We celebrate The Rocky Horror Picture Show with a look at its history and massive impact on pop culture.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show went from a cult happening to a cultural phenomenon. It probably had as much to do with same-sex and transgender acceptance than the Stonewall Riots, and yet it seems so tame today. Now it can be seen for the fun movie that it is rather than the groundbreaking underground movement it started.
I first saw the film in 1977 when it aired on HBO, which ran some cool Friday night programming before it found its footing as a major powerhouse. I threw a Rocky Horror party. My mother cooked a meatloaf in the shape of Meat Loaf. We handed everyone rolls of Scott toilet paper, newspaper, and water pistols. To this day, when I run into people from that high school, they think of me as the Rocky Horror guy.
I’d read that The Rocky Horror Picture Show was not just a movie, but an experience. So I saw it at the Waverly and, at 15, got hooked. I troweled myself with makeup, ripped up some fishnet stockings, and went looking for a theater that didn’t have a cast. I performed as part of Teaneck N.J.’s Friday night Cedar Lane Theater cast from when I was 15 to when I was 17. It marked me as a fag, which was only kind of a drag because I would get offers from girls to “straighten me out.” When we got harassed we’d use David Johansen’s New York Dolls line: “I’m more of a man than you’ll ever be and I’m more of a woman than you’ll ever get.”
Today, everyone knows and loves Rocky Horror and most people don’t even bat an eye about drag, comic or otherwise. You don’t laugh any less when Eddie Izzard is in a dress. Richard O’Brien’s little rock and roll play has a lot to do with that.
It Was Great When It All Began
The Rocky Horror Show began as a stage play in the upstairs experimental theater space of London’s Royal Court Theatre. The song and book were written by O’Brien and the play was directed by Jim Sharman. O’Brien first worked with Sharman when he played an Apostle and a Leper in the London production of Jesus Christ Superstar. Sharman then cast O’Brien as the alien Willie in his March 1973 production of Sam Shepard’s The Unseen Hand at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs. O’Brien was shopping around a Gothic-themed, schlock-horror comic-book fantasy called They Came from Denton High.
Dr. Frank N. Furter began as a German accented peroxide blonde doctor in a white labcoat. Tim Curry was cast after tearing through Little Richard’s 1955 classic “Tutti Frutti.” Curry and Richard O’Brien had both appeared in British versions of the musical Hair.
The Rocky Horror Show opened at the Theatre Upstairs in June 1973. It was an instant hit and moved up to Pheasantry in the King’s Road and the Classic Cinema and landed in London’s West End at the Comedy Theatre. After London, The Rocky Horror Show played LA’s Roxy Theater, run by Lou Adler, where the Doors played, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention recorded a classic live album, and Cheech and Chong made people laugh. People were clamoring for a movie version of The Rocky Horror Show before a single camera was set-up.
Adler also brought it to New York’s Belasco Theater, but it closed after 45 performances. The Rocky Horror Picture Show was filmed over six weeks with a budget of $1.4 million. The movie opened in England on Aug. 14, 1975 and at the UA Westwood in Los Angeles on Sept. 26.
The movie bombed. It was pulled from the eight theaters it was playing and its Halloween opening in New York was cancelled. It was paired with Brian De Palma’s horror musical The Phantom of the Paradise for a while, but that didn’t help sales. Midnight showings began at the Waverly Theatre in New York City on April 1, 1976.
Whatever Happened To Fay Wray?
Tim Curry, who suffered a major stroke in 2013, has become an acting legend. Horror fans can’t decide whether he was scarier as Pennywise the Clown in the TV miniseries of Stephen King’s It or as Darkness in Legend, which starred Tom Cruise. Was he funnier in Oscar or Three Men in a Boat? More animated on The Wild Thornberries or as every single villain on the cult TV cartoon Duckman, which starred Seinfeld’s Jason Alexander?
Curry also starred as King Arthur in the 2005 Broadway production of Spamalot, originated the role of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in the 1980 Broadway production of Amadeus and was part of the all-star comic cast of the film Clue. Curry recorded several albums in the seventies and eighties including Read My Lips and Fearless, which had the hit “I Do the Rock, and Simplicity.
