The Late-Night, Double Feature Picture Show: Life At Rocky Horror

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 3.618% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

The Rocky Horror Picture Show isn’t a movie to me. For me, it’s the feeling of moist rice sticking to the soles of my pantyhosed feet. It’s remembering not to wipe away that crustiness around my eyes because that’s mascara, you dolt, you need to look pretty for the audience. It’s eating french fries and gravy at three in the morning with a bunch of wasted-out weirdos down at the Athena Diner, wondering who I’m going home with that night.

I was Frank. I was the first Frank. And let me tell you, in the town of Norwalk, Connecticut – a place that didn’t have a single nightclub – that was an honor.

Because there was a single art house cinema in Norwalk, and it was a rattletrap organization called the Sono Cinema – headed by a stubborn man with no head for money and a frantic love for beautiful films. Brian would book the theater with the obscure foreign films he liked, and on a good night you’d get five people showing up. Sometimes he ran out of popcorn.

But he’d been told that running the Rocky Horror Picture Show at midnight was a money-maker, and though Brian loathed the idea of “popular” cinema, he realized he needed some cash. So he ran it once, and filled the theater, but…

Nobody was doing anything.

He realized there was supposed to be shouting, and audience participation, but this was in the days before YouTube and online tutorials. The Rocky Horror was a purely hand-me-down tradition: you could only learn the rituals of flinging rice and wet newspapers by going to a raucous show and being taught.

What he had was an audience of virgins.

So he asked around. He needed someone stupid enough to dress up in women’s clothing, who would rouse an audience on, who would be shameless.

I wasn’t sure if I could be shameless before a theater full of people, but I was the only one who volunteered. I’d seen a few shows, had the tape soundtrack.

And so there was a pit crew at my house at 9:00 on a Saturday. The Rocky Horror lovers in town wanted this to work – it was a lot easier than driving an hour up to the other show in New Haven – and so I had four people in my room making me look pretty.

My mother had no idea what was going on. “Hey, mom, do you have a fake pearl necklace I can borrow?” I asked. “Crap – do you have any mascara? Oh, yeah, could I borrow some pantyhose?”

She stormed into my room, holding a set of L’eggs at arm’s length, and deposited it in my lap. “Here,” she said curtly. “This is the last thing you ask for. And I don’t want to know what you’re doing.”

And I drove to the Sono, and there was a crowd that I remember as being like a rock star audience but was probably fifty wasted college kids – and I sauntered in, flipping effortlessly to working the room, and when the show started I got up to the front of the stage in a bustierre and silk underwear and yelled, “ALL RIGHT, PEOPLE, HERE’S HOW THIS GOES. WHO BROUGHT THEIR SQUIRT GUNS?”

I became a star. Or at least a star in Norwalk, Connecticut.

I was The Rocky Horror Guy.

And there were other Rocky Horror people, a great cast of folks who I came to love, and they were also vital – but I was the person introducing the audience to the show on Fridays and Saturdays, and so I became the face of the Rocky Horror.

(…Which Brian fucking hated. He hated the gaudiness of the show, he hated the cleanup, he hated the freaks showing up all the time because this wasn’t cinema, it was spectacle, but the money let him play Un Chien Andalou again, so he let me do what I wanted.)

And to me, the Rocky Horror is barely a film. It’s a backdrop. The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a flickering blue light where I run up and down the aisles, scoping the cutest girls in the show so I can be sure to plop onto their laps at the appropriate show moment when Frank falls.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a set of crowded bathrooms where we put on makeup and come out to each other, that first time I really understood how complex sexuality was as I saw the straight guy with the broomhandle mustache who wasn’t a woman but this was the only place he would wear a dress, and guys going gay for a weekend to see how it felt, and women switching roles in the show as they tried on butchiness and femme to see how it felt.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a parking lot, where we’d all gather at 10:30 and start drinking lavishly, noting the old crew and welcoming the newcomers, we loved fresh blood because they were either folks travelling from distant Rocky shows to see ours – and they had new lines to shout at the screen, their rituals blending with ours – or they were people who’d never been here before and oh God you gotta see this it’s so wonderful have a hug this is your community fit in.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show is my own sexuality blossoming because I discovered that when you’re shameless you will find an audience, and so there were blowjobs in the back of the theater and women fucking me in hearses and sometimes taking someone’s hand and bringing them to the backstage (“Fuck the backstage!”) and discovering that someone else was already making out in there and God, were we all going to kiss each other eventually?

Probably. And we dated, and we broke up, and we cheated, and that was all right because Rocky Horror was the hub. We could be pissed at each other, but this was where we came and this was who we are and maybe I was aching because Bari and I had broken up again but there was the Time Warp and we could always dance to the Time Warp no matter how mad we were.

And people would say, “Oh, I saw Rocky Horror on VHS!” And I tried not to be snobbish, but… you gotta see it live, I’d whisper.

I did that for about four years. And eventually, the RHPS got encrusted – I ran a very loose show, where “fun” was more important than the details, and hell, if you’d seen the show three times and wanted to go nuts as Eddie roaming about the theater, well, does this jacket fit?

But eventually folks who were Very Concerned about the correct costuming wormed their way in, which led to a stage show that was about mimicking the movie perfectly, which led to a hierarchy where you had to train in the ways of Rocky Horror before you could be on stage, which created this barrier between the audience and the show that eventually strangled it.

At that point, I was more like the Rocky Horror godfather. I was an emeritus; I’d show up, do the intro, and then go hang out in the backstage or goof around in the lobby. And eventually it dissolved, along with the Sono Cinema itself.

And when people say, “Oh, Rocky Horror was on TV last night!”, well, I couldn’t watch. I’m sure it’s fine. But I’ve gone to see Rocky Horror in the theaters since, and I’ve discovered that I lied.

Because I go to see the Rocky Horror in the theaters, and it’s not Norwalk in 1989. It’s these other kids, people I don’t know, and for me Rocky Horror is walking into a room full of freaks and knowing every single one. For me, Rocky Horror is that community…

…and the community is gone.

It’s not a bad thing. Bright lights fade. I wasn’t going to be dressed as Frank forever, nor would I want to.

But there’s a film, and there’s a show, and there are remakes. They’re all good. I want you to love them.

Yet there’s no remaking that crappy theater. There’s no getting all my friends back in the same room with that same feeling of hope that tonight is gonna be awesome, we’re gonna cheer, we’re gonna make new friends, we’re gonna kiss in secret and nurture crushes and maybe touch a genital that we didn’t think we’d like except oh I kinda like that.

There’s no going back.

It’s never been the same. It’s been better. Rocky Horror catapulted me into new realms of bravery – I can give talks to rooms because shit, after you’ve faced down a hundred drunken frat boys, “giving a speech” is nothing. Rocky Horror taught me about sex, and fluidity, and tolerance. Rocky Horror taught me how to handle microfame, because I was a star for six hours a week and then I went back to work at the record shop.

All those have built me into something marvelous, and I’ve thought about going back to some theater and seeing if I could become a member of the crew again, but….

That’s trying to recreate a past.

I have a glorious future to head to.

The longing will kill you if you let it.

Whatever happened to Saturday night?
When you dressed up sharp and you felt alright
It don’t seem the same since cosmic light
Came into my life

2 Comments

  1. Gayle
    Oct 22, 2016

    I couldn’t have described it better if I tried. You definitely captured the insanity, joy, drama and weirdness that was Rocky at the Sono Cinema.

  2. Joshua
    Nov 16, 2016

    Thank you so much. Everything you wrote is true and beautiful and elegiac.

    UC Theatre
    Berkeley, CA
    Indecent Exposure Cast
    1990

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