MOTW: "The Rocky Horror Picture Show": Play, Film, Phenomenon

Photo Credit: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
October 21st, 2013

MOTW: "The Rocky Horror Picture Show": Play, Film, Phenomenon

"The Rocky Horror Show" was meant to run for six weeks in the Royal Court's sixty-seat experimental Theatre Upstairs in London. That was forty years ago, and the play is still running. "The Rocky Horror Show" was written by Richard O'Brien, who was born in 1942 in London and raised in New Zealand. O'Brien had a love for B-grade horror movies, science fiction, and Marvel Comics. He was especially fond of "Dr. Strange." Faced with the prospect of becoming a cheese farmer, O'Brien opted to return to London to try his hand at an acting career.

After playing small parts in a couple of films, O'Brien was cast in "Hair" and later in "Jesus Christ Superstar." O'Brien managed to attract the attention of Jim Sharman, director of "Jesus Christ Superstar," to his own play. Later, a tape of O'Brien singing "Science Fiction/Double Feature," the opening song for "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," caught the ear of producer Michael White, who became enthralled with the song and the plot idea.

"The Rocky Horror Show" starred O'Brien as the creepy handyman named Riff Raff and Tim Curry, who also starred in "Hair," in the lead role of Dr. Frank-N-Furter. The play opened at the Theatre Upstairs and packed the small house on opening night with an audience that included Vincent Price. It was a huge success, filling the theater every night, and the play was moved to a larger Chelsea cinema and finally to the 500-seat King's Road Theatre. The critically acclaimed play is still shown in this latter theater. The London Evening Standard's annual drama critic's poll named "The Rocky Horror Show" the Best Musical of 1973.

American songwriter, record producer, and organizer of the Monterey Pop Festival Lou Adler saw the show and, within thirty-six hours, acquired the American rights to "The Rocky Horror Show." He organized a Los Angeles production to which he invited 20th Century Fox executives and secured a film deal for the play. Filming began toward the end of 1974, and the shoot lasted for six weeks. Many of the play's actors also starred in the film.

The film version, "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," had its debut on September 24, 1975. Although the movie bombed, it amassed a small following of dedicated attendees, and it ran successfully in Los Angeles. The filmmakers decided to market the movie to its own unique audience. They had the idea to give a midnight New York City showing of the film and let promotion spread by word of mouth. The idea caught on, and "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" began its midnight run at several theaters across the country. Unlike most films, this one had a following of viewers who sang along with the songs in the movie.

Audiences everywhere became part of the show. Little by little, audience members added to the phenomenon. Some viewers started bringing noisemakers for the creation scene of Rocky, Dr. Frank-N-Furter's Adonis creation. Another member held up a teddy bear during the "Eddy's Teddy" scene, and viewers started dancing along with the film characters during the "Time Warp" scene. Before long, moviegoers were dressing as characters when attending screenings, and the same fans were attending with regularity.

The first official dress-up group performed an act and lip-synched the words to the movie between screenings in 1977 at the Fox Venice Theater in Los Angeles. Another group later did the same at the Waverly Theater. The Official Rocky Horror Picture Show Fan Club was formed from these groups, and it grew to more than twenty thousand fans. By the end of 1977, "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" was transformed from a mere film to a blowout party event with fans dressed in outrageous costumes and lingerie. One midnight audience at Hollywood's Tiffany Theater saw a couple get married during the screening.

Magazines and news broadcasts picked up the hype, and Rocky Horror groups were made famous worldwide. A revival of the play was planned for the United States. Touring companies had performed the world over in places such as New Zealand, Australia, Japan, Germany, Norway, France, and the United States. "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" was revived on Broadway in 2000 with great success.

The play and movie are lauded as the first fully publicized celebration of gender equality and transgender rights. Dr. Frank-N-Furter was arguably Tim Curry's most challenging and successful role. O'Brien is magnificent as Riff Raff, and Patricia Quinn does an exquisite job in the role of Magenta. Young Susan Sarandon and Barry Bostwick shine as the newly engaged couple Brad and Janet. "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" is a phenomenon among films and one of the most exciting movie adventures to date.