From the United States to England and throughout Europe, what started as a small upstairs live show became one of the most popular cult classic films of all time. The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
"I never wanted to be a writer," says Richard O'Brien, creator of the successful Rocky Horror stage show and its equally popular outgrowth, The Rocky Horror Picture Show. "Acting was always the important thing in my life. I had no desire to be an actor and do Shakespeare. I didn't want to be a celebrity. I just wanted to play make-believe. It was all very child-like. Very simple." O'Brien never became an actor in capital letters. Some might say he never became an actor in small letters. He did become a celebrity, however. Despite his best intentions, Richard O'Brien the actor has been transformed into Richard O'Brien the playwright. "Life isn't very simple, but it's fun ... I guess."
O'Brien was born in Cheltenham, England, moving to New Zealand when he was nine. "New Zealand reminds me very much of the American midwest. There were two movie houses where I grew up. One showed all the latest releases and the other showed all the B-movies. I went to the movies a lot. What else can you do in a small-town parochial society? You see films, you play sports. If you were a bit of a punk like me you hung out in street corners and tried to pick up girls, not very successfully. The girls wanted to flirt but didn't want to be picked up. This was the fifties, remember." O'Brien, who readily admits he is not much of an academic, left school at 15 1/2. "I rarely read books. If something doesn't grab me by the first page then I never pick it up again." After a succession of jobs including farming and hair-dressing, he moved to London for a year's trial period. "I should say I liked it and stayed but that wasn't the case. I ran out of money and cashed in my return ticket and have been here ever since. Earning a living became a necessity. Once you start doing that you're trapped, aren't you?" With no previous acting experience he tried to break into films as a stunt-man but quickly became disillusioned with work he generously calls "not the most fulfilling." After taking a few acting classes and putting in the obligatory time backstage sweeping floors, he got his first professional job in a musical. "I had only one line. I went on stage and sang the words 'red hot chestnuts. Or maybe it was 'ripe tomatoes."
Although he appeared in Sean Kenny's Gulliver's Travels at the Mermaid Theater and Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar, both directed by Rocky Horror director Jim Sharman, O'Brien found he was "back to square one. I had only one line in Superstar. 'See my purse, I'm a poor poor man.' I used to sing it with great gusto on stage, but off-stage I was getting pretty upset." O'Brien was scheduled to take over the part of Herod but was fired after his debut performance on a Saturday matinee. "The director wanted me to play Herod like a rock and roll star. I was more than delighted with the idea. Elvis was my idol, you see. I had this wonderful white suit with gold lapels and did this great rock and roll dance." Unfortunately, producer Robert Stigwood gave the thumbs down and that was the end of Herod's career as Elvis and O'Brien's career as Herod. It was during this unhappy period of unemployment that O'Brien started to write The Rocky Horror Show. Although he was soon hired by Jim Sharman for a role in Sam Shepherd's The Unseen Hand, he continued to spend his non-acting hours working on the play. "Writing Rocky was almost like working on a jigsaw puzzle. I had written several of the songs before and all I had to do was slot them in. I didn't start at the beginning and develop the plot from there. I started at both ends and then filled in the middle." O'Brien showed the finished product to Sharman who convinced producer Michael White to give the show some financial backing and then talked the prestigious Royal Court into giving Rocky Horror a shot in their experimental Theater Upstairs. From the beginning O'Brien saw himself in the role of Eddie.
London original stage production stills
Sharman, however, convinced him to play the cadaverous Riff-Raff. "I was really nervous about the whole thing. All I wanted to do was play Eddie, pop out of a Coke machine, sing a rock and roll song, and pop back into the Coke machine. But I respected Jim and since he felt I should play Riffraff I had to go along with him."
