Let's Do The Time Warp Again And Again And Again And Again And Again
MY, HOW THINGS CHANGE: NOW YOU'VE gotta leave the toast and the squirt guns at home. But the event itself, the indefatigable libido-tweaking wild untamed organic thing itself, is alive.
The call comes from a cluster of teenagers floating like ragged vampires near the Neptune Theater ticket window. It's just before midnight, where Sunday smooches Saturday goodbye.
"Lipstick?" answers a girl in black. "Did you say lipstick?"
From a few yards away at the corner of 45th Avenue and Brooklyn in Seattle's University District, she scampers obligingly over, some juicy shade of red in hand. A Kyle MacLachlan lookalike takes it, turns to his compliant victim and marks her for what she is:
Virgin! This is her first time, is what the letter on her forehead means. She is not one of the legions who have already come, again and again and again, sometimes dozens or even hundreds of times, to see a movie that bombed embarrassingly upon its initial release and then, like something that had died and fertilized the ground underneath until it produced some skulking life form that grew to immense proportions, defied common sense with late-night longevity its second time around.
You can't arrange for these kinds of things to happen. You could try, but you would be a fool. Eighteen years now. The movie itself was almost never the point. No one added any statuettes to the trophy case on this one. We have a basic plot: Boy proposes to girl. Boy and girl get stuck in rain, seek shelter in spooky B&B. Hunchbacked butler and frizzy-haired maid welcome them in, where dancers dressed like Ray Charles get wild until high-heeled transvestite appears and unveils muscular android creation who leers at large greasehead biker until biker is killed by transvestite and ... OK, the plot is not so basic. But it's not exactly "The Crying Game," either.
And yet, as of last year, "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," based on a successful London musical production written by Richard O'Brien that thrived on audience participation, had grossed nearly $80 million in American theaters. Including overseas sales and video rentals, an estimated gross of $200 million worldwide is probably conservative.
Now there is a palpable in-crowd feel to this group, this new generation of mostly teen-aged bohemians waiting for yet another showing of "Rocky Horror." They greet each other with excited hugs and kisses, taking long, youthful drags of sentiment. By the end of the show some of them will be strutting in front of the audience in leather bustiers, but you already knew that.
When the film was released as a midnight offering in April 1976, some who remembered the London musical days started showing up weekly, and pretty soon people seemed to be conversing with the screen, expanding the dialogue until it settled into place and books were published with lines not only from the movie but also the ones you screamed back. Meanwhile, particularly ambitious theater-goers were dressing in full costume and acting out the script as it went along.
Some have moved on. Others never leave. But every Saturday at midnight, people shout at or mimic screens in theaters from Berkeley to Boston, from Dallas to Seattle, from New York to Pasadena, from Cleveland to Spokane. (That's right - Cleveland!) As fluke became legend, theaters elbowed for bragging rights, each claiming foremost prescience: We had it first! We knew! And we've never let it go! When front-runners in Austin and New York City ended their runs, four theaters jostled into the lead, according to Sal Piro, president of the National Rocky Horror Fan Club in New York City - the UC Theatre in Berkeley; the Oriental in Milwaukee; the Graceland in Columbus, Ohio, and the Neptune in Seattle. The UC Theater has been showing the film since 1976, and the movie is now into its 15th year at the Neptune.
Why do people continue to pay to see a film that's been out on video for two years and is scheduled to make its network television on Fox Television at 8 p.m. tomorrow and at midnight Saturday?
Why would anyone voluntarily devote a weekend night, week after week, to two hours of costumed theatrics when there are many other activities to choose from, such as rolfing and inflatable sumo-wrestling?
Why, after 18 years, is this thing still around?
DAN LONG, THE Neptune's manager, comes out at midnight and posts a flier that reads: "You May Be Searched Upon Entering." Basically what this means is: No toast, no squirt guns, no bags of rice. Not like before, when the movie's newlyweds emerged from the church and you tossed handfuls of rice above the rows, or when Frank-N-Furter proposed a toast and you whipped a nice crusty piece of nine-grain at the screen. The chaos is now controlled for the benefit of the custodians.
Seattle's "Rocky Horror" cast has 10 active positions, and they call themselves The Master's Affairs, after a phrase from the movie. There are actually nine characters but one person can play both Eddie and Dr. Scott because they're never on the screen at the same time. So, eight actors, plus two people to operate the flashlights that serve as spotlights.
Cast members usually start at lights and work their way up, from Eddie and the no-neck criminologist to the annoyingly innocent Brad and Janet and then to Riff Raff and the master hedonist himself, Frank-N-Furter. Other times an actor falls sick and one of the "ladies-in-waiting" (male or female) gets a rare chance to shine. Tonight's actors scoop up carry-cases and satchels piled near the doorway and head inside, along with homemade character props like groupie Columbia's glittery gold top hat and Riff Raff's pitchfork-like laser gun.
Inside, the Kyle MacLachlan lookalike, Scott Styles, rounds up the virgins in front, picks out a few for mild, crowd-specified initiation (Example: Fake an orgasm) and introduces the bunch to tonight's audience of about 60. The ritual has begun. Styles goes through the rules, most having to do with theater maintenance.
