Fondren. Tickets are $15, $12 for students. Call (601) 982-2217 for more information. The Crossroads Film Society hosts a midnight showing of the movie, "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," (where audience participation is greatly encouraged) on Saturday, Oct. 28, also at the Pix-Capri. Call 601-856-2143 or 601-982-2217 for info. Remember that the theater has no seats, no A/C and no heat, so bring a folding chair and dress for the weather.
Sources: The RHPS Official Fan Site, http://www.rockyhorror.com, The First Rocky Horror Picture Show site on the web, http://www.uta.fi/~cstivi/rocky.html and Wikipedia at en.wikipedia.org. And of course, my own hazy memories of the '70s.
Check out the JFP Gallery online at http://www.jacksonfreepress.com/jfpgallery to see more of the "Rocky" cast in Fondren.
Audience participation not encouraged?! Someone needs to tell these guys that audience participation was never encouraged, which is one of the reasons we do it. If there's no audience participation--Say it!--, it's not Rocky Horror.
- Brent Cox
They're talking about the play, Brent. I've never seen the play, but it sounds like it's not designed for audience participation. But, fortunately, the film will come at midnight Saturday and everyone can let it all hang out then! I suspect it's going to be one packed zoo at The Capri for the rest of the week. Very fun. And y'all don't miss Darren's Rocky Horror coloring page in this issue of the JFP. The grown-up coloring page is a hit and will continue to be in the issue regularly. Please free to send us good ideas for coloring pages like no other. ;-D
The play is fantastic! It's a bit different than the movie, but SO entertaining :D Chad King is a fantastic Frank-N-Furter! Also, be sure to check out the Pink Transvestite Transylvanian if you go see it.... she's so adorable!
- Army of Me
When are the pictures going to be up? Also, who's the girl on the cover... is it Sydney?
Oh my!! That *is* Sydney! That girl is 16!!