The Rocky Horror Show was an immediate hit at the Theater Upstairs and was extended for two extra weeks, giving Michael White a chance to find a larger theater. Despite the favorable reviews and the audience's positive reaction, O'Brien never thought Rocky Horror had a future beyond the Theater Upstairs. "I remember Michael White coming up to me after the first night and saying, 'I think we've got a hit, Richard,' I said, 'Oh, that's nice.'and walked away. It just didn't register." "What is Rocky Horror anyway," he asks. "It's just some rock and roll music, a little foot tapping, a few jokes, a bit of sex." He fails to mention that the rock and roll music contains some of the wittiest lines since Mel Brooks, that the jokes are a brilliant parody of assorted kitsch cliches and that the "bit of sex" is outrageously brought to life by a Transylvanian transvestite whose sleazy Five-and-Dime-decadence makes him one of the most memorable characters.
"The element of transvestism wasn't intended as a major theme, although it turned out to be one. Writing a transvestite into the play was a very naive judgment. Maybe there was a lot of subconscious feeling about that subject coming through. I don't know. I've always thought of Frank as a cross between Ivan the Terrible and Cruella de Ville of Walt Disney's 101 Dalmatians. It's that sort of evil beauty that's attractive. I found Brad and Janet very appealing too, especially the whole fifties image of boy-girl relationships. In the end you see that Janet is not the weak little thing that society demands her to be and Brad is not the pillar of strength." O'Brien played the role of Riff-Raff for nine months in the stage production and then left to write the screenplay. "When someone suggested we do Rocky as a film I just went along for the ride I said, 'Oh yeah, sure ' I was very easy about the whole thing. It seemed quite surreal to me. I never went home and said. 'Wow! We're going to make a movie!' I've thought about it since though and said, 'Wow! We made a movie!'" Except for the addition of the opening wedding sequence, the dining room scene and the deletion of the usherette who originally sang "Science Fiction," The Rocky Horror Show was easily transformed into The Rocky Horror Picture Show. "The strange thing is that Rocky is a parody of the cinema for stage so actually putting it on film was a bit disorienting. Were we reverting to the original, the thing that was being parodied? Or was it a comment upon a comment upon a comment?"
London original stage production stills
Despite the fact that Rocky Horror was a smash hit in London, a success in Los Angeles and a 20th Century-Fox motion picture, O'Brien was still more concerned with his performance, of Riff-Raff than with his rave reviews as a young English playwright/screen writer on the rise. "When I first saw the film I said, 'Yeah, it looks terrific, it sounds terrific, but God, look at me, look at Riff-Raff.' I agonized over my performance. 'Why did I do that movement? I'm not any good. In fact, I'm downright awful.' And then 'Hey, that's not too bad. It's pretty good.' Its that love-hate thing that actors have You can't concentrate on the film when you are the one who's up there on screen." Saddened by the play's unfavorable reviews in New York where he played Riff-Raff to Tim Curry's Frank-N-Furter, O'Brien was to be disappointed again when 20th Century-Fox failed to distribute the film nationally. "It was a great pleasure for me when I finally found out that Rocky Horror was gaining popularity on the midnight circuit. I always thought I would have to take the play back to New York to give it a second chance. Then it didn't need one." O'Brien was "totally astounded" the first time he experienced Rocky Horror fever at a convention in Long Island months after release. "While I was in New York I did a few guest appearances. I remember coming out of a radio station one night and seeing several dozen fans doing the "Time Warp" to a tape. It was quite eerie. The night was very dark and the skyscrapers looked very large and grey and in the middle of this urban landscape you had 20 silent figures, dressed in street clothes, miming the words to "Time Warp" It was very weird. Incredible really."
