or perhaps the queen -- of the midnight cult films, the little film that could, "The Rocky Horror Picture Show."
A dazzling, dizzying send-up of Grade B sci-fi and horror films spiced with no-holds-barred transvestite and transsexual themes, "Rocky" was released in September 1975 to a totally indifferent box office. But it eventually found its audience in the midnight hour, and 10 years later has grossed $60 million (it cost $900,000 to make). Besides spawning fan clubs, merchandise, conventions, four records (with sales of more than 2 million) and at least four books, it also has become the longest continuously running film in America.
But it's not the film that draws them in at theaters weekend after weekend (the Key in Georgetown -- 416 consecutive weeks; the Skyline in Bailey's Crossroads -- 311 weeks; the Academy in Greenbelt -- 224 weeks); it's the audience that feasts upon itself. Dressed to the tens, the fans take over some 250 theaters across the country every Friday and Saturday night, appropriating the film in a running litany that is as strict as any catechism, as outrageous as any burlesque show (ranging from an opening unison statement, "And God said let there be lips," to the oft-repeated mantra, "Don't dream it, be it.").
For "Rocky Horror" fans, once is not enough. They come back week after week, some hundreds of times. In extravagant makeup and garish costumes that pay no attention to gender, surrounded by props (newspapers, water pistols, rice, toast and toilet paper -- the last three all directed at the screen at appropriate moments), the audience celebrates the joys of Halloween and New Year's Eve all year long. Acting out different roles, dancing in the aisles, they are high-camp leaders, at once anonymous and unanimous in their devotion -- and perhaps most importantly, free from judgment and social consequence.
If Tim Curry's demented Dr. Frank-N-Furter, the "sweet transvestite from the planet Transsexual from the galaxy of Transylvania," is "Rocky's" heart, Richard O'Brien is its soul. He wrote the play, lyrics and music, cowrote the screenplay and plays Frank-N-Furter's hunchbacked servant, Riff Raff.
"It's mixed media in the nicest sense of the word," O'Brien says from London. "You have an audience that is performing, and you have performers performing between the screen and the audience and then you have the celluloid version as well.
"It's really quite incredible."
Tonight "Rocky's" 10th anniversary is being celebrated with a bash at New York's Beacon Theatre that will feature most of the film's stars, including Susan Sarandon and Barry Bostwick (Janet and Brad), Little Nell (Magenta), Meatloaf (Eddie) and O'Brien, in live production numbers. Missing will be Curry, who's in rehearsal with the Royal Shakespeare Company in London; director Jim Sharman, who's directing at the Sydney Opera House in Australia; and Peter Hinwood, the British model who played Rocky. Nobody knows what's happened to him.
Locally, the Key Theatre, where owner David Levy estimates 250,000 tickets have been sold, will show the film during evening regular hours for one week starting today, while continuing the midnight showings on weekends indefinitely.
People sometimes forget that "Rocky" was a successful play before it began slowly winding its way to celluloid success. Beginning as "They Came From Denton High" and soon transmogrified into "The Rocky Horror Show," it was a decidedly irreverent attack on marriage, monogamy and morality whose theme was a devotion to "absolute pleasure." It opened June 16, 1973, at a 63-seat room above London's Royal Court Theatre and ultimately moved to a 400-seater, where it stayed for seven years.
O'Brien had tossed into "Rocky" all his passions for B films, comic books, late-night television and other icons of pop culture. The story about an Ike Age couple falling into a web of "mad mutants, tame transvestites and muscle-bound monsters" was really about the loss of innocence and the discovery of lust, and it struck a chord in the sexually turbulent '70s.
"I just put everything together that I liked and I was quite fond of sex, just like I was quite fond of rock and roll and comedy. It was all there in the early B movies, just understated . . . Jesus Christ 'Superstar' was a rock opera of more serious import than I particularly liked. I don't see anything wrong with trash from time to time."
Adler, who saw the original London production, quickly snapped up the movie rights. But when it opened Sept. 26, 1975, the critics hated it, and the audiences were small.
