"It Was Great When It All Began"
Reprinted from "Creatures of the Night" by Sal Piro
The first time I saw the ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW was at the Waverly Theater in Greenwich Village, late in January, 1977. ROCKY had already been playing there for nine months, but I did not know much about it. Some girls I met at a party who'd seen the show on Broadway told me of it, and so did my friend, Michael Kester. He had seen the film nineteen times and could not stop raving about it. It didn't seem unusual to me that Michael had seen a movie so often. After all, I had seen many of my favorites more than twenty times. But that Michael, with whom I shared a passion for music and film, had seen the RHPS so very many times impressed me, and I began to be curious about it. I still never dreamed that I would go to this film - any film - more than 1300 times.
The American premiere of the ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW was at the Westwood Theater in Los Angeles, in late September of 1975. Even though it played in a few test market cities, the film was considered a failure and did not get a wide release and was shelved.
Then, on April Fools' Day, 1976, Tim Deegan, a young advertising executive at 20th Century Fox, persuaded Bill Quigley of the Walter Reade Organization to replace the midnight show at the Waverly Theater with the ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW. The Waverly had already been a mecca for midnight movies and had had two very successful runs, of El Topo and Night of The Living Dead. The manager of the Waverly, Denise Borden, was fascinated with the film and she began her own personal hype campaign, with photos in the box office window and a theater telephone recording that stated, "This is a film not to be missed."
Denise would play the record album of the RHPS sound track before the showing of the film to warm up the audience, and a party atmosphere was generated as a result. The audiences naturally began to respond, by booing the villain and cheering the heroes, and as Jim Sharman, the director of ROCKY HORROR, has said, "With typical Saturday morning serial stuff." This spawned a whole group of regulars who weekly reserved the same seats in the first row of the balcony. These pioneers of audience participation from the balcony included two young ladies named Amy and Theresa; Bill O'Brien, the first person to dress as Dr. Frank-N-Furter; Lori Davis, who wrote the Ten Commandments of ROCKY HORROR; and Louis Farese, a kindergarten teacher from Staten Island.
On Labor Day weekend of 1976, Louis felt compelled to speak to the screen. He is credited as the first person to yell lines at the movie. His earliest lines were: "Buy an umbrella, you cheap bitch!" - to Janet walking in the rain, and "How strange was it?" - to the criminologist's initial speech. (Louis called this "counterpoint dialogue.") Then, in late September, as they sought a preview of Halloween, a few people came dressed as characters from the movie. Later, on Halloween, there was a costume party with many people dressing as the characters.
Bill O'Brien and a few of the regulars began to lip-sync the record that is played before the movie in front of the audience. This was spontaneous and it developed into a mini-floor show before the movie. Audience response was tremendous.
Around the first of the year, in unexplained circumstances, the floor show moved to the New Yorker Theater, on Manhattan's Upper West Side. The ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW had been playing there since June, but was not doing very well. The theater was larger, with a stage, which may have partly motivated the move. The audience there, however, displayed no real interest in the floor show, so it was eliminated and the regulars returned to the Waverly.
I was a former seminarian who spent three years teaching theology and directing school plays in Catholic high schools in New Jersey. I was laid off from my teaching job in June of 1976 and spent that summer being a drama director in an all-girls camp in the Berkshire Mountains. When I returned, I decided I would move into New York City and try my hand as a "starving actor." I took a job waiting tables and got some roles in off-Broadway shows. Then I went to see ROCKY HORROR.
It was a cold snowy night when four friends and I found ourselves outside the Waverly waiting for over an hour before we were allowed in to see the show. One of these friends was Marc Shaiman who went on to become musical director for Bette Midler, Billy Crystal and other stars. He sat next to me for the next seventy-five times I saw the RHPS. Both of us contributed ad-lib lines that became part of the whole spectacular "happening."
1. VIRGIN / v noun/ (n) - anybody who has never seen the ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW, (virgin viewing - seeing RHPS for the first time).