London original stage production stills
Although psychiatrists and sociologists are still putting their heads together to explain the cult phenomenon, O'Brien thought the answer was quite simple. "They've asked a lot of people to interpret the show's success and they all seem to miss the very obvious answer. It allows the kids to dress up. I see guys on the street in fishnet stockings and corsets and I think it's terrific. It's a major breakthrough. Women have been cross-dressing for years. Now they can wear almost anything, but a man can't. Thanks to Rocky Horror a guy can put on fishnets and strutt his stuff and feel okay. I see no harm in that at all. I think the kids are also responding to Rocky because there's an element of naivete about it which is very endearing and not threatening. Its innocence is its strength All the characters appear to be sophisticated, knowledgeable people but they're really not. That allows people of a similar adolescent nature to feel they could be part of the whole thing. And now, in fact, they are.'Since Rocky Horror O'Brien wrote two plays, T.Zee, which focused on the Tarzan myth, and Disaster which utilized the talents of Rocky Horror actors Pat Quinn, Jonathan Adams, production designer Brian Thomson and composer/arranger Richard Hartley. Both plays were commercial failures. "People said Disaster was too much like Rocky or not enough like Rocky. You couldn't win on any level " O'Brien planed to re-stage Disaster in Canada.
Costume Design Sue Blane
Sue Blane's Rocky Horror costume designs have been religiously copied by thousands of fans around the country, but she was terribly against doing the play when first offered it. "I thought the story sounded awful," she said. "I had no desire to design a lot of drag costumes for no money. I had enough work at the time not to have to take on something unless it paid a lot or it was great fun. And from what I imagined, Rocky didn't promise to be fun at all." It wasn't until Blane met director Jim Sharman several weeks later that she became interested in the project. "Jim and I got along like a house on fire. While he was outlining the plot we got incredibly drunk and then went around to the Royal Court Theater. When I realized that Tim Curry and some other friends of mine were going to be in it, I thought, 'Oh, this is beginning to sound like a wonderful idea.' By three o'clock in the morning, with the start of a terrible hangover, I was doing Rocky." Blane had already met Curry at the Citizen's Theater in Glasgow, Scotland, where they were both involved in a production of Jean Genet's The Maids, "In a funny kind of way that was the birth of Rocky for me. Not only was Tim in it, but it was another 'underwear' show. He was dressed up in a corset for his role, and the whole production was quite bizarre."
When the time came to design the costumes for Rocky Horror, Blane asked the Citizen's Theater to loan her Curry's original corset. He wore it for the second time as Frank-N-Furter. "Luckily Tim had worked in a corset before so he took to it like a duck takes to water. And since I had just done The Maids, getting into designing with underwear and garters again was no problem at all." Working with a limited budget of $400, Blane fashioned the costumes from pieces discovered in junk shops and flea markets around London. "With such a small budget, everything had to be junk. There was no way around it. The bad thing was that nothing was made to last past the three week run at the Royal Court. The show's been running six years now, so ever since then it's been difficult to do. The things that one grows to love, bits of lace, old gloves, a funny pair of shoes, fall to pieces after a few weeks." Blane keeps Magenta's original shoes in her study. One of the few remaining relics from the early days at the Theater Upstairs, they were high-heeled and black, with fluffy pompoms attached to the toes. They could have belonged to Marlene Dietrich, or Myra Breckinridge. "Aren't they sweet?" Blane said, balancing one shoe in the palm of her hand. "I bought them at a place called 'City Lights' in Covent Garden." Dropping the shoes into a box beneath her chair, she looks fondly at them. "I can't bear to part with the dears," she said for an interview with the London Times.
According to Blane, her costume designs are more a result of intuition than studious research. "When I designed Rocky I never looked at any science fiction movies or comic books. One just automatically knows what spacesuits look like, the same way one intuitively knows how Americans dress. I had never been to the United States, but I had this fixed idea of how people looked there. Americans wore polyester so their clothes wouldn't crease and their trousers were a bit too short. Since they're very keen on sports, white socks and white T-shirts played an integral part in their wardrobe. Of course, since doing Rocky I have been to the United States and admit it was a bit of a generalization, but my ideas worked perfectly for Brad and Janet." They're middle America all the way. Since Rocky Horror was an unorthodox mix of periods and styles, Blane's costume designs spanned four or five decades. "I thought Brad and Janet were supposed to be mid-sixties, while Eddie was straight out of the fifties. He was a mixture between a Hell's Angel and a Teddy Boy, the English equivalent. The narrator was somewhere in the forties and Frank-N-Furter ... well, who knows what period he was coming from. I'm not really that interested in recreating a certain era when I design. I like to concentrate on minute details instead, like wondering what type of pen Dr. Scott has in his pocket, whether his tie has stripes or not, or whether he's got holes in his maroon socks. It also helps the actors tremendously in creating their characters. Blane designed the costumes for productions in Sydney, New York and Los Angeles, and was eager to take a reprieve from Rocky when the idea of the movie cropped up. "I remember waking up one morning and saying, 'Oh, I really don't want to do this movie. I really have had enough.' I'd been involved with Rocky for quite a long time by then and was getting scared that that was all I was ever going to do. It was also getting embarrassing when you ran into someone on the street and they'd ask, 'What are you doing?' And I'd have to say, 'I'm still doing Rocky.' Luckily I've gotten over that now."
