On the Friday before Halloween, as the annual Frenchmen Street revelry commences and as crowds vacate New Orleans City Park after the Voodoo Experience, a different kind of tradition begins outside the Prytania Theater. It's an hour before a midnight screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which the theater hosts on a regular basis as part of its midnight movies series. The space outside the theater is empty aside from a few scattered people, but soon a line stretches down Prytania Street almost to Jefferson Avenue.
The crowd is eclectic — there's everyone from diehards in costumes, to the kind of movie nerds that usually populate midnight movie screenings, to a pair of pretty blonde women (drinking Champagne from the bottle) who ask me to snap an iPhone photo of them. There's a group of friends, all transplants who were active in their hometown's Rocky Horror scenes, who attend every Prytania screening. Some in the crowd are noticeably young, like a trio of teens I encounter, one of whom boasts about her recent expulsion from a local Catholic high school. The teens, who range in age between 14 and 16, all discovered the nearly 40-year-old movie through older family members and were intrigued by the characters' flamboyance and fluid gender identities.
"Transvestites, singing and glittery people equals awesomeness," one of the girls tells me.
Waiting becomes more exciting when the night's "shadow cast" — the actors who pantomime the film in front of the screen — begins to work the line. The cast's Dr. Frank-N-Furter, who has the posture, pursed lips and British-inflected coo of Tim Curry down pat, struts down the sidewalk, parts of which are now sprinkled in glitter. The cast members are attractive, social young people with immediately apparent theater-kid streaks, and they interact with the crowd, extracting "virgins" — those who have never seen a live Rocky screening — from the crowd and branding them with a lipstick "V" on their foreheads. ("Seeing it by yourself doesn't count — that's just masturbation!")
The cast also sells $7 audience participation kits that include "everything you need for the show besides loose morals," according to their sales pitch. Inside the kits are Rocky props suitable for throwing at the appropriate moments: rice, a piece of toast, toilet paper, and playing cards, along with party hats, noisemakers, sheets of newspaper and instructions on how to use it all. Besides the often lewd audience callbacks lobbed at the characters onscreen, formal audience participation also involves several props thrown at appropriate moments: pieces of bread when a character proposes a toast, rice during a wedding scene, playing cards after the lyric "cards for sorrow, cards for pain" and toilet paper during the line "Great Scott!".
The theater opens its doors, and soon the show begins. As part of the "virgin sacrifice" portion that's common at Rocky screenings, some brave, lipstick-branded first-timers get on stage and are asked to participate in a bit of gentle hazing. In this case, the virgins are handed the embarrassing task of performing a convincing fake orgasm to their fathers' names.
Two cast members present the "rules" for the screening — some silly (if you have any illegal substances, give them to the cast), some real (no flash photography) — ending with "what happens at Rocky, stays at Rocky."
Then, as dictated by tradition, the crowd stands up, turns toward the projector while waving their middle fingers and, in unison, shouts "Start this f---ing movie!".
Touch-a touch-a touch-a touch me, I wanna feel dirty!
The campy R-rated sci-fi movie-musical — in which a naive, newly engaged couple finds themselves in a mysterious castle occupied by strange inhabitants, a place of experimental science, cannibalism and choreographed dances — opened in theaters in 1975. Ticket sales were poor, but the film soon enjoyed a cult following on the midnight movie circuit. By the late 1970s, midnight screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show were a national craze, and the tradition of audience callbacks and participation began to take shape.
The film by no means occupies the counterculture cachet it did during that time, but the Rocky tradition is kept alive by devotees who attend conventions and engage in other expressions of fandom and shadow casts active around the country. In the past, New Orleans had roving groups like the Transylvanian Electric Co., which would perform at movie theaters, bars and other venues. Before that, the now-closed single-screen Sena Mall Theater in Metairie hosted popular Rocky screenings during the height of Rocky mania. In recent years the city has not had an active professional shadow cast. Now the only theater consistently showing Rocky in New Orleans is the Prytania, and a group of Tulane University students has recently assumed the role of its official Rocky cast.
Rocky is a beloved tradition at Tulane, where on Halloween it hosts a wildly popular screening of the film in the school's McAlister Hall, according to student Erin McCluskey, the director of the cast. McCluskey became interested in the event while a member of the school's Office for Gender and Sexual Diversity, which funds LGBT student organizations. When she got involved in the cast that produces the Tulane screenings, it was a smaller, more exclusively LGBT-focused event produced by the school's Queer Student Alliance. Since then, she says, it's become a popular happening for all kinds of students — both for spectators and those who want to play in the cast.
"In recent years it's really evolved from being put on by that club to being open to anyone in the university who wants to try out," McCluskey says. "It used to be the few people in that club trying to get enough people to be in the cast, but now we have to cut people because we can't have 50 people on stage ... It's very loved by Tulane."
Unlike at the Prytania, where fans who attend the screenings appreciate strict recitation of audience callbacks and adherence to other Rocky traditions, the crowd at the annual Tulane screening is more of a college party atmosphere.
"You have freshmen who are away from home for the first time and say 'We get to wear lingerie in public,'" McCluskey says. "But then you still have the seniors who are coming to support their friends that are in the show every year. It's a lot messier (at Tulane). The lights go up, and everyone's making out with someone in the audience. That wouldn't really happen at Prytania. There's a point in the Tulane show, for instance, where the Transylvanians go out with bottles of whipped cream and chocolate sauce and just douse the audience with it and (students) lick it off each other. It's ridiculous."