The Waverly movie floor show. Anticipating what was to come, I became more and more excited. I found the energy and enthusiasm generated in the theater catching. The film started. The lips... the Time Warp... Frank's fabulous entrance... image followed image, and the impact on me was tremendous. I began living the movie as it unreeled.
The first time I heard Louis Farese's voice speaking back to the screen, it was funny and I was delighted. Suddenly I was ten years old again, going with my mother to see Snow White and the Three Stooges. I remember that just as Snow White was about to bite into the poisonous apple, a voice from somewhere in the movie theater warned audibly, "You'll be sooorry!" The whole theater rocked with laughter. As the film continued, I wanted to shout out something clever too, but I didn't have the nerve.
I remembered Zacherly, the ghoulish host of TV's Creature Features, who interrupted scenes from old "B" horror films with zany remarks and wisecracks. It always broke me up. (Oh, what he did to The Attack of The Giant Crab Monsters!) Eventually, I began ad-libbing a remark or two during other movies myself. Sometimes people laughed, but more often I heard, "Quiet!" from annoyed members of the audience or my embarrassed friends.
But now, thanks to Louis and friends, it was all right to talk back to the screen. By the time I had watched RHPS twice, I knew by heart the places to yell lines and how to time them. By my third viewing, I was ready to try my hand at an original line. When Frank asked, "Whatever happened to Fay Wray?" I answered, "She went apeshit!" - exactly what the audience did when they heard me. This was the first of dozens of lines that I created. Some of them were forgotten, but plenty of them are still shouted out in theaters across the country today.
Pleased with this quick success, Marc and I developed a regular litany connecting the audience to what was happening on the screen. Marc's favorite line was his answer to Magenta's, "Master! Dinner is prepared." "And we helped," was Marc's contribution. My own favorite, and one of the most popular in the New York area, occurs before, "Toucha Toucha Touch Me." When Rocky touches Janet's hand, the audience asks: "Hey Janet, you wanna fuck?" (Janet turns her head.) "Think about it," they shout, as she smiles from the screen.
I not only invented lines; if I heard someone else's line and liked it, I kept it alive by integrating it with the rest of the litany. This is how the show "went public," people inventing lines and using the lines of others. An individual would yell a line; others would pick it up; then a whole group and eventually the entire audience would shout out the line together. Today, "old-timers" say that sometimes they miss the spontaneity of a single person creating a new line; they feel that the impact is lost when over a hundred people yell out lines, usually out of sync, at that. I don't agree. I feel everyone reacting together to the film is part of the charm - ROCKY fans as a community chanting and reacting to their film with love and affection.
Alan Riis was another who excelled at originating lines. Alan was a college student from Brooklyn, active in local and civic organizations. He was first exposed to RHPS in May of 1977, brought to the theater by his friend, Laura Stein. Alan was crazy about Dr. Demento, a disc jockey specializing in bizarre humor. Once Alan sent him a 700-signature petition, asking that he play "Time Warp." Since then, Dr. Demento has featured ROCKY HORROR music on his syndicated show a lot. The RHPS was clearly a great outlet for Alan's talents and imagination. His most famous line is the one that starts off the audience participation with: "And God said, 'Let there be lips!"' just as the movie begins with an image of a huge pair of lips.
Alan and Ed Bordenka were responsible for bringing many of the Waverly innovations to other theaters in the New York area. While Ed didn't invent many lines himself, his devotion to the film was, and is, incredible. He has seen it over 500 times in many different theaters and he says each time is as good as the first. He and Alan also traveled outside city limits to many of the other ROCKY HORROR theater showings that sprang up in mid-1977. At each of them, Ed's extremely loud voice spread the lines that had originated at the Waverly. This caused problems sometimes, because regulars at those other theaters, when they heard Ed and Alan, believed the lines were being created right then and there. And you can imagine the arguments that we Waverly regulars have had in other theaters when we've tried to convince other devotees that most of their lines had originated with us!