Film Production stills
The costume budget was raised to $1600 for the movie, quadruple that of the stage show. But it still fell far short of the money needed to dress the large cast, which now included several dozen Transylvanian extras. "With a movie you have to double up a lot of costumes which immediately doubles the price. The corsets alone cost $200. Then there was the problem of the pool sequence. We needed several corsets so one could dry out while the other one was in the water." Blane, like set designer Brian Thomson, was not happy with the addition of the Transylvanians to the story. "Their costumes took a lot of work, and I wasn't at all pleased with the results. Because the first 20 minutes of the film was supposed to be in black and white, the Transylvanians played a key part in the color switch. In the black and white sequence they looked quite proper dressed in their tuxedos, but when the film went to color you were suddenly supposed to notice that underneath their conventional jackets they were wearing these ridiculously bright shirts. I was hopping it would be a really magic moment. Under the circumstances, it wasn't." While many of the costumes are exact replicas of the stage show, several characters received new wardrobes for their film debut. Columbia, who was formerly dressed in sequined shorts and a gold lame halter-vest, was newly outfitted in a star-spangled tap outfit. "Columbia was always the most difficult character to dress. The part is very peculiar anyway, and it really was tailor-made for Little Nell." In the London production, Columbia wore black tights and sweaters because, according to Blane, she just didn't look right in Nell's cast-offs. "You have to dress the character to fit the actress, not vice versa."
Rare original costume drawings
Magenta received the most drastic overhaul, giving up her vampy negligee in favor of a prim, black and white maid's uniform. "She was always supposed to be the maid, but we ignored that in the original and made her into this vampire lady. She was much more interesting as a vampire than as a maid, but in the film she had to have a function. When we put a feather duster in her hand I just had to add a little apron." "I think the most important thing about this is that there is a lot of love in it. I don't mean that in an emotional sense, but in the care that was taken to make things work. Details were very important to us. For example, Brian came up with the idea of the Transylvanian logo, which was that little bolt of lightning which you see on the griffins, and on Riff-Raff and Magenta's space outfits. I carried over that motif to the Transylvanians who all wear these little lightning bolt pins on their sleeves. It's these little touches that make Rocky work.
Despite all the tender love and care, Blane admitted "there are still a lot of awful moments in the film. In the church scene the actors look very ill-fitted. And did you notice Janet? Her hat is all bent out of shape. I still think my biggest mistake was with the Transylvanians. I can't pretend to like them. Their costumes are just dreadful, and I think doing them as individuals was too indulgent. They should have looked identical, almost mass produced."
While Blane may not have been totally thrilled with the costumes, she did get a kick out of seeing her designs in multiple when she accompanied Tim Curry and Brian Thomson to a midnight screening in Los Angeles over a year ago. "Unless you've really witnessed it,
you can't comprehend it. People would say to me, 'You ought to see this thing, the kids are actually dressing up.' From my point of view I thought it would be just a group of tacky kids with awful makeup and a pair of high heels. I was just amazed at how good they looked."
With a critic's eye for cut and design, she was extremely impressed by the costume knock-offs. "What the kids have actually understood is the whole look of the costume. They've managed to get the silhouettes right. Their costumes aren't just a conglomeration of details, but a whole coherent shape."
