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Rocky Horror: From Film to Phenomenon

Bethany Davidson was a junior in high school when she attended a performance at the Bruce Owen Theater at Oklahoma City Community College. There, she saw people dressed in fishnets, corsets and dark lipstick.

A theater student, Davidson knew she was entering the realm of the bizarre: The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Davidson, now married and an elementary school teacher, remembered the energy and from the night

“This was the first and only live showing of Rocky Horror I’ve ever been to and it was definitely something different, for sure,” she said. “I’ve seen and been part of shows to know that something like this was meant to be shocking and fun.”

The performance included prop bags filled with some rice, a piece of toast, toilet paper and a party hat.The theater was filled with people dressed as their favorite characters from the show. One woman, in red hair and dressed in a maid’s outfit, walked out to center stage.

“A woman dressed as Magenta came out and began to tease the audience,” Davidson said. “She then started to tell people how to interact with the play, like some of the cues and everything. It wasn’t in a odd way; it was like she was inviting us.”

Davidson said the woman dressed as the character, Magenta, asked those who were “virgins” to the show to stand. Davidson and a few of her friends stood. Magenta told everyone that they would be “deflowered” by the end of the show.

This meant, by the end of the show, they would be part of the Rocky Horror family. IMG_6996 copy 5-2 [1]

The opening

The story opens with a song.

“Michael Rennie was ill the day the Earth stood still but he told us where we stand,” a voice offstage comes through the speakers. “And Flash Gordon was there in silver underwear, Claude Raines was the invisible man.”

The crowd erupts into a mixture of laughter and voices.

Through the aisles of the auditorium, the cast of the show came dancing and running towards the stage, each person singing the lyrics to the song “Science Fiction Double Feature.”

After 42 years of being shown in theaters, the Rocky Horror Picture Show has grown much bigger than the script it was based on.

It’s more than a B-grade musical.

It’s more than a group of men and women from the 1970’s who dressed in fishnets and danced in heels.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a cult phenomenon turned tradition.

O’Brien and the Royal Court Theatre

Richard O’Brien was an out-of-work actor in London in the 1970’s.

In a BBC interview, the 75-year-old entertainer said he wrote the script while trying to keep myself occupied.

Performance at Kansas State University. Photo by Karis McMurtrey. [2]

Performance at Kansas State University. Photo by Karis McMurtrey.

That work would become The Rocky Horror Show.

O’Brien drew his inspirations from science fiction and B-grade horror films that played on television. He said his influences were a combination of these films and the unintentional humor that came along with it.

“It was the glam-rock era of London at the time that allowed me to be myself more,” he said.

In the time the show was made, this lifestyle wasn’t accepted by the majority and was often condemned as sinful. Regardless, O’Brien found his outlet in theater.

Before he was finished with the script, O’Brien met theater director Jim Sharman in London at the production of Jesus Christ Superstar.

O’Brien had worked for Sharman by playing the role of King Herod. He produced a half-done script and asked him to direct the stage production.

Originally called They Came From Denton High, Sharman said he was unsure about the play at first but agreed to direct.

Before the show started, O’Brien and Sharman had to find funding for a theater and actors to fill the roles. Through a connection in the Australian theater circuit, Sharman found Nell Campbell who would be cast as Columbia.

In an interview with the London Telegraph, O’Brien said, “We were picking off extras from others and dressing them in wild clothes. We told them that we were going to make them famous and they followed.”

As roles filled, O’Brien had a hard time finding a perfect fit for the lead known as Dr. Frank-N-Furter.

A young British actor was walking down Paddington Street one day near a London gym. It was then that a small man came out of the doors and noticed the actor from different shows he had performed on Baker Street.

This was the first meeting of Tim Curry and Richard O’Brien.

“He had said he’d just been to the gym to see if he could find a muscleman who could sing,” Curry told the BBC. “I said, “Why do you need him to sing?” And he told me that his musical was going to be done, and I should talk to Jim Sharman.”

O’Brien gave Curry the script. Curry said he thought to himself, “Boy, if this works, it’s going to be a smash.”

Before the first show, the title of the show changed from They Came From Denton High to The Rocky Horror Show. On June 19, 1973, the Royal Court Theatre presented the first performance.

In the 63-seat venue, Curry played Dr. Frank-N-Furter as a transvestite instead of a posh queen, Nell “Little Nell” Campbell was cast as Columbia, Patricia Quinn, Magenta and O’Brien played the role he had written for himself: Riff Raff.

Their tenure in the Royal Court Theater lasted until July 20, 1973.

“To be honest, I don’t think they knew exactly how to take it at first,” O’Brien said later. “I think that’s the magic of the show, you may not have to understand why it’s happening but you’ll be sure to ride the ride.”