Rule Number 6! he says. No swearing!
(Expletive deleted) says the crowd in unison.
OK! Forget that rule!
And so on, until the famous lips appear on-screen and people sing along with the opening tune, many lines altered for maximum profanity and lewdness. The crowd will utter many expletives deleted here tonight, scads more than are in the movie itself. In fact, with no nudity and only one serious swear word, the movie today would probably rate a PG-13. After all that Madonna has done to poke the boundaries of good taste, sexuality and artistic expression, there is little left to ponder but Frank's late-night romps with Janet and then Brad as they lose their innocence, giving themselves over to absolute pleasure.
IN BERKELEY, SAYS Indecent Exposure cast director Becky Milanio, they recommend you see the movie three times: once for the movie, once for the audience participation, and once for the cast. You get a movie, a play and interactive performance art all in one. Berkeley's production employs 50 volunteers, including technical and security crews, and there are pre-movie games (Sink Barney in a hoop and win a free movie pass!) and a band. Milanio, 28, has been involved in the production for nine of the past 12 years.
Indecent Exposure aims for an exact reproduction of the film, complete with props. (In Pasadena, an elaborate production called Voyeuristic Intention, led by a man who first met his wife at Rocky Horror, stages a parody of the film, with appearances by the Energizer Bunny and actors holding "Will Work For Food" signs.) Milanio's responsibility is to ensure an accurate replica; so if Susan Sarandon (Janet) is using her left hand but the cast member is using her right, you can bet she'll hear about it afterward.
Rocky Horror, Milanio says, is a place where you can be yourself, whether you're a skinhead or a yuppie. If Gen. Colin Powell were to appear in fishnet stockings, few would notice. While school-year attendance at the Neptune has dwindled to between 150 and 200 per showing, the UC Theatre draws nearly 300 each weekend, including visits by senior citizens' groups and Girl Scout troops. In Berkeley, they still let you throw the toast.
IN GENERAL, THOUGH, everything is anticipated and answered, not only lines from the script but things such as the number of times Brad raps on a car hood to bolts of lightning to camera close-ups. Some lines are updated to reflect the times, but others, such as increasingly obscure references to Kool-Aid commercials and "The Carol Burnett Show," remain intact.
"Hey, big fella," a male character says to Brad.
How would YOU know? the audience answers.
Brad: "Hey Janet - I've got something to say."
Audience: Sing it, (expletive deleted), this is a musical!
Audience: Describe Al Gore!
Frank, beginning a song: "A weakling weighing 98 pounds..."
Frank, taken prisoner by his former servants, who are armed with a laser gun: "I can explain...."
Audience: This better be good, because we shot you last week.
Audience: (Expletive deleted)!
So what if the humor is lame and sophomoric? What matters is the ritual, the beating of the youth drum, the collective primal scream. It doesn't draw what it used to, says Long, the Neptune manager, but each show is still good for a handful of people, couples in their 40s, who tiptoe meekly in and figure they're really slumming. Others have no clue what's going on and complain to the management that they can't hear the movie.
At the end, after everyone has done the Time Warp and Brad and Janet have been deflowered and the Meat Loaf has been eaten, Riff Raff kills Frank, and this is the reason 18-year-old Tonya Whelan, who plays Riff Raff, changes her rating of Riff Raff as "second cool" to "first cool" on second thought. This is her only wild outlet, she says; she doesn't smoke or drink or go to many parties, "so this is a healthy way to have fun."
And as the last number ends, there is 20-year-old Joel Kohler, who used to play Frank but now is quite happy playing Rocky, the perfect male specimen, walking off with an air of finality, as if he has just sunk a huge putt. He says people who know him and then see him dressed in a little gold loincloth on stage "are relatively stunned." Normally, he says, he is pretty shy.
They are 14, 15, 16 when the lure of the cast draws them in, high-school students with limited options looking for something to do on a Saturday night. Sometimes they come back, years later, to relive it all. The event brings them together for a short time and then sends them away to their double lives as university lab assistants and bartenders and so on.
"Am I surprised that it's still around?" says Lita Gratrix, the group's current 18-year-old cast leader. "I am. I truly, truly am. Because it's been around as long as me. The fact that theater owners still play it, even though the audiences aren't very large, it's really neat, but I couldn't explain it, except that there's always a younger generation out there looking for something to do.
"I don't think the movie will change anybody's life," she says, but of course she is referring only to the movie itself. "It's just a good time. We get youth groups, and I don't think any of them go home and say, `Gee, I think I won't be repressed anymore.' "
Marc Ramirez is a Pacific staff writer. Steve Ringman is a Seattle Times photographer.
Published Correction Date: 11/03/93 - The Neptune Theatre Is At 1303 N.E. 45Th St. This Pacific Magazine Story On ``The Rocky Horror Picture Show'' Incorrectly Reported The Address. The Last Showing Of The Film There Will Be In Late November, When The Building Will Close For Renovations. The Film Will Continue To Show Regularly At The Varsity Theatre, 4329 University Way N.E., Beginning Nov. 27.
Copyright (c) 1993 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.