It was while watching Rocky Horror in Los Angeles that Blane was suddenly struck by the film's bizarre evolution. "What I found fascinating is that the film is a parody of the cinema turned into a parody of the cinema for film. But the kids in watching the movie are treating it like a live performance.
Candid on-set shots
The Midnight Craze
Chicago, the winter of 1979. Over 60 inches of snow on the ground and the city is at a standstill. Schools are closed. Grocery stores are running out of food. The disaster is compounded by extreme cold. Blowing snow and ice make road clearing operations impossible and with a wind chill factor of 40 degrees below zero compounding the immobility, people weren't leaving their homes. The economic loss to the city was calculated in the millions. At the Biograph Theater on Chicago's Lincoln Avenue though, the scene was a little different. By ten p.m., about 50 people were lined up in the cold. Every so often a theater employee appeared along the line to huddle the people closer together. Despite the temperature, the mood was cheerful, even jovial. And against the faint heat of cigarettes and a joint of marijuana or two, a portable tape player is blaring a peppy little number about a Time Warp that seems to resemble a disco hokey pokey. "First you jump to the left, then you jump to the right . .." but the crowd in the cold just squeezes closer and passes around a bottle of wine.
The audience participates at the Biograph Theater
For almost four years, The Rocky Horror Picture Show had occupied the midnight slot at the Biograph. And every Friday and Saturday night the faithful have flocked through summer and winter to watch, and more importantly, to live, the Richard O'Brien/Jim Sharman science-fiction transexual horror film over and over and over. They come prepared. Under the down jackets were gold lame shorts, lace corsets, black waitress outfits with frilly white aprons and sequined, top hatted numbers reminiscent of Liza Minelli in Cabaret except for the fishnet pantyhose with a strategic run. Tucked under arms were "prop'' bags, including squirt guns, toilet paper, dried toast, rice, bells, candles and flashlights. Some have seen the film 75, even 100 times. Chicago was probably the last major city in the country to find a home for the 20th Century-Fox distribution phenomenon. When the film was first released in 1975 it was pretty much of a failure, it even played a two-week run at the theater across the street from the Biograph. Then, according to Biograph Manager Rick Warren, as a last ditch effort the Waverly Theater in New York was coaxed into giving it a try as a midnight show on a trial basis. No one predicted a cult explosion. But by the end of the year fans were waiting in line in over 200 theaters across the country, and at least one New York theater had even instituted a reserved sales system. This phenomenon continues to this day and the film runs in midnight showings in over 50 cities on a regular basis.
The object of all this adulation? A "Science Fiction Double Feature" according to the words of the title song. It's a kinky take-off of the Frankenstein epic with heavy transexual overtones. Super-straight Janet (Susan Sarandon) and Clark Kent type Brad (Barry Bostwick) become engaged after a wedding that barely had time to clear the church before an invading funeral portends of dark things to come. On their way home, through the obligatory storm, they find themselves with the equally obligatory flat tire, so they stumble into the lair of Frank N. Furter (Tim Curry) a "sweet transexual from Transylvania" who has just finished building the muscle bound Rocky as a plaything. Despite his new toy, Frank finds time that night to lure first Janet and then Brad from the straight and narrow, until his own mission is canceled with a new twist on the "good servant take the place of the evil master" ploy. Before the night is done we meet a whole cast of classic characters: the page turning narrator, globe in back.
well tweeded and pipe in hand; the flame headed Magenta and hunchbacked Riff Raff, faithful servants; the motorcycle maniac Eddie and his science teacher uncle Dr. Everett Scott, who, coincidentally enough may have been the very man Brad and Janet sang about when they set off to meet "the man who began it. when we met in his science exam . . .," and of course, Frank's only recently scorned bed-mate, the prototypical groupie. Columbia.