Meanwhile, back in the first-row balcony, creativity had not yet been exhausted. The logical step after talking in unison with, and then at, the screen was actual physical participation in the film - through the use of props. The first ones used were rice and cards. Amy Lazarus says it was sometime in April of 1977, about a year after RHPS opened at the Waverly, that she and her friend Theresa ripped paper up and threw it, like confetti, during the wedding scene. The following night, Bill and Lori handed out rice for people along their row to throw. I was not there that particular weekend, but I was the next, when regulars picked up the cue and threw rice during the wedding scene. It caused pandemonium in the theater. At the moment when I, a neophyte of only twenty viewings, was pelted with rice, I realized the possibilities ahead. Something really new, really exciting was happening and I felt part of it.
Lori Davis was the first to throw playing cards during the song, "I'm Going Home," while Frank is singing "cards for sorrow, cards for pain." She explained why she did it: "The Master said cards - I bring the cards." Lori made a confession, too. For a while she had kept her weight down to 98 pounds because of a line in the "Charles Atlas" song, but had to give it up when it made her ill. Now people throw playing cards, greeting cards, computer cards and pieces of cardboard marked "sorrow" and "pain."
Candles were the next important prop. Louis Farese tells how one night he was handed a candle by Bill and Lori, for the "candle ceremony." During "Light in the Frankenstein Place," everyone in the front row balcony stood up, a lit candle in their hand. No one intended this to be a regular part of the routine, but a group from the orchestra took up the practice and it continued.
During the rain scene one night, Alan Riis, who sat in the orchestra, put a newspaper on his head as Janet does to protect her head. In spite of the mockery this caused, Alan continued to do it for three weekends, determined the idea would catch on.
Eighteen months later, I sat in a theater where at least three-quarters of the audience wore newspaper hats on their heads. I smiled and was glad at the tribute to Alan's stubbornness. Today, newspapers are one of the most popular props because they are cheap and easy to find. Even during a newspaper strike, ROCKY HORROR fans always managed. To enhance this scene, people began to use water pistols to simulate rain. (Thank goodness we had newspapers on our head!)
The use of lines and props spread rapidly from theater to theater across the country. Hearsay, newspaper and magazine articles, and the fact that New York City ROCKY fans visited theaters playing the show in other parts of the U.S. are the reasons for this phenomenon. The fan club often receives letters from people who have moved from New York, which describe how they use Waverly lines and routines in their home theaters.
John Mandracchia, producer of the first two New York ROCKY HORROR conventions, tells that when visiting Florida on vacation, he brought props to the local theater where the film was playing. The management became quite upset at his throwing rice and cards during the show - they had seen nothing like it before. However, when John returned a year later, the same management thanked him for starting it all.
Costumes and Make-up
In spring of 1977, a young woman named Dori Hartley came to the Waverly to see the RHPS for the first time. No one could guess at the profound effect she was to have on the development of the cult. That night she came with her friend Robin Lipner, who had seen the film a few months before. Dori's reaction to the entire experience, the film itself and the audience antics, coupled with an intense fascination with and attraction to Frank-N-Furter (Frank), kept her awake most of that night. The next night, although she could not break a previous date in order to see the film, she did ride past the Waverly on her bicycle. It was at 2 a.m., when the crowds were leaving the theater after the show was over. Unable to forget the movie, she went home and sketched portraits of Frank from memory. The next Friday she saw the film again. After that, she did not miss a showing of ROCKY until the end of its run at the Waverly six months later.
At first, Dori was threatened by the crowd of regulars, because they were so much a part of the show that so fascinated her. She felt like an outsider. This did not last long. She met Lori Davis, who introduced her to the others in the first row balcony. Lori had seen the show many times and this impressed Dori. She was soon accepted into the "pew" and she and Robin became regulars. She still looked up to the others because they had been in at the beginning of it all, and she was especially impressed by Bill O'Brien, who had played Frank in the original floor show.