Despite it being an original concept, O’Brien saw the show as more of a retelling of the ultimate classic fantasy: the tale of Genesis.

“Brad and Janet are just the innocent Adam and Eve going through the Garden of Eden,” he said. “It must have been confusing and odd for them at that point. More importantly, Frank-N-Furter is the serpent leading to their inner temptations and honest intentions.”

Just before leaving the Royal Court Theater, Jonathan King, a UK Records label producer, rushed the cast to the recording studio and allowed them to make a demo tape of their soundtrack.

The cast was able to book two more theaters in London from 1973 to 1975.

They first moved a 230-seat venue called the Chelsea Classic Cinema. As crowds grew larger, the cast moved to the theater where they felt the most at home.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show

It was the mid 1970’s and O’Brien was enjoying the theatrical success in Europe and in the United States.

Performance at Kansas State University. Photo by Karis McMurtrey. [3]

Performance at Kansas State University. Photo by Karis McMurtrey.

Instead of regular clothing, O’Brien noticed people dressing in drag, resembling the characters in the show, the first indication of a cult following.

The Rocky Horror Show was watched by thousands of people each week. Jonathan King from the UK Record Label returned to America to speak with O’Brien.

“With King’s backing, we were able to take the next logical step in entertainment: The movies,” O’Brien said.

King sent the demo tape to Twentieth Century Fox Studios and the executives decided to sponsor the film. According to O’Brien and Sharman, the budget that was given to the crew to make the movie was “modest with a scoff.”

The Rocky Horror Show had to be adapted from the stage script into a movie script.

During those edits, the title was changed to The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Most of the original stage crew reprised their roles. However, the producers began a search for Brad Major and Janet Weiss, the protagonists.

Fox Studios were adamant for the production to use two American actors into the cast.

Two months before shooting began in October in England, Fox put actors Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon on a plane to meet the rest of the crew.

The schedule to shoot, edit and produce was rushed by the studio for a quick turnaround in order to showcase the production to audiences during the holiday.

Filming of The Rocky Horror Show began on October 21 and finished on December 19, 1974.

Most of the production took place at a country house at Bray Studios and Oakley Court in Berkshire, England.

Aside from the limited budget, the cast and crew complained about the setting of the castle. According to Bostwick “the damn castle was leaking and creaking all the time. We filmed it and wondered how long we had before this thing fell on us.”

During filming, actress Susan Sarandon was sick with the pneumonia and those on set were told to not waste takes due to the lack of time.

After the principal photography finished O’Brien and the cast made their way back to the Broadway stage.

On September 25, 1975, The Rocky Horror Picture Show premiered in Los Angeles.

“I would like, if I may, to take you on a strange journey.”

The Rocky Horror Show was a success.

The same can’t be said for the film.

Critics across the United States almost unanimously labeled O’Brien’s movie as a box office failure. The film grossed only half of its original budget due to reviews which crippled the anticipation to transfer from the theater to the movies.

In 1975, Newsweek wrote the movie was, “tasteless, plotless and pointless,” while Variety said, “Most of the jokes that might have seemed jolly fun on stage now appear obvious and even flat. The sparkle’s gone.”

This would not be the first time that a film went into the bargain bin without a second thought. O’Brien thought the Rocky Horror fever had fizzled until a Fox distribution executive named Tim Deegan took charge of the project.

According to a New York Post story, Deegan took the film to Manhattan where Greenwich Village would regularly show midnight movies.

On April Fool’s’ Day, 1976, The Rocky Horror Picture Show replaced Night of the Living Dead and played on the midnight movie circuit for over a month. Deegan noticed that by the second week people were shouting things at the screen at certain points of the movie and dressing as the characters.

It wouldn’t be long before the crowd began to lip-sync to the movie as it played.

Week after week, more people came to the shows and brought those who had never seen the movie or the theater show.

Regular midnight showings spread throughout New York City near the end of the 70’s. The popularity rose when the film adaptation of Fame featured a scene in which the characters in the show went to a midnight showing of Rocky Horror Picture Show.

By the 1980’s, The Rocky Horror Picture Show had became a cult classic.

Christopher Stevens, 51, remembers going to the Village Cinema and then the Fox Theater in Tulsa during the 1980s. The theaters have shut down since that time; however, the traditions and experiences have lived on through Stevens and his two children.

Stevens, now an EMSA recruiter, remembers his first Rocky Horror Picture Show experience.

“I must have been about 14 or 15 years old when my best friend Jeff tried to get me to watch this movie,” he said. “After he tried to explain it and I wasn’t sure, he said, “Man, just go. Come with me and let’s have a fun time.” I remember not knowing what to think of it at first but I knew that I had to be there.”

Stevens went with a group of theater and speech friends to the midnight showings almost every Friday or Saturday. He dressed as the character of Riff-Raff and built his mock laser gun and spacesuit in order to perform the show.