O’Brien wrote the musicals T.Zee (1976), Disaster (1978), The Stripper (1982), and Top People (1984). O’Brien and Richard Hartley wrote songs for the Alan Arkin starrer The Return of Captain Invincible in 1983. O’Brien wrote and sang the part of Mephistopheles Smith for his one-man revue, Disgracefully Yours, in 1985.
As an actor, O’Brien appeared in Jubilee (1977), Flash Gordon (1980), Dark City (1998), Ever After (1998), and Dungeons & Dragons (2000). He was the presenter on the British Game show The Crystal Maze from 1990 to 1995. He continues to act on stage. He appeared in a mime version of Snow White at the Milton Keynes Theatre in 2005. From 2001 until 2006 he hosted the annual Transfandango gathering of Dearhearts and Trans ‘n’ Gentle People.
Let’s Do the Time Warp Again
“The Time Warp” was originally written to lengthen the play, which only ran about 40 minutes in early drafts. The song has gone on to have a life of its own.
O’Brien might be writing a Rocky Horror sequel called Revenge of the Old Queen of Rocky Horror, which is what rumors say. O’Brien describes himself as transgender or a possible third sex, estimating himself, based on estrogen levels, as 70 percent male and 30 percent female.
Sarandon, who played the chicken-walking Janet Weiss, is also an acting legend. She was nominated for Best Actress four times, for her lemon juice scene in Atlantic City (1980), the way she and Geena Davis scoped Brad Pitt’s ass in Thelma & Louise (1991), Lorenzo’s Oil (1992), and The Client (1994), before she sacrificed Sean Penn and won for Dead Man Walking in 1995.
Sarandon first hit the screen as Peter Boyle’s errant daughter in the 1970 film Joe. She played in the soap opera A World Apart from 1970 to 1971. Sarandon debuted on Broadway debut in the original 1972 production of An Evening with Richard Nixon.
After Rocky Horror, Sarandon starred in the Off-Broadway plays A Coupla White Chicks Sitting Around Talking (1979) and Extremities (1982). Her film career is legendary, but I’m also fond of her two appearances on The Simpsons. She played herself in the episode “Bart Has Two Mommies” and a ballet teacher with a great sense of balance in “Homer vs. Patty and Selma.”
The asshole, Brad Majors, was played by Bostwick, who started out as a Klown who sang for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. The Klowns released an album in 1970 and had a minor hit with the single “Lady Love.” Bostwick originated the role of Danny Zuko in the stage production of Grease and was nominated for a Tony Award. Steve Martin auditioned to play Brad but wasn’t cast.
After The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Bostwick won a Tony Award for his work in the 1977 musical The Robber Bridegroom. Bostwick found out that he wasn’t Chevy Case when they tried to turn the 1978 movie Foul Play into a TV series. Bostwick played New York Mayor Randall Winston on the sitcom Spin City with both Michael J. Fox and Charlie Sheen from 1996 to 2002. He was also Amanda Bynes’ dad on What I Like About You, had a recurring role on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, and played in the miniseries George Washington, The Forging of a Nation, Scruples, A Woman of Substance, War and Remembrance, and Till We Meet Again.
Bostwick was on the TV shows Scrubs, Ugly Betty, Phineas and Ferb, Cougar Town, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, and was the voice of Optimum Voice, the asshole. In 2011, he was the sheriff in the John Landis movie Some Guy Who Kills People!
Sing It, Lips
Patricia Quinn played both Magenta and the opening lips in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. After Rocky Horror, Quinn starred as Elizabeth Siddal in the 1975 miniseries The Love School. In 1976, she played Emperor Claudius’ sister Livilla in I, Claudius. Quinn was in the Hammer House of Horrors episode “Witching Time” as Lucinda Jessop in 1981 and in the 1987 Doctor Who serial, Dragonfire.
On film, Quinn appeared in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983), and, most recently Rob Zombie’s The Lords of Salem (2012).
Nell Campbell busked around London under the name “Little Nell” until she tapped her way into the role of Columbia in the original production of The Rocky Horror Show. She also starred in the “sequel,” Shock Treatment as Nurse Ansalong. Like Curry, Campbell recorded for A&M Records releasing the singles “Stilettos and Lipstick” backed with “Do the Swim” in 1975 and a disco version of “Fever” in 1976.
Not content with pointing her breasts at Frank N. Furter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, they made an appearance while she was doing the Swim on British television in 1975. Campbell appeared the Off-Broadway play You Should Be So Lucky and the Broadway musical Nine. She played Sandra LeMon on the British TV series Rock Follies of ’77.