In New York, reported the New York Times, theatergoers were so overcome by the power of the excesses displayed on the screen that one night they were driven by a compulsion to speak to the characters. And the "participation" spread across the country to places like the Biograph and developed to such an extent that most first-time Rocky goers go not so much to see the film but to see the "regulars" and their show on the other side of the screen. The film was even used as a major scene in the movie Fame where the characters go to a midnight showing and do the Time Warp. But the show really starts before you get into the theater with the good natured frisk by the management. Surprisingly, it's not drugs they're looking for, or even liquor, but bottles and cans. Seems one guy got sort of rowdy,, one night and pitched a bottle on the screen in Los Angeles. ...In the meantime, it's a game, the girls giggle about having their purses searched while the pile of "contraband" builds up on the floor.
Shots taken on the set during production
Inside, management plays the sound track album while each regular prances around dressed as his or her character on or in front of the stage. "They're frustrated actors, but they really think they're their characters," says Debbie and Kathy from the Silk-screen Factory, who made a fortune in $6 Rocky Horror T-shirts. Up on top five of the characters seem to be doing the bunny hop as the Time Warp sends them kicking up their legs, raising their arms in unison and doing a general shimmy. And Fantasy Island had nothing over the Biograph on Rocky Horror night. Basically there was a lot of skin showing and most of it isn't of Cover Girl quality although you'd never know it from the struts of its bearers. There was the pimply backed sunken chested "Rocky" prancing around in mini-brief gold shorts, or the hefty girl in little more than a black corset who seems as though she's going to burst" from her costume any minute. There were a number of white faced maids with dark purple make-up holding red flower dusters, their stone-faces marred by the obligatory hosiery runs, while on the aisle a girl dressed in black underpants, top and garter belt talks to a lady in a topcoat and tails holding a baby, and a skinny guy in red socks with a little pot belly between his bra and girdle chats casually with a girl in pink sequins and a red polka dot tie.
The costumes, home made thrift shop creations for the most part, were surprisingly authentic, and a good deal better than the "acting," yet with only a momentary pause, the regulars continued to play their roles as the crowd joins in once the film comes on. "Please no smoking," comes the announcement. "Don't use flashlights except during the 'there's a light' scene. Don't go on stage during the show and don't throw things directly at the screen." Fox had finally made special pre-show rules on a pre-show reel for several large city runs. During what the regulars call "Lips" the title number, they cheer and boo as the various characters are introduced. To the uninitiated first time Rocky going "virgin" there's a sudden shock with the very first wedding scene: Brad and Janet looking prim and proper against a background of American Gothic, and suddenly the air on the screen as well as off is filled with flying rice. Later, as they're caught in the rain and Brad bemoans the fact that he 'hasn't fixed his spare tire, the audience yells "asshole" derogatorily, "buy an umbrella," helpfully, and joins with Brad and Janet in holding an assortment of newspapers overhead. And with good reason—the sudden steady squirt gun fire in the theater soon soaks the crowd.
And so it goes. At the mention of a light in the castle ("There's a light burning in the darkness of everybody's life") flashlights and matches decorate the theater like a candle-lit church ceremony. Later, when the narrator yells "Great Scott," toilet paper rolls come crashing through the air. Bells ring in the theater as a doorbell is pushed on the screen. "It's my sister's bar mitzvah" is the reply to Brad and Janet's asking whether the Transylvanian gathering is a party. Sometimes the crowd is encouraging: Should Brad and Janet visit the castle, "Risk it, risk it," is the yell; and when Riff Raff announces dinner is prepared, "And we helped," is the immediate response. Perhaps they did in perhaps the poorest "tasting" episode of the evening, packages of Lawry's Meat Loaf seasoning are tossed as Eddie, played by rock star Meatloaf, falls into a grinder and turns up as the main course in a memorial dinner in his own honor.
