[First Published in The Portland Mercury, July 31 2013]
Over 35 Years Later, Rocky Horror Fans Fight to Keep Their Obsession Alive
IT’S AFTER DARK on May 11 in Vancouver, Washington, and 158 people are crammed into the single-screen Kiggins Theatre on Main Street. Men in fishnets are talking to women in gold top hats, lipstick is everywhere, and most people are partially nude.
At this point in the evening, the members of the Denton Delinquents should be at least a little nervous. Weeks of work lead up to the moment when the lights go down, the film flickers into action, and a pair of oversized, heavily rouged lips appears on the screen. Those lips set off two hours of innuendo, improv, and underwear, in which the cast “shadows” or acts outThe Rocky Horror Picture Show. And all over the world—since the mid-’70s—casts have done the same. As the film rolls, the Delinquents recreate the action behind them, exuberantly presiding over their scantily clad audience.
Tonight, however, their nerves are more frayed than ever. Since leaving their previous theater to strike out on their own a year ago, they’ve essentially been homeless. And a homeless Rockycast is nothing. It’s taken an entire year to get this show. If it goes wrong they may not get another chance.
But when the lips emerge on the screen and the cast walks out for the first bars of “Science Fiction/Double Feature,” everything fits into place. The room is half-packed with wide-eyed and enthusiastic strangers, their costumes impeccable. For the first time in a year, everything seems to be working.
Then, 20 minutes into the show, the reel melts, the image snaps from the screen and the audio cuts out. Panicked, the cast turns to their high-heeled, corset-wearing Dr. Frank-N-Furter, who screams at the bewildered crowd to “GET UP AND DANCE.” The film flickers back into life soon after, and the cast’s nerves begin to resettle. But with the sweat still drying on their foreheads, the reel fails again. Ten minutes are skipped in the blink of an eye.
As they improvised their way out of the catastrophe, perhaps the cast was thinking about the 35mm reel that 20th Century Fox had sent them. It had taken a year of constant phone calls to get the film, and when it arrived, it was obvious the 38-year-old roll of film stock wouldn’t make it. When the cast pulled the film from its box they saw fragments fly off.
Looking back on it a month later, cast director and “Janet shadow” Anna Kotaniemi is still trying to piece the evening together.
“It was nerve-wracking, to say the least,” she says with a smile. “We didn’t know if we were going to finish that night… We just thought, ‘This could be the end of it.’”
It wasn’t the end, though.
A month later, at their second Kiggins Theatre performance,
the audience had swelled to 200. Without prompting, Fox had sent them a new print.
It was flawless.
As with any cult phenomenon, The Rocky Horror Picture Show is baffling. A mid-’70s parody of B-movies and science-fiction flicks, it takes the form of a gender-twisting, sexually charged slab of musical theater. Tim Curry wears a corset, Susan Sarandon sleeps with a sexed-up Frankenstein’s monster-type creation, and Meat Loaf rides a motorbike before being murdered with an ice pick. The songs are weird and undeniably catchy. None of this begins to touch on just how strange the film is.
Its plot is less important than its followers, though. Over the years, Rocky has evolved into something bigger than its creators could have imagined, blurring the division between screen and audience, and inspiring all-consuming devotion from those who choose to get involved.
Before all that, Rocky was ignored. Up until early April 1976, a full eight months after its initial release, the film had been nothing short of a rank commercial failure, finding only moderate success in Los Angeles, but being ignored by the nation at large. Screenings had been cancelled in other major cities and 20th Century Fox had all but given up hope of recouping the film’s $1.4 million budget.
Fox decided to roll the dice one last time. They pushed the film toward midnight screenings in hope that its dark, leftfield look might resonate with a late-night crowd.
On April Fools’ Day, 1976, Rocky was scheduled for its first midnight showing at the Waverly Theater in New York City.
Then it started happening, faster than anyone could have predicted. A marketing campaign by the theater brought a solid crowd in, and they kept coming back. By Halloween, the audience was wearing costumes mimicking those on screen. They’d started shouting back at the characters, conversing with the script, making it even smuttier and, often, significantly funnier.