Campbell became part of the New York City club scene in 1986 when she opened Nell’s on W. 14th St. She sold it to Law and Order star and Sex and The City’s Mr. Big, Chris Noth in the late nineties. Campbell is now a writer living in her native Australia.
While Campbell was flashing her tits on British TV in 1975, Jonathan Adams lent his support by appearing in the comedy Eskimo Nell. Adams was the narrator for The Rocky Horror Show before he was Dr. Everett Von Scott in the movie. After Rocky Horror, he appeared in the films Three for All (1975), It Could Happen to You (1975), Adventures of a Private Eye (1977) and played Adam the shepherd in the TV miniseries Jesus of Nazareth (1977). Adams was a member of the London cast of the Tom Lehrer review Tom Foolery. He died of a stroke at the age of 74.
Meat Loaf was not content to leave Eddie in the vaults. After Rocky Horror, he broke out like a Bat Out of Hell with an album entirely written by Jim Steinman and produced by Todd Rundgren. The album and its follow up Bat Out of Hell II: Back Into Hell were huge hits. As an actor, the former athlete appeared in the cult film Roadie, the 1997 film Spice World, and David Fincher’s Fight Club (1999). Meat Loaf played both Eddie and his uncle Dr. Scott in the London production.
Meat Loaf was John Belushi’s understudy when The National Lampoon Show opened on Broadway. Belushi and Meat Loaf had been friends since 1972. Meat Loaf met Ellen Foley, who sang “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” with him on Bat Out of Hell at the National Lampoon Show.
Ralph Hapschatt, whose wedding started it all, was played by Jeremy Newson, who had appeared in McCabe & Mrs. Miller in 1971 and went on to play in Not Mozart: Letters, Riddles and Writs in 1991. Newsom reprised the Ralph Hapschatt role for Shock Treatment.
His wife, Betty Hapschatt, the former Betty Munroe, was played by Hilary Farr who now co-hosts the interior design show Love It or List It on HGTV and W Network. Farr appeared under the name Hilary Labow in such films as Layout for 5 Models (1972), Sex Farm (1973), Never Mind the Quality, Feel the Width (1973), Legend of the Werewolf (1975), City on Fire (1979) and The Return (1980).
We would know none of this if it weren’t for the reckless unnamed Criminologist. The feckless and neckless narrator was played by veteran actor Charles Gray. Gray played Australia Special Agent Henderson in the 1967 Bond film You Only Live Twice and evildoer Ernst Stavro Blofeld in Diamonds Are Forever, making Gray one of the very few actors to played a villain and an ally in the James Bond series. Gray appeared with The Avengers’ Patrick MacGoohan in British TV’s Danger Man and appeared with Laurence Olivier in the 1960 film version of The Entertainer before his breakthrough role in the 1967 WWII murder-mystery film The Night of the Generals with Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif.
But to me, Gray’s best performance is as Mocata in the Hammer horror classic The Devil Rides Out, based on the novel by Dennis Wheatley. Gray is the personification of seductive evil, against good-guy Christopher Lee.
Really, if you haven’t seen it, you must. Written by Richard Matheson and directed by Terence Fisher, it is a cinematic classic. Take an hour and a half now.
Rocky wasn’t exactly born, he was made in the lab, one of the first test-tube babies. Rocky Horror was played by the English actor, photographer, and model Peter Hinwood. He didn’t have many lines in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, but who was listening? That falsetto scream was actually sung by Australian singer Trevor White.
Prior to Rocky Horror, Hinwood was on the British miniseries Adventures of Ulysses as the Greek god Hermes and in the horror film Tam Lin with Planet of the Apes’ Roddy McDowall. He played in the Roman historical drama Sebastiane after Rocky Horror. Now he deals antiques in London.
Rocky Horror is going as strong as ever. The Rocky Horror Picture Show had its flaws–nip slips, hands reaching out to grab props–that’s one of the reasons Sal Piro started yelling at the screen and throwing toilet paper. But that wasn’t what made it a cult classic of cultural change. At its heart, The Rocky Horror Picture Show encapsulated a fun moment of absolute pleasure.
And no one is in drag in the movie. That’s how they dress on Transylvania.
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