The more Dori saw the film, the more her obsession with Frank grew. First she dyed her blond hair black, then she had a permanent so she could have the exact hairdo that Frank has in the film. At her thirteenth viewing, she appeared wearing make-up identical to Frank's and a cape like his that she made herself. Outside, the crowd waiting in line applauded her. She was encouraged by the response, and worked constantly to improve her costume and make-up. It was Dori who re-introduced special clothing for the film and it was here to stay.
When Robin decided to dress up also, Dori suggested that she go as Magenta, and she helped with her make-up and with the choosing of a plain black dress. It was about this time that fourteen-year old Maria Medina started coming to the Waverly. She also dressed as Magenta, and her maid's costume was complete. In make-up, Maria's resemblance to Patricia Quinn's Magenta in the film was uncanny. Seeing this, Robin finished work on her own costume and wore it. This was the way that the first and most heated of the rivalries between fans wearing the same costume began.
As her act became more polished, Dori began receiving attention and she was approached by Bill O'Brien with the idea of reorganizing the pre-movie floor show. Dori was very excited at this, although disappointed when she realized Bill wanted her to play Columbia. Obediently, however, she went home and started to work on the new costume. After all, she still looked up to Bill as the original floor show cast Frank-N-Furter.
Bill never got anywhere with his plan, leaving Dori with a half-finished, sequinned Columbia outfit. But nothing could dampen her enthusiasm, and it was spreading to the others. When Laura Stein showed interest in dressing up, Dori gave her the Columbia outfit and helped her with make-up. She herself continued to dress as Frank-N-Furter, and suggested to Thom Riley, another regular, that he come as Riff Raff; she helped him with costume and make-up, too. In true Frank-N-Furter fashion, Dori had built around herself a court of characters.
Forming of Friendships
At first, I did not know anyone other than Marc, who was a habitue of the RHPS. So I started going to the Waverly early each week to meet other fans. Alan Riis became my first friend and he began saving me the fifth row aisle seat. It became my permanent spot. Through Alan, I met Laura Stein (Columbia) and Eric Kleiman - one of the first Transylvanians complete with lightning bolt make-up. (Later Eric became the fan club's Riff Raff.)
While waiting in line one night, I shouted out a remark to one of my new friends. A young girl came running up to me and said: "It's you... you're the one with the voice! I love your voice!" Liz Frank had recognized it from the many lines that I shouted each week. Liz introduced me to her brother Josh and his friend Jude Goldin, and through them I met another regular, Larry Forer, a 30-year old teacher from New Jersey. This began a chain reaction of friendships, which formed the core of the fan club. Now I sat in a block; Larry was behind me, Jude in front. Putting together our lines, bits and props, we formed the "orchestra" people, and began to challenge seriously the dominance of the first row balcony.
We all lived for Friday and Saturday nights. We met at 8 p.m. to make sure that we would be first in line and so get our regular seats. The atmosphere outside the theater was as electric as it was inside. We sang songs, we Time Warped (Once we stopped traffic on Sixth Avenue while we were dancing.), we traded questions, and we waited for the arrival of Dori. All of us shared this devotion to the film as we gathered outside in eager anticipation of midnight.
An early predecessor of the TRANSYLVANIAN, or the fan club newsletter, was distributed by Laura Stein. The TRANSYLVANIAN biweekly or "Mell Tells" (since she played Columbia, she called herself "Mell" instead of "Nell") was a two-sided typed sheet that gave information of new audience lines that had been recently created or discontinued and other special events. There was an ongoing debate that the audience line, "she went apeshit," should be discontinued because it came at a special moment, a close-up of Frank-N-Furter's face. The balcony group thought it was offensive to yell such a word at that time.
About this time, a quiz began to circulate among those of us who waited in line. Dori, Robin and other regulars began trading ROCKY trivia among themselves and realized just how much information they had in their possession. They came up with the idea of a trivia quiz. Dori and Robin put it together and passed out copies with the heading: "Compliments of Dori and Robin." For the next year and one-half, that quiz was copied and recopied from one side of the country to the other. And through it, Dori and Robin became famous.