And the studio, 20th Century-Fox, did not exactly push "Rocky," especially after Fox head Gordon Stulberg screened it at his home and was offended by its blatant and quite varied sexuality. "We needed the Fox logo in the body of the film and he wouldn't allow us to use it," Adler recalls. "We ended up using the RKO logo, which actually worked better. He saw the trailer, including the sensual, full-screen lips that open the film saying '20th Century-Fox proudly presents . . .' He said, 'No, those lips are not going to say '20th Century-Fox.' "
But Adler and others noted that there was a coterie of repeat fans, and soon a marketing strategy developed. "Rocky" would be shown only on weekends, at midnight, in theaters with fewer than 500 seats so the lines would be noticed and provoke more interest.
"Rocky's" transformation into a participatory, community event, began in New York at the Waverly Theatre, where it opened on April Fool's Day 1976. Schoolteacher Louis Farese, one of the original Waverly fans, is credited with starting the alternative dialogue that has now become virtually a text.
Sal Piro, another original Waverly fan, has been the "Rocky" host for 7 1/2 years at Manhattan's 8th Street Playhouse, which is considered "Rocky's" shrine. He's seen "Rocky" 862 times. Not surprisingly, he also is the head of the "Rocky" fan club, publishes a newsletter that reaches 20,000 hardcore fans and acts as a consultant on "Rocky"-connected merchandising.
"Basically, I welcome the virgins people seeing the film for the first time , make special announcements and direct the floor show." The floor show is a regular part of the top "Rocky" showcases. So many people want to be in the Playhouse floor shows, Piro says, that he has weekly auditions and separate casts for Friday and Saturday nights -- and even a backup cast and a road cast that visits nightclubs.
"It really did happen spontaneously," Piro says of the audience participation. "I can remember those days because you could actually still hear most of the film." The response ritual has been codified by now, Piro explains, because "they've found all the spots to participate to, there's no more spaces in the film to yell anything."
There are occasional text changes, though. "In the scene where the dancers look over balcony at Brad and Janet's entrance to the laboratory, it used to be 'It's the B52s!' and then 'It's the King Family in Drag!' Now it's 'We Are the World.' "
David Levy first showed "Rocky" at the Key in early 1977, but dropped it after six weeks because grosses fell weekly.
"If you saw this movie . . . in a regular run before it caught on, you'd have gone to an auditorium that was probably a 10th full and nobody knew anything about the movie. There was no chemistry. Seeing it with an audience is just a different experience," he says.
Levy brought "Rocky" back in October 1977, and though there have been slow periods, he's done good business ever since. "We check the people to make sure they don't bring in anything detrimental," he says, noting that it takes four hours to clean up the rice, confetti, toilet paper and newspapers after every midnight show.
"I went in there once when it was at its peak and couldn't believe the trash -- it was halfway up my knee throughout the whole theater."
In some ways, "Rocky" was a precursor, albeit an innocent and innocuous one, to the brazen sexuality prevalent in rock today. There may be a lot of lingerie and innuendo, but there is no nudity or overt sex in "Rocky."
"It's a naive little piece, in many ways," O'Brien says. "It has a surreal quality, but it's basically naive, though it was also prophetic in many ways. The two taboo subjects are violence and sex."
"You don't know what it instigated or whether the time was just right," says Adler, who sees "a lot of the look and the costume and even Tim Curry's attitude" in many '80s rock performers. "Some of them I'm sure were touched by it. Madonna was a regular at the 8th Street Playhouse."
Insisting that he's not inciting anyone to promiscuity, O'Brien notes that at the end of "Rocky" Frank-N-Furter is destroyed by his former sex-slaves. "It is a sort of moral tale," he muses.
Still, he admits he doesn't like watching his "rather wonderful little pension fund" over and over again.
"I did watch it recently when it was shown on television here England , just for the vicarious pleasure of knowing that nobody had bought a ticket or rented the video, they hadn't really made a choice. I couldn't believe how rude it was and I got quite embarrassed because I thought, well, people are switching on their televisions and they haven't really asked for this but it's on.
"I do think it's a bit rude."