Before long, the crowd’s use of props (rice for the wedding scene, water guns in the rain) had progressed from audience participation into a complete stage show to be acted out in front of the screen.
Casts sprung up around the US, then around the world. Since its release 38 years ago, The Rocky Horror Picture Show has never been pulled from American screens, making it the single longest-running film of all time. It is a mind-boggling, brilliantly dressed, double entendre-fueled, full-blown cult.
But to those in the thick of the Rocky scene, their devotion represents something far greater than sexually suggestive in-jokes. It’s something that Lani Jo Leigh had to wrap her head around when she took over the Clinton Street Theater in Southeast Portland last year and found herself at the center of the Rocky phenomenon.
Not only has the theater housed the Clinton Street Cabaret shadow cast since 1978, but their record of 35 continuous years of Rocky screenings is unparalleled in the US.
The whole thing confused Leigh. As an outsider and a self-confessed film buff, she couldn’t understand why people would spend every Saturday at the same film, less still why they would set up shadow casts that demanded time and energy merely to re-enact a movie in real time.
First she met the cast, then the regulars; people she’d see return without fail in carefully constructed costumes whose enthusiasm never dropped. After that, it began to click.
“I can’t tell you how many kids I’ve met who’ve told me that Rocky saved their lives,” she says. “They’re kids who are different—they don’t fit in at school and by having this cool, safe place to go where they can be themselves and not be judged or laughed at… that’s just huge. It’s so huge.” When Leigh pauses, a smile appears on her face. “If you’re different, it feels good not to be a weirdo for once. Because everybody here is a weirdo.”
All this is clear to Lawrence Johnson who, as the outgoing president of the Clinton Street Cabaret for their 53rd season, sees Rocky‘s importance more clearly than most. He joined the Clinton Street Cabaret seven years ago and worked his way up through the ranks to become the cast’s emcee, gaining enough trust and exhibiting enough devotion to win the election for a six-month term.
“It’s a community thing,” he says. “That’s the reason I’ve been doing it for so long. We stand for something.” Push Johnson on what it is they stand for, what that community entails, and he draws the same conclusion as Leigh. A Rocky midnight show, he explains, is “a conglomeration of the night owls and the outcasts that just wanna get together and have a good time. I think it just screams what Portland is all about.”
It makes sense. On the face of it, Portland’s reputation for eccentricity, interest in the underground, and thriving LGBT community make it the perfect city for Rocky. It all seems like the result of an organic process.
But beneath it is 20th Century Fox.
With Rocky providing a steady and reliable income stream for Fox, it’s hardly surprising that they show an interest in maintaining it. But how do you run an eccentric midnight cult, particularly when it sprawls far beyond a city, country, or continent?
In Fox’s case, they employed a Rocky Horror Picture Show department, in place solely to keep track of the film’s licensing and progress around the US. Then they set down some rules. Most importantly, you can’t publicly screen Rocky Horror within 30 miles of another theater licensed to do so. Cults work better when they’re not competing with themselves.
So when the Denton Delinquents struck out on their own last year and found that the newly renovated Kiggins Theatre would support their midnight exploits, their excitement was, understandably, restrained.
Michael Tchou, a seasoned Rocky veteran and committed Delinquent, took it upon himself to lobby Fox on the matter and, at first, they were receptive. At the very least, they appeared to check a map.
Vancouver, they said, was a different entity, divided from Portland by both a state line and a body of water. Even if the distance between the Clinton Street Theater and the Kiggins Theatre was 11 miles, the 30-mile rule would only be broken in name. With the different atmospheres and communities on either side of the Columbia River, Vancouver might as well be 100 miles away.
Fox verbally gave the cast permission and the Denton Delinquents prepared for a new start.
Soon after, Tchou received a follow-up call. Fox had called back to reiterate the 30-mile rule and retract their verbal agreement of an exemption, forcing the group to cancel their show and plunging them back into purgatory.