I had not actually met either of them. When they handed me a copy of the quiz, I introduced myself as the "voice" from the orchestra who had thrown hot dogs. Their reception was not warm, and they lectured me on the problems that my action had caused. Robin even threatened me, as she jokingly described and acted out a switchblade being snapped open and thrust into someone's belly. At that moment I could not know, and would not have believed, that a long and deep friendship was beginning with these two.
I continued to do my "thing" in the orchestra, although I did stop throwing hot dogs - because of rising meat costs, not Robin's threat. In the beginning I looked at them both as terrible snobs, but I soon saw that this was just their way of protecting the film that they thought was so special. When finally they accepted me as a creative force rather than a destructive one, we became friends. Out of this relationship sprang the famous "balcony-orchestra" wars - with the groups trading lines back and forth throughout the film. For example, when Rocky is eating the meat during the dinner scene, the usual line was "Give it to Mikey, he'll eat anything!" From my seat in the orchestra, I changed it to, "Give it to the balcony, they'll eat anything!" The balcony retorted, "You should know, Sal!"
The two groups tried for weeks to outdo each other, but when it got really out of hand, we called a truce. One night, an anonymous voice in the rear of the balcony yelled a line of derision to the orchestra. Immediately the first row balcony people yelled down in their own defense, "It wasn't us!"
It wasn't long before the theater management received warnings from the fire department about the use of open flames during the candle lighting ceremony. It was a fire hazard, obviously, and even more so since many of the candle bearers wore newspapers on their heads. How could the enthusiasm of the participants be subdued? For a few weeks, ushers and security guards marched up and down the aisles warning people to put out their candles. Mostly, the warnings were ignored.
Then the manager, Denise Borden, came to me, begging me to do something to convince the others that the matter was serious. The fire department had threatened to close the show if the practice of lighting candles did not stop. Denise told me she thought the audience would listen to me because I was one of them.
I thought about it, and that night, when everybody was sitting in their seats, I called for their attention, saying I wished to make an announcement. In as serious a voice as I could muster, I appealed to everyone's good sense, and to their concern that the show go on at the Waverly. I ended with the C-U-R-R-Y cheer, now part of the ritual. Not a candle was lit that night, and from that time on, candles were banned in many theaters everywhere. The practice of making general announcements before the film started then. I myself made many of them - about birthdays, celebrations, and transylversaries. I seemed to be the one who made the announcements, for the most part and I became known as spokesman for the ROCKY HORROR cult in New York. Once we started the fan club and I became President of it, this became a natural role for me.
The All-New Floor Show
Everyone wanted to be part of the creative action. Every week some new idea was tried out and developed, but we were yet to create the audience participation that was going to make our group famous.
The original pre-movie floor show had disbanded. But now, with the popularity of the film gaining constantly, rumors began to circulate that the floor show was going to be revived. Many regulars started to come dressed as characters from the film, following the example of Dori and her friends. We had a complete cast now, so why not organize a floor show ourselves? We spontaneously came up with what seemed like a logical extension to what had gone before: the holding of a live floor show during the movie.
Anyone who has seen the RHPS a few times knows how to do the "Time Warp". "It's just a jump to the left, then a step to the right... ". I'm sure that at every theater where ROCKY is showing, people have stood up at their seats or gone into the aisles to dance. At the Waverly, the number of Time Warpers kept increasing. One night a few of us really let loose. When Riff Raff and Magenta opened the doors to the ballroom, we ran up in front of the screen and performed the dance in full view of the audience. Of course, during the solo verses, we bent down out of sight. Once, though, on the spur of the moment, I stood up and mimicked Columbia's tap dance in sync with the film. The applause afterward was encouraging; clearly the audience was ready for a new variety of participation. The Time Warp made a good starting point, because everyone could join in with the dancing.
TIME WARP INSTRUCTIONS
Out of this came the individual members of the audience taking on specific characterizations and acting out scenes simultaneously with their screen counterparts. Dori's wardrobe continued growing, until everything Frank wore was included. One night, during "Sword of Damocles," when she was wearing the green surgical robe, she persuaded a blond, Rocky-type regular named John to strip to his underwear. Right on cue, as Frank chased Rocky on the screen, Dori began chasing John around the theater. Audience participation finally had reached the level of true theatrics.