“I must’ve gone over 300 times during my teen years,” he said. “I have the soundtrack in my iTunes and when one will shuffle on, I just let it play and smile. It’s these songs that let me relive my teenage years and share it with my kids.”

Stevens has a 14-year-old son and a daughter in her senior year at Booker T. Washington High School. When his daughter performed in a stage production of Rocky Horror Picture Show, she was able to play Columbia after being introduced to the show through her father.

Last fall, Stevens took his daughter and a friend to the Circle Cinema in Tulsa to see the movie.

“Prop bags were sold at the door but we brought our own,” he said. “We got up front and performed the Time Warp. There was dressing up front but people still shouted at the right times. It was still fun like the old days.”

Over the years, audience participation has become part of the tradition.

The audience is instructed to shout responses to certain events in the movie while reacting to scenes that are often acted out by people performing the show live.

Now successful because of the film’s cult status, O’Brien and he believed he needed a sequel.

In 1981, O’Brien and Sharman wrote the script for Shock Treatment. The story follows Brad and Janet Majors after the events of Rocky Horror into a bizarre world of reality television.

The film was poorly received and is often widely rejected by fans of the show.

Though Shock Treatment flopped, Rocky Horror Picture Show lives on.

“Lost in time, and lost in space…and meaning”

It’s been 42 years since the movie premiere of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

What started as a passion project by a starving artist, has now grossed over $479 million and has remained No. 8 among all live-action musicals according to Box Office Mojo.

As of 2012, Rocky Horror Picture Show holds the record for the longest theatrical release in film history. Each year, hundreds of festivals dedicated to watching Rocky Horror with interactions from the audience. Off Broadway, the show has been replicated by community theaters and civic theaters around the world.

According to the Library of Congress, in 2005, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry for being, “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

For those who were raised in the arts, the fascination of The Rocky Horror Picture Show might come as second nature. Many theater classes and film institutes show the film as a cornerstone for modern entertainment.

For others, a love for the film might not have come so easily.

Rebecca James, a 31-year-old physics major at Oklahoma City Community College, has seen the film three times with her boyfriend Frank. After each time, she was left wondering what the hype was about.

“Look, I’m not saying people aren’t entitled to their own opinion on something,” she said. “All I’m saying is that I don’t see the appeal of adults dressing in fishnets, singing weird songs and talking about being aliens called transvestites. I can see someone might find it funny but people look at it in a bigger way than that.”

Frank has attended two live showings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and has tried to get James to go with him.

“I don’t want to force her to go somewhere that she won’t have fun,” he said. “Sometimes I just wish she could see this movie like I do. It’s more than a movie; it’s an event where people can be as weird as they want to be. How often do you get to do that in a lifetime?”

For people like Karis McMurtrey, it’s become a Halloween tradition.

McMurtrey remembers where she was when she first saw the movie —

at a theater school in Montana during in her sophomore year of high school. Her first impressions were surprise and curiosity.

“I was shocked in the first 15-20 minutes of the show because I wasn’t expecting it,” she said. “I had heard the soundtrack prior to seeing it, which was why I saw it. At first, I thought it was the dumbest thing and nothing like the soundtrack. As it progressed, I saw how funny and enticing it was for the whole group.”

She grew to want more from The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Now McMurtrey is a musical theater student as a junior at Kansas State University. Her love for show has grown.

“My university has it showing every year and it’s a big deal. Everyone gets grab bags with props used throughout the show,” McMurtrey said. “They taught the Time Warp prior to the show, along with cast member interviews and makeover and dress-up booths. It’s such a huge event now.”

She dresses following the theme of Rocky Horror: a corset, fishnet tights, spandex and black or red lipstick.

“It becomes almost this holiday ritual,” she said. “I think people are continuously fascinated by how it changes from year to year as the cast changes when you see it live. So many people have different “takes” on it, and it makes each time unique. I also think for some, it’s young people’s way of being able to look at an extremely sexual show in a funny way.”

As venues like the Sooner Theater and The Boom feature two weeks worth of shows in the month of October, those who are used to the movie might not know about the traditions that come along with the show. 

Performance at Kansas State University. Photo by Karis McMurtrey. [4]

Performance at Kansas State University. Photo by Karis McMurtrey.

McCurtrey has some advice.

“Be prepared to have cast members right up in your face,” she said. “Be ready to make a fool of yourself in the faces they teach. Be sure to use all the props if they’re given and never, never forget the cues they give you for the main characters.”

Bethany Davidson agreed.

“The Rocky Horror Picture Show is something that is just fun and so accepting of everyone that I think it will stay for a long time,” Davidson said. “I’d say that I’d probably go to another live showing just to see what it’s like to go again after all these years.”