On June 19, 1973, unbeknownst to actor and composer, Richard O’Brien, history was being made. He co-wrote the stage version of The Rocky Horror Show which debuted on stage at the Royal Court Theater in London. I had no knowledge at the time of a performance art piece that would become part of my personal zeitgeist six years later. The show transmuted into The Rocky Horror Picture Show in 1975. Sometime at the end of 1979, I walked into the TLA (Theater of the Living Arts) on South Street in Philadelphia, wide eyed, heart beating in anticipation of what I had only heard about. People dressed in colorful, sexy, playful costumes, toting newspapers, toast, toilet paper and water pistols as props streamed into the auditorium. Before the main event, there were videos of two of the stars, Tim Curry, sans makeup, flirting with the audience, in I Do The Rock, usually followed by Paradise by the Dashboard Light with Meatloaf and Karla DeVito teasing the audience and each other. It was the foreplay that led to what followed. Although no overt sex happened in the theater (as far as I know), being in the audience meant being a voyeur of the sensual/sexual activity that was on the screen and a willing exhibitionist as we danced and sang along. It was the first of almost 40 midnight shows I attended and in which I participated in my late teens and early 20s.
In case you are not familiar, the main characters are innocent and unworldly Brad and Janet (Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon) who were on their way to visit a former college professor, Dr. Scott after the wedding of friends and then inspired, Brad asks Janet to marry him. Traversing the dark and stormy roads, they get a flat tire and are stranded in the woods. The only light they see for miles is emanating from the castle where dwell beings from beyond the stars, Frank N Furter (Tim Curry, this time with lots of makeup), a.k.a. The Sweet Transvestite from Transexual, Transylvania, his servants Riff Raff (Richard O’Brien) and Magenta (Patricia Quinn) who wield more power than it would seem at the beginning of the film, Columbia (Little Nell) who is a tap dancing adoring fan of Frank. And then there is Rocky (Peter Hinwood), a creation of Frank and his ideal man-toy to satisfy his lust. Meatloaf plays Eddie, part of whose brain was used in Rocky’s noggin and who is murdered by Frank in a jealous rage.
The Time Warp is a wild dance that has audience members on their feet, jumping to the left and stepping to the right, hands on hips and pelvic thrusting which is the lead up to the revelation of a descending down an elevator Frank as his erotic and enticing self, the Sweet Transvestite.
Brad and Janet are seduced into a series of sexual initiations (both virgins when the show began, but most certainly not by the end), and shedding of inhibitions and clothing. My favorite scene is at the end when, unfrozen from the Medusa machine that Frank used to immobilize them all since he felt they were honing in on Rocky, the cast plunges into the pool and a watery orgy commences. Don’t Dream It, Be It, is the song that entices the audience to cast off their costumes that they may wear out in the world, to stay safe and be accepted by society.
In large part, that is the appeal of this show, now 50 years old. I imagine that most people who have taken part as audience-participants, feel that way. I know that it opened my mind to another way of being in the world, of stretching comfort zones, of letting my wild child out to play. At one midnight show, there was a costume contest and I dressed as Magenta, wearing fishnets and a bodice, long hair flowing and makeup, while not impeccably or accurately done, was enough to win second prize which was a bottle of champagne. Back when I drank, it was a treat that I shared with my friends to celebrate.
On Halloween of 2020, there was a fundraiser for WisDems (Wisconsin Democrats), featuring a table reading of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. I smiled, laughed and got goosebumps as I rolled back the clock. Sadly, Tim Curry had a stroke in July of 2012 and he did his best to articulate his lines, but when he was not able to, his friend Little Nell covered for him.
Now, with transgender people in jeopardy and drag events prohibited in some states, the time to celebrate sexuality and gender freedom couldn’t be more important. Let’s all do the Time Warp Again.
If you have seen the musical or movie, what were your favorite scenes? Did you dress up?
The photo was taken with some of the cast of Sweet Translucent Dreams, a Rocky Horror Picture Show tribute.