As for myself, I became more and more fascinated with the Janet character. (Fascinated, not obsessed - for I was not about to dye my hair blond!) I marveled at Susan Sarandon's performance and I participated in many of her scenes. When Betty Munroe threw the bouquet, I jumped in my seat and pretended to catch it at the same time as Janet did. One night a girl named Ellen brought me a bouquet to catch - and so I had my first Janet prop. I also played another scene, the one when Janet shows off her ring saying, "It's nicer than Betty Munroe had." Betty Rice and Alba Cordasco, two schoolteacher friends of Larry, brought an oversized rhinestone ring for me to use. When it came time for each of these bits, flashlights shone from all over the theater, spotlighting me in a role that I was to play in our upcoming floor show.
As the weeks went on, members began to establish themselves in specific character roles. The first Janet and Brad were Donna Bruggerman and Alba Cordasco. Donna was an innocent-seeming blond from Staten Island who, once inside the theater, stripped to a bra and slip and played Janet's scenes inside the castle. Alba was dressed, like Brad, in a tuxedo, plaid tie and cummerbund. It became standard for Alba and me to get up in our seats and kiss at the end of the line, "Dammit Janet." I had now added a wedding hat to my wardrobe.
Marc Shaiman brought Mickey Mouse ears and a hair dryer, and for a while, during "Toucha-Toucha-Touch Me," he and I mimicked Columbia and Magenta from our seats. One night, we went up to the small stage below the level of the screen itself and did the number before the whole house. We were all getting bolder and bolder in what we wanted to do. The climax came when Dori, in her completed "Sweet Transvestite" outfit, performed the entire number in front of the screen and up and down the aisles.
After this, anything went. Thom Riley performed as Riff Raff during "There's a Light." At other times, he or Paul Gheradi (our other Riff) did the Rome Warp with Robin or Maria, our dueling Magentas. There were bannisters at the sides of the steps down to the orchestra at the Waverly. One night Robin slid down the bannister on the left, throwing her feather duster to Riff Raff, at the same time as Magenta made a similarly magnificent entrance on screen. Laura Stein (Columbia) and Mike Morra (Janet) danced in the aisles during "Hot Patootie." It became natural that Maria, in her Magenta negligee, and Laura, in her pajamas, replaced Marc and me during "Toucha." Donna, still in bra and slip, wanted to do the "Toucha" number, but she needed a Rocky. There was no one resembling Rocky around, so I volunteered, turning the number into a hilarious routine embellished by high camp. From that day on, we never performed that particular number seriously - or later either, when I was playing Janet.
I created one bit that I was particularly proud of because I was not mimicking something from the film. This was the use of the audience cue cards during "Eddie's Teddy." The audience had always echoed each line of the song when it was sung by Dr. Scott. Now I devised a giant songbook containing all the responses, with a few "sha-bop-sha-bop-bops" thrown in, and writing Dr. Scott's lines with a German accent.
Alan Riis had a marvelous sense of humor. He had a ventriloquist's dummy that he named "Larabee." Alan dressed this dummy as Rocky, and Larabee performed at a number of ROCKY theaters. I had the privilege to perform "Toucha" with Larabee a few times when the dummy wasn't performing with Joy, Alan's favorite Janet.
It had by now been established that Dori and I were the driving forces of the floor show, whose cult following was growing rapidly. Dori's glamorous and dramatic portrayal of Dr. Frank-N-Furter combined well with my comic interpretations. What might have been only a passing fad was turning into an important cultural statement.
As 1977 was ending, we were on top of the world and having the time of our lives. In our wildest imaginations, though, we never dreamed of the dramatic future lying ahead for the cult of RHPS audience participation. Already the media - newspapers, magazines, you name it - had begun to pick up on what was going on at the Waverly.