Today we’re finally covering a long time queer favorite – Rocky. And if you think we’re talking about a down on his luck, Philadelphia boxer, who constantly walks around with blood running down his face calling out for “Adrian!!!” – well then you’re probably straight and have stumbled upon the wrong podcast. But if you’re queer then there’s only one real Rocky in your horror book. And of course, that’s the cult classic The Rocky Horror Picture Show. With the doom and gloom of the upcoming election in America, we thought we’d lighten the mood a bit by heading to Transylvania… or Denton if you want to get technical. And before we begin we just want to let our listeners know that we will be using some outdated language in accordance with the terminology used during the show. This does not mean it is appropriate to use this language today and there are many ways in which Rocky could be perceived as offensive today. But when we remember it in the context of its time, we can see how Dr. Frank-N-Furter certainly inspired a generation of LGBTQ+ people to celebrate their queer identity. So now let’s “come to the lab and see what’s on the slab!”
During the winter of 1970, a young, out of work English actor wrote a screenplay out of sheer boredom. Richard O’Brien was considered a bit odd by outsiders. Their feminine expression and love of science fiction caused them not to fit in with societies so called “social norms”. And even 40 years later O’Brien still admitted to Pink News, ““All my life, I’ve been fighting never belonging”. Still, even in their younger years Richard was perceptive enough to know there must be others like them. And if there were not, then they would create characters and bring them to life on stage. Mixing styles of Sci-Fi and trashy T.V., the young writer finally completed a script and sent it out to friends.
O’Brien titled the play “They Came from Denton High’ and showed it to a few friends. Within 3 years the show was in full production with one significant change, the title now ran The Rocky Horror Show. The unique musical was a relative success in London and within a year had made its way to the States, finally premiering on Broadway in 1975. The content and style of the play fit the edge of the 1970s. Glam rock, femme dress, and heavy eyeliner fell in with popular rock bands like Queen and Bowie. In fact, the makeup artist for David Bowie and Mick Jagger was later brought on to help with make-up for the Rocky show.
It was the small success of the play mixed with the culture of the era that caused a few producers to take a chance on moving the musical to film. The entire movie was shot in just 60 days and cast most of the original play production, including Tim Curry in his original role as Dr. Frank-N-Furter. However, producers insisted on casting Americans for the unsuspecting visitors that stumbled upon the Annual Transylvanian Convention. Young stars Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon landed the roles of Brad and Janet, rounding out the films cast. By August of 1975, the movie was being released in England, and the following month it rolled out in 8 of America’s largest cities. Once again, the name had been upgraded. Only this time just one word was added to the title. The musical was now called The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
For the first year, the movie had little success. Promotions struggled to gain much attraction and by the end of 1975, all 8 cities in the States had pulled the show from their theaters. The poor reviews from critics certainly didn’t help. Writers described the musical as “labored”, “lacking”, “a low budget freak show”, and a variety of other unpleasant terms. It is certain that there were homophobic reviews. Yet ideas of the time combined with the bizarreness that is in fact Rocky makes it difficult to separate the homophobes from those who are simply flabbergasted by the entire concept of the show. Even the wild rock boys of the 1970s couldn’t prepare most suburban homes for a castle full of foreign “transsexuals” (to borrow the term used in the show – not appropriate for today).
O’Brien understood the world would struggle with Rocky’s defiance of gender binaries. Afterall, the new star was struggling with their own gender identity. It would be several decades before Richard could finally come out but they admitted the struggle it had been. “I’d been fighting, going to therapy, treating what I was as though it were some kind of illness to be cured. But actually, no, I was basically transgender, and just unhappy.” And there were countless other queer people in Richard’s same shoes. So it should be no surprise that this group of misfits would find themselves rallying behind a show that was being rejected by the media for the same reasons they were rejected by society.
While the 1970s came on the heels of Stonewall and the spark of queer liberation, the fight was only beginning. The same year the Rocky Horror Show premiered on stage, Robert Grant founded the American Christian Cause. Later renamed the Christian Voice, Grants organization was a lobbying group specifically dedicated to combatting the so-called gay agenda. He is often considered the “Father of the Christian Right” and by 1976 Grants activism had spread across the entire country. It was the Christian Voice that galvanized conservatives such as Anita Bryant and Jerry Falwell to openly attack queer rights. And while many LGBTQ+ people were use to the hostility and homophobia, this fresh wave of attacks often left many feeling vulnerable and alone.
In our Halloween episode, we discussed how the holiday was one of the few times a year queer people could openly express themselves. Cross dressing ordinances combined with anti-sodomy laws could turn the smallest dress infraction into social suicide. Being arrested for cross dressing or sodomy would result in job loss, eviction, termination of public benefits, and usually a round or two of beatings from cops and community members or worse. The exemptions around Halloween allowed for queer people to breathe openly for at least a single evening. And once an individual had that taste of freedom and unbridled community it is easy to see how a craving for more developed.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show became the savior for queers in need of that open expression. The same exceptions lent to Halloween were also given to other costume parties as well as fan cosplay. Though the elements of a show about a glorious, Transgender alien with a fluid sexuality was certainly enough to draw in a queer dominated crowd, it was the safety the space allowed that created a cult following. If an individual was attending a Rocky showing, then that was all the explanation needed for an outfit that might otherwise be deemed “illegal”. Once the person arrived at the theater they would most likely be surrounded by a group of fellow queers. And whatever happened in a dark theater at midnight wasn’t a concern to the disapproving and judgmental outside world.