With the members of the cast based in the Portland metro area, failure to gain a licensing agreement from Fox would most likely have left them unable to perform as a group again.
“We lost a little hope for a minute,” says Kotaniemi. “But we were pretty determined.”
So, while Kotaniemi continued her efforts to search for one-off shows and keep her cast together, Tchou got to work on Fox. He called every month, then every week, then every couple of days pestering anyone he could get a hold of, eventually being passed up the chain to the top.
When Tchou was eventually handed off to the head of the department, things only got harder. Tchou recalls that “he was either incredibly friendly, talking to me about his home life, or he was really abusive and told me what an annoyance I was.” But Tchou kept calling. “He never told me to go away. He never told me there was no chance.”
Like any cast member, Tchou’s commitment to Rocky was staggering. He simply wouldn’t stop. But Fox still wasn’t going to give in.
It was at that point the conversations took a strange turn.
“There was this ongoing give and take,” Tchou says. “They would ask questions and then I’d call them again and they’d have far more information than I gave them.” Fox—at least it appeared—had sent representatives from Los Angeles to scout out details on the two independent theaters. “These are bigshots from 20th Century Fox in California. How can they know these little details about the Kiggins or the Clinton Street?”
After a string of such conversations, with minute details compiled, Fox eventually caved in, sent the Kiggins Theatre a reel, and granted the theater a 90-day trial period in which to show Rocky in Vancouver. After almost a year of slow progress, the Denton Delinquents had a chance.
So they booked their comeback show.
When the reel melted that night, Tchou was convinced that Fox was still playing games.
“It was a test,” Tchou says wryly. According to him, if the Delinquents demonstrated their ability to improvise under pressure and kept going when disaster struck, as it did on that opening night, then they passed. Anything less and a new reel wouldn’t have arrived.
Says Tchou: “One thing they said that surprised me was the way they establish new sites. It’s usually through a die-hard cast that finds a theater that loves it and the theater and the cast negotiate with Fox. If Fox perceives a good relationship, then they start to go through this process.”
According to him, “devotion to the cause” is an essential part of gaining a license for the film, and, if someone lacks the kind of thick-skinned, unerring commitment that Tchou displayed, Fox won’t just take a chance.
However, despite these good intentions, Rocky casts are still dealing with a corporation—one whose own interests come first.
Last year, Fox announced screenings of DVD and Blu-ray versions of their movies would not be permitted in theaters, only allowing for film or digital projection. It’s the reason the Delinquents had to find the 35mm print despite the Kiggins being equipped with a good quality DVD projector.
But 35mm prints are impractical and horrifically expensive to ship and maintain, to the point that, in cases such as Rocky, they price independent theaters out of the market. In the long run, screening films distributed by 20th Century Fox will only be possible on the new Digital Cinema Package (DCP) system; essentially a specialized, high-quality hard drive.
At $40,000, however, buying the new system is difficult for small independent cinemas that lack such capital. The Clinton Street Theater is just one of the many independents who don’t have that kind of money to throw around.
“Our biggest fear is that Fox will take our print away,” says Leigh. “People say we’ve had it so many years and wonder if we own it. No, we never owned it. At any point Fox could just say ‘Sorry, either DCP or nothing.’”
It’s a daunting proposition for the theater, just as the thought of losing Rocky was for the Denton Delinquents at the Kiggins. With Rocky Horror so deeply ingrained in the Clinton Street Theater’s history, and the local community on a wider scale, the brave new world of digital projection that places yet more power in corporate hands is a very real, tangible threat.
But, just like the Delinquents, Leigh won’t let it go. When the phone call comes from Fox, Leigh knows she’ll have to invest—just for Rocky.
“When we first got the theater, we were told Rocky pays the bills. Maybe that was the case in the past, but it’s not like that now,” she explains. “But I feel very strongly that we have to keep it—as hard as it is—even if it isn’t making the money, just because it’s one of those few places where people, kids especially, can come and be themselves and feel safe.
“And if we can give them that place… even for a little while? It’s important.”