August 15, 1975– Rocky Horror Picture Show is released
When I was in college in Los Angeles in the early 1970s, I had friends that returned from a year studying at The Royal Academy Of Dramatic Arts (RADA) in London who were all abuzz about this new show they had scene multiple times at the 500-seat King’s Road Theatre, a former movie theatre in London, where it ran until 1979. It was titled, The Rocky Horror Show and it was a rock musical with a score and book by Richard O’Brien. My friends explained that it was a tribute to the science fiction and horror B-movies and it was unlike anything they had experienced.
The musical was set to open at The Roxy Theatre in West Hollywood and I purchased tickets the day they went on sale. This was in an era when you went to the theatre box-office and stood in line to purchase tickets; believe it or not, there was no Internet in the early 1970s. You had to find your hook-ups in bars or cruisy spots in public parks or adult bookstores. Crazy.
Lou Adler was a millionaire record and concert producer who saw the show in London. Acting on impulse and sensing a hit, he met the producers backstage and within 36 hours had secured the American theatrical rights.
The show premiered at the Roxy on March 14, 1974, and I was there. The cast was new except for Tim Curry, who had played Dr. Frank N. Furter in the original production in London. Originally, Curry had rehearsed his character with a German accent and peroxide blond hair, and later, with an American accent. But, he decided to play Dr. Frank N. Furter with an English accent after hearing to an English woman say: “Are you going to the house in town or the house in the country?” and decided: “Yes, Dr. Frank N. Furter should sound like the Queen”.
The Rocky Horror Show blew my 20-year-old mind. The Roxy is a small venue and the actors were just a few feet away. Curry and company were absolutely delicious. I returned to see it three more times. In a zany tid-bit, Al Franken was running lights for the show during that run. It played to full houses for 10 months and a deal was made with 20th Century Fox for a film version.
In early 1975, Adler closed the show at the Roxy. This gave the actors time to return to England for the film’s shoot. Adler decided to open it on Broadway just before the film’s release. It was anticipated that this production would be as successful as it was in London and Los Angeles and help stir up interest in the film. It opened to bad reviews and bad box-office and it closed after just 45 performances.
It’s astonishing that Hollywood bought the rights to the project. The Rocky Horror Show had only played in small theatres, and it was amazing that they would use Curry, who was not well known, and keep the stage show’s director, Jim Sharman, who had never made a film. The only imperative from 20th Century Fox was that the cast include some American actors. That’s why Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon were cast as Brad and Janet. The entire project almost got scrapped when there was a change of studio head at Fox. Later, the film would help keep the studio afloat.
The film was shot in at Bray Studios outside London and on location at Oakley Court, a country estate known for its earlier use for Hammer Film productions, the maker of the best horror films of all time. Some of props and sets were recycled from the Hammer horror films. Although the film is both a parody and tribute to campy science fiction and horror films, Sue Blane, the costume designer, did not use the earlier films for inspiration and instead used punk rock fashions for her influence.
The opening number, Science Fiction Double Feature mentions several classic sci-fi and horror films, along with their stars. On stage, Trixie an usherette character, performs the song. For the screen version, director Sharman planned that the song would feature actual images from the films named in the lyrics. Securing the rights to photos and clips from King Kong, Flash Gordon, The Day The Earth Stood Still proved cost prohibitive. O’Brien came up with the idea of filling a black screen with just bright red lips, gleaming white teeth, and a salacious tongue to perform the theme song, and an iconic movie moment was born.
Titled The Rocky Horror Picture Show, it was critically panned and a box-office dud after it was released on this very day in 1975. The film was withdrawn from its eight opening cities due to very small audiences, and its planned New York City opening on Halloween night was cancelled. Fox re-released the film on college campuses on a double-bill with another fabulous rock musical, Brian De Palma’s Phantom Of The Paradise (1974), but again, the audiences failed to show up.
Because John Water‘s Pink Flamingos (1972) and the wacky propaganda movie Reefer Madness (1936) were making money at weekend midnight showings, Fox Studio execs talked distributors into trying midnight screenings starting in NYC on April Fools’ Day 1976. It soon became known as a “midnight movie” after audiences began participating with the film at the Waverly Theater in Greenwich Village. Then, audiences around the country began attending late night showings where they talked back to the screen and dressed as the characters. They were soon performing alongside the film as a “shadow cast”, miming the actions onscreen while lip-syncing the character’s lines. The Rocky Horror Picture Show was not only playing in big cities, but also smaller cities and even in conservative small towns. Within a few months, nearly every screening of the film in every theatre was accompanied by a live fan cast.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show has been in limited release more than four decades after its premiere. It is the longest-running theatrical release in Film History. It also has a huge large international following, playing at midnight in theatres all over the globe. In my city, Portland, Oregon, The Rocky Horror Picture Show has been playing at midnight on Saturday nights at The Clinton Street Theatre since 1978, making it one of the longest runs in the world.
Don’t Dream It; Be It!