The truth is, Rocky was one of the few spaces, outside of a gay bar, where LGBTQ+ people could freely gather. But it was more than a space to meet. The ritual of watching the same movie, hearing the same songs, and repeating the same lines night after night resembled more of a church service than a film. An odd, obscene, and much more thrilling church service yes, but the rituals of the viewings cannot be ignored. Especially in the early years of the show. Audiences began to adopt routines that caught on and spread from theater to theater. Props, such as rubber gloves for snapping, water guns for shooting, and toasts and cards for throwing are all part of the standard in any stage or movie showing. There’s also a lot of audible responses and shout outs during the production that recall the same way many churches lead congregations to chant and recite well known passages.
By 1976 most theaters and critics had considered the Rocky Horror Picture Show an utter flop. On April Fools’ Day of that year the first midnight showing took place in an attempt to make some money back from production. The date no doubt was chosen in accordance with the mockery surrounding the movie. But it was during this show that the first bit of “audience participation” took place. As the show continued it’s run, theater owners became pleasantly surprised at the ticket sales. Over the next two years the film continued to gain popularity as more and more midnight showings cropped up across the states. Wherever Rocky shows were popping, one could be certain to find a large LGBTQ+ crowd. And as the films popularity grew, so did the mainstreams perception of the film as well as queer representation.
We don’t mean to imply that The Rocky Horror Picture Show changed English and American acceptance of LGBTQ+ people. There were certainly many stereotypes and harmful ideas put in place that may have been a benefit 45 years ago yet don’t serve us well today. Still, for many people, Dr. Frank-n-Furter was the only trans representation they would ever see in their lifetime. And while the show was not perfect, many local productions used money raised to support the LGBTQ+ community, fight the AIDS pandemic, and even fund trans affirming surgeries. It is also important to note that LGBTQ+ people of the 70s realized Rocky wasn’t an accurate depiction of queer life. And it wasn’t meant for that purpose, it was meant to push the boundaries of gender while serving up camp and humor. On that point, the show fulfilled its mission.
By 1980, more than 230 theaters across the U.S. were playing The Rocky Horror Picture Show every Friday and Saturday night. In addition, the International fan club was established, a fan newsletter titled The Transylvavian was running along with several other magazines, and fans began hosting Rocky conventions. O’Brien began to write a sequel titled Rocky Horror Shows His Heels but could not get main stars Sarandon, Bostwick, and Curry to return to the production. Though the young actor Tim Curry owed his success to Rocky, his prominence from the show opened a door for the rising star. But he would always hold a place in his heart for the show and told NPR years later, “[Rocky is] a guaranteed weekend party to which you can go with or without a date and probably find one if you don’t have one. And it’s also a chance for people to try on a few roles for size, you know? Figure out, help them maybe figure out their own sexuality.”
But even though Curry had moved on from the role, O’Brien still had the other characters to utilize. The movie Shock Treatment continued the story of Denton and the other individuals from the original show. However, the removal of Dr. Frank-N-Furter and characters Brad and Janet caused the film to fall flat. Throughout the next few decades O’Brien would continue to attempt to revise the universe through Rocky Horror: The Second Coming and Revenge of the Queen. But producers wouldn’t take a chance on a sequel of a film they still saw as a failure. For their part, O’Brien continued to do well with the success of Rocky and became a cultural, pop icon themselves. In the mid-2000’s they were finally able to come out as Non-Binary and today they advocate for ending the gender construct. Telling Pink News in 2009, “If society allowed you to grow up feeling it was normal to be what you are, there wouldn’t be a problem”.
As for the show itself, 45 years later it still has a rabid cult following along with a significant place in LGBTQ+ history. And perhaps what is more interesting is the way the former underground film has shot into the mainstream in the last two decades. So much so that in 2015 Fox did it’s own live action remake casting star Laverne Cox as Dr. Frank-N-Furter. Of course, hard core fans denounced the movie. But many on the outside saw the show for the very first time and the revisal was met with resounding praise. Yet even though we appreciate the way we can openly embrace queer characters today it will never compare to a 1970s theater filled with queer people throwing toast and cards at the screen.
Your recommended resource is The Rocky Horror Picture Show which is available right now on Hulu. You can also rent the movie on Prime or YouTube. Or play the soundtrack on Spotify during a small, socially distanced Halloween gathering. And if you want to read more about Rocky then check out the Rocky Horror Picture Show Book. And above all, DAMMIT JANET have a great Halloween you Hot Patooties!
- Wiki – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Rocky_Horror_Picture_Show
- TLO – https://tomandlorenzo.com/2020/09/the-rocky-horror-picture-show-taught-entire-generations-to-embrace-queer-expression/#.X4j1odVKipo
- Review – https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/the-rocky-horror-picture-show-1976
- Pink – https://web.archive.org/web/20120227150829/http://gay.pinknews.co.uk/2009/08/18/richard-obrien-society-should-not-dictate-gender/
- Fan Site – http://www.rockyhorror.com/history/timeline.php
- LGBGT Rigths – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1970s_in_LGBT_rights#:~:text=In%20the%201970s%2C%20in%20western,coalesced%20in%20an%20unprecedented%20way.
- Rituals – https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2016/oct/19/rocky-horror-picture-show-fan-rituals-fox-remake
- NPR – https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4679116