For the regulars interviewed in Minneapolis in 1994, Friday and Saturday nights begin about 9:30 p.m., when they start to form the line outside the Uptown Theater that will get them in in time to do their numbers before the movie starts. "It's a party," says one of the patrons. "Sometimes people go across the street to the bookstore and get the Reader or a copy of the Lavender magazine," a local gay magazine with a thriving Personals column that the regulars play a major part in. "Forget about Frank, I'd rather have a piece of Riff Raff," goes one private joke, or "Biograph Baby, please stop using my pseudonym or else I will kill you," signed "Biograph Bitch," with the meaning known only to the select few. Some of the ads get fairly risque and a bit demeaning: from Biograph Baby: "Toni, compared to you, Mindy's tits are gigantic," or to Mindy from Biograph Bitch, "What's the matter, you've eaten Glenn before," in an off-color reference to the Meatloaf dinner scene. While some are just a message to a friend, "Where was Riff, Magenta and Columbia on May 26? We needed you." The regulars utilize the same basic program, but they come up with new bits every so often. For example, it is Tony's birthday. Lynn tells Cheryl to be sure that in the dinner number instead of singing 'Happy Birthday Dear Rocky,' to be sure everybody inserts Tony's name. According to the Uptown Theater manager about 70% of the crowd have seen the film more than once, 50% more than twice, 20% over ten times and about 5% over 50 with a couple of hard core types chalking up hundreds of viewing hours. Some of the regulars travel across the country.
Music Composer/Arranger Richard Hartley
Richard Hartley began his professional career in Paris in the mid-sixties, riding the wave of the British pop craze. "If you were English and played in a rock and roll group you could do no wrong," explained Hartley in an interview for the film's press materials. As a keyboard player he toured Europe with 'Denny and the Witchdoctors,' an eccentric musical group that combined fifties rock and roll with a touch of Barnum and Bailey's circus. "Denny, who was in his early forties, dressed exclusively in leopard skins. He did a fire-eating act while he sang and played the banjo. In between he used to string up wires and swing all around the stage. It was a great show. Very visual." After Denny and the Witchdoctors went their separate ways, Hartley headed back to England where he worked as an arranger for a company that produced reggae records. Although that musical form lacked the necessary slickness to make it commercially successful, it was starting to gain a measure of popularity in England. Hartley was hired to add the necessary commercial gloss. "It was like Motown Records trying to make black music appeal to whites. We used to take all these great Jamaican songs and put violin
music in the background. They became commercial, all right, but who knows what
happened to their original appeal."
The Rocky Horror Show Original Cast album
Although it was good technical training, the "bland" musical arrangements were getting
uncomfortably close to Muzak. As Hartley did not want to make his living arranging songs
for the listening pleasure of dentists and elevator operators, he quit. Retiring from the pop
scene altogether, he spent the next year writing and recording his own string quartets.
He was called back into action by the musical director of Jesus Christ, Superstar who
needed help with some music auditions. Through Superstar, he met director Jim Sharman who asked
him to compose the music for a forth-coming production Unseen Hand. "The music itself was quite incidental. Sort of like music for spaghetti westerns. You know, little plinks and plonks. But luckily I met Richard O'Brien who was a member of the cast. One day he came over to me and said, I've written this little rock musical, and I thought, 'Oh dear!' because at that time there were so many rock musicals being done. But I went over to his house anyway and he played the tape. Needless to say, I was
very impressed. We put Rocky together very quickly. It was rather like Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney in Summer Stock. 'Well kids, we have three weeks at the Royal Court So let's put on a show!'" Richard started out with five or six songs, although more were added during rehearsals. People would either come up with ideas, or Jim would say, 'We need another song in this scene.' Richard would go home and the next day he would be back with a new number."
Since O'Brien did not write music but records the tunes directly on tape, Hartley was
given the job of transcribing the songs and fleshing out the simple guitar arrangements.
