In 1975 “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” produced by Lou Adler, was released by 20th Century Fox. Adapted from the British gender-bending stage musical, “The Rocky Horror Show,” the movie died at the box office. The critics didn’t particularly like it, either.
The odd-ball story of the movie’s second life — as the cult midnight show king of all-time — began at the Waverly Theater in Manhattan, when during the spring of 1977 audience members began calling out sarcastic comeback lines at the screen. It became a game to make up new and better lines.
Later that same year the unprecedented interaction between audience and screen jumped to other cities, where “Rocky Horror” was also playing as a midnight show — chiefly, Austin and Los Angeles. Cheap props and campy costumes mimicking those in the film appeared.
So, by the spring of 1978 “Rocky Horror” was playing to wildly enthusiastic crowds in a few midnight show bookings. Yet, curiously, it had not done well at others. At this point, what would eventually become an unprecedented pop phenomenon was still flying below the radar for most of America.
A trip to LA in May of that year boosted my interest in the film. As manager of the Biograph, I was fascinated with the potential of “Rocky Horror,” as were my bosses at the Biograph in Georgetown. Their former partner, David Levy, had already booked it for The Key, to lock up the DeeCee market.
Our inquiry hit a roadblock. With all of the existing prints of the movie already in use, the brass at Fox felt unwilling to risk money on striking any more prints to cater to a weird fad that might fizzle any time; there was no enthusiasm for the picture’s prospects in Richmond.
In those days Richmond was generally seen by most distributors as a weak market — not a place to waste resources. Besides, no one at Fox seemed to understand why the audience participation following for the picture had started, or what was making it catch on in some places, but not in others.
Over the telephone, I was told we would have to wait for a print to become available; there was no telling how long that would be.
So, sensing the moment might pass us by, we got creative. The Biograph offered to front the cost of a new print to be made, which would stand as an advance against film rental (35 percent of the box office take). For that consideration we wanted a guarantee from the distributor that we would have the exclusive rights to exhibit “Rocky Horror” in the Richmond market, as long we held onto that same print and paid Fox the film rental due.
Fox went for the deal. Based on the quirky success of the movie in the cities where it was playing well, I decided to use a concept that had worked with other cult films at the Biograph — let the audience “discover” the movie. Don’t over-promote it and draw the sort of general audience that might include too many people who could leave the theater bad-mouthing it.
Instead, the strategy called for attracting the taste-makers, the ones who must see everything on opening night, to see it first. Their endorsement would spread the good word. Accordingly, I produced new radio spots using 20-some seconds of the “Time Warp” cut on the soundtrack to run on WGOE-AM. The only ad copy came at the very end. The listener heard my voice say, “Get in the act … midnight at the Biograph.”
There was no explanation of what the music was, or what the ad was even about. We put out a handbill with a pencil drawing of Riff Raff — a character in the movie — against a black background, with the distinctive dripping blood title in red. The “Get in the Act” theme was repeated. The hook was that none of it gave the listener/reader as much information as he expected. Still, it was more than enough to alert the fanatics who had already been going to DeeCee or New York to see it.
“The Rocky Horror Picture Show” opened June 30, 1978 and drew an enthusiastic crowd, but it was far short of a sell-out. Some of those who attended called out wisecrack lines, to respond to the movie’s dialogue. Most did not. A handful of people dressed in costumes drawn from characters in the movie.
In the next few weeks a devoted following for the rock ‘n’ roll send-up of science fiction and horror flicks snowballed. At the center of that following was a regular troupe who became the costumed singers and dancers that turned each midnight screening into a performance art adventure.
John Porter, a VCU theater major, emerged as the leader of that group; they called themselves The Floorshow.
Dressed in his Frankenfurter get-up, Porter missed few, if any, midnight screenings at the Biograph for the next couple of years.
There were a lot of crazy things that happened in the years of babysitting “Rocky Horror.“ Among them was the Saturday night we threw out the entire full house, because so many people had gone wild; bare-chested rednecks were hosing the crowd down with our fire extinguishers. Fights were underway when we shut down the projector and the movie slowly ground to a halt. Everybody got their money back.
Interestingly, after that melodramatic stunt, we never had much trouble with violence to do with “Rocky Horror” again.
However, there was no stranger night than when about six weeks into the run, a man in his 30s breathed his last, as he sat in the small auditorium watching “FIST.” Yes, that Sylvester Stallone vehicle was particularly lame, but who knew it was potentially lethal?
The dead man’s face was expressionless … he just expired.
When the rescue squad guys got there they jerked him out of his chair and onto the floor. As jolts of electricity were shot through the dead man’s body, down in Theater No. 1 “Rocky Horror“ was on the Biograph’s larger screen delighting a packed house.
The audience had no idea of what was going on elsewhere in the building. A couple of times, I walked back and forth between the two scenes, feeling the bizarre juxtaposition.
Learning just how much to allow the performers to do, what limits were practical or necessary, came with experience. Porter’s leadership of the regulars was a key to keeping it fun, but not out of control. For his part John was given a lifetime pass to the Biograph.
On Friday, March 1, 1980, with its 88th consecutive week, “Rocky Horror” established a new record for longevity in Richmond. It broke the record of 87 weeks, established by “The Sound of Music” at the Willow Lawn in the 1960s.
That night Porter and I were both dressed in tuxedos. In front of the full house he held up a “Sound of Music” soundtrack album. I smashed it with a hammer, which went over quite well with the folks on hand. A couple of the regulars came dressed as Julie Andrews, in a nice touch to underline the special night‘s theme.
That same night Larry Rohr (see photo above) rode his motorcycle through the auditorium’s aisles at the point in the story when Meatloaf’s character in the film, Eddie, rides his motorcycle.
The late Carole Kass, the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s sweetheart of a entertainment writer/movie critic, wrote up a nice feature on what was basically hokum.
Rohr’s careful but noisy rides happened only on a few special occasions, like the record breaking night. Nothing bad ever happened. One time, after we had just barely dodged the fire marshal, to get Larry in position at the proper time — which underlined the what-ifs of what we were doing — I had a dream that the Biograph exploded. The nightmare scared me so much about the danger of the stunt that the motorcycle rides were discontinued.
Now, of course, it seems crazy as hell that I ever facilitated such shenanigans. In context, over three decades ago, it was just another part of living out the theater’s slogan/motto — Have a Good Time.
While “Rocky Horror” had an underground cachet in the first year or so of its run, its status eventually changed in the staff’s eyes. Rice, toast and all sorts of other stuff that got tossed around — never at the screen! — had to be cleaned up each and every time by the grumbling janitors, who grew to detest the movie. To keep the peace they got “Rocky Horror” bonuses — a few extra bucks for their weekend shifts.
Once into the third year of the Friday and Saturday midnight screenings the demand began to wither. By then much of the audience seemed to be tourists from the suburbs … any city’s suburbs. The Fan District’s fast crowd in the punk rock scene mostly ignored it. The shows didn’t usually sell out, anymore, but they continued to do enough business to justify holding onto that original print.
No doubt, some number of lifelong friendships stem from the nights the kids were dancing to the Time Warp in the aisles at the Biograph; the five-year run of “Rocky Horror” ended on June 25, 1983.
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Photo by Ernie Brooks