At a 2011 fundraiser for the Tulane Undergraduate Performing Arts Society (TUPAS), some cast members decided to sell audience participation kits — with props and a callback script — at the Prytania midnight screenings. That lead to the theater asking the group to mount a shadow cast in time for a screening in February, and they have been doing screenings for the theater on an inconsistent basis ever since. The cast performs for free in exchange for being allowed to sell its audience participation kits outside the theater. Recently, the cast was asked to be the theater's permanent cast for all Rocky screenings.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show has been a frequent fixture in Prytania's midnight movie rotation ever since the theater remounted the series in 2009 after a post-Katrina hiatus. Along with The Room, a so-bad-it's-good 2003 drama that has developed its own audience participation and callback tradition, Rocky is the most frequently run midnight movie there, with screenings every six to eight weeks. Theater manager Eric Ramstead says the Rocky screenings often sell out, or at least fill more than half of the 265-seat theater.
"People get upset that we show some movies over and over. We definitely have the audience who doesn't want to see Rocky, and they get upset that it's in every midnight movie series," he says. "But you also do have people who want to see it every time. So until it stops doing business, we'll keep playing it."
Ramstead says the crowds make it well worth it for the theater to screen the film, and the Tulane cast draws new audiences from friends and fellow students. The sole downside is the clean-up required after the screenings, when the theater floor is covered in costume detritus and props used by the audience.
"It's a disaster," he says. "It looks like a bomb of toilet paper and toast and rice went off."
Don't dream it, be it.
The movie's been around for 37 years — it's the longest-running limited-release film in history — and the original stage musical even longer (it debuted in London in 1973), but the "be who you want" message of The Rocky Horror Picture Show still seems to resonate with young people, even those brought up in the era of the "It Gets Better" campaign, Lady Gaga, Glee and other mainstream pop-culture phenomena heralding acceptance of LGBT youth or anyone who is different.
McCluskey attributes it to "more liberal views and the gay community's being more encouraged to come out. People really embrace the decadence and self-expression the movie's all about. It's very 2012."
Stephen Eckert, a recent Tulane graduate who was involved in the cast during his undergraduate years and now works at the Prytania, enjoys seeing Tulane students come to the Halloween screening who are discovering the film for the first time. A Rocky obsessive who attended weekly screenings in his native Raleigh, N.C., Eckert says the Tulane screenings aren't as reverent to the traditions — it's hard to hear the film and not as many people know the callbacks — but the Rocky spirit of acceptance still exists there.
"This past showing in McAlister, it was great to see so many people experiencing it for the first time and not knowing what to expect. That's the best part," he says. "There's a big difference between the screenings, but in both cases, it's a very accepting environment. There's really no judgment. It's a no-shame zone. It's just about having a shared experience."
McCluskey also attributes some of the draw to the scene, especially among young people, to family tradition. Jason Winikoff, the cast's spot-on Frank-N-Furter, became acquainted with the film through his father, who played the same role while living in New York during the height of the Rocky craze in the mid- to late-1970s. Apart from a semester abroad, Winikoff has been a part of his cast in all his three years at Tulane, playing the co-starring character Riff Raff one year before assuming his dream role.
"Ever since I saw it when I was a kid, I've been trying to perfect his accent," Winikoff says of the mad scientist played by Curry. "And that's not even something that's used (doing the shadow cast)," he says. "But I've just been enveloping myself in this character for a while. He kind of speaks to me."
As with many active in their town's Rocky communities, those involved in the Tulane group find camaraderie and acceptance in their mutual love for the film.
"It killed me (being abroad). In the least creepy way I can say this, I've become kind of obsessed with Rocky Horror," Winikoff says. "I was abroad in a place where Halloween wasn't really even celebrated and there was a lot about it I was missing. ... It's a weird camaraderie among the cast because you're forced to get unbelievably comfortable with each other in very different ways than a sport team or band or anything."
"I've had people come up to me and at the end of the show and say 'I was gonna leave Tulane, I was going to transfer, but this was the best experience I've had all year and I'm going to stay because of it,'" McCluskey says.
Let's do the Time Warp again!
Not as many people show up to the midnight Rocky screening the first Saturday of December as did for the one before Halloween, but the shadow cast is there, mingling with audience members, teasing giggly "virgins" and selling audience participation kits. Dexter Rogers, the Tulane group's stage manager who will become director when McCluskey graduates this spring, says these off-season screenings are when the diehards come out.
There are a lot of young people at this screening — some who look like they could be in high school or even younger. One young boy wearing a lace skirt, ruffly top and makeup arrives flanked by girls in similarly festive attire. It seems Rocky still exists as a place where young people can be exposed to, and experiment with, ambiguous gender identity and sexual persuasions.
"It's just a lot of fun. It's a place where you can let loose and everyone's accepted regardless of how they affiliate themselves. Just a place to make friends and have a good night," Rogers says. "I think it's one of those things that kind of speaks to youth, and every new generation that comes up, especially LGBT youth, finds a home there."
The next series of Rocky screenings hasn't been scheduled yet, but the Tulane group is poised to perform at screenings every time the theater hosts them, probably every six weeks. Rogers says he's considering opening auditions to people outside the Tulane community so the city can have an official, professional Rocky shadow cast.
Despite the smaller crowd on Halloween night, the ritual continues: There's the virgin sacrifice, an exercise requiring the virgins to stand in a close line and dry-hump each other and the reading of the rules for the screening.
Then the lights dim, and those big red lips appear on the screen.