With the show's miniscule budget, Hartley could only afford to hire four musicians who had
to double on a second instrument. "We couldn't just hire a bass player. We had to find a
bass player who could also play saxophone." Hartley played keyboard himself for the five
weeks of the initial run. In between the Rocky Horror stage show and the film, Hartley was hired to compose the score for two Joseph Losey films, The Life of Galileo for the American Film Theater, and
The Romantic Englishwoman, which starred Glenda Jackson. The jobs were a major break
for Hartley, and a big departure from Rocky's harsh fifties-style rock. He has since written
the score for The Lady Vanishes, with Cybill Shepherd. After completing work on The Romantic Englishwoman, he was called in to re-arrange the music for The Rocky Horror Picture Show. "The arrangements are basically the same, although I made them quite a bit stronger. With more money to spend, Hartley increased the size of his orchestra from four to thirty, which subsequently increased the complexity of the arrangements. "I'm afraid we may have embellished the music too much. It's difficult
when you take something that relies on simplicity and energy and try to make it into
something that sounds smoother."
Richard O'Brien and Richard Hartley at the piano composing the score
Hartley had two weeks to rehearse the band and record the music. "Surprisingly it was really more than enough time. I knew the music backwards anyway. We used one of the original guitarists from the show and the rest of the musicians were from the group Procol Harem." Many of the keys were changed to accommodate the new voices which now included Susan Sarandon, Barry Bostwick and Meatloaf. While some songs were switched to accommodate script changes, others were dropped from the film entirely. "Brad's song was cut in the beginning, although it had already been recorded and shot. It just slowed up the pace too much. I persuaded Jim to let Richard sing the title song because I had always loved the way he did it. It was the first tune he ever played for me. In the stage show a lot of the humor was gained from people acting the songs instead of singing them. The melodies always suffered because of that. With the film we really tried to focus on the tunes, and the title song was a perfect moment to do that." Although The Rocky Horror Show had been running for more than six years in London, a hit song had yet to emerge from the play. People rarely came out of the theater humming the title song; in fact, most people on first hearing may be hard pressed to even remember it. Hartley agreed. "While the songs are very simple, they don't have that repetitive verse-chorus structure that most hits seem to need. The lyrics are also very specialized. They fit the show perfectly, but independently they don't make too much sense. They're not your typical moon-in-June type of things."
"When the play first opened in London, the record was played in every restaurant in town. People clamored for it. They wanted to relive the show. That's why it's so unique. Most musicals of the period all had at least one major hit. Think of Hair or Jesus Christ Superstar. Rocky Horror had been a long-running success despite that." "Who could sing the songs anyway?" Hartley asked.
On set photos
The Rocky Horror Picture Show soundtrack was on the Billboard charts for over a year, selling over a million copies. But when the album was first recorded," it was turned down by every major record label. "The album was finally taken up by this young guy who used to buy it from Canada and Australia and sell it in New York as an import. Eventually the record started to sell well enough so that he persuaded Ode Records to do a pressing." Although the music later was popularized in the U.S., Hartley drew a parallel between Rocky Horror and what he calls "New Wave" music, a more respectable word for "punk." "I've always felt that Rocky Horror has had a great influence on New Wave. When we first did the show, the sound was very hard and brash. The kind of musical energy it exuded was completely new in the theater. Usually with bigger productions, microphones would be carefully placed everywhere. With Rocky, the actors had to belt out the song and get on with it. We had no money to smooth things out. It was completely anti-commercial. Punk is very similar. It's basically rock and roll speeded up. Like Rocky, the music is very simple, there are no studio embellishments. There's nothing sweet about it." Besides having a similar musical sound, Hartley believed that the Rocky Horror "look" was picked up on by many New Wave musicians, and may have been instrumental in creating the punk fashion trend. "Remember that everybody saw Rocky in London. Little Nell used to dye her hair these very strange colors back in 1973 before the trend started there." Hartley used to live on Sloane Square, right near King's Road, the place where fashion trends were set and broken. "I used to see people walking up and down the street every day and after Rocky things definitely changed."
Set designer Brian Thomson could be the curator of a kitsch museum. His living room was crowded with every cliched trinket known to western civilization. The walls were decorated with pictures of Marilyn Monroe, Coca-Cola signs and strange snapshots of Thomson in front of huge plastic bananas. "I just love cliches," he explained in a press interview at his home during the film's production. If one should miss the point, a life-size cardboard figure of Cheryl Ladd is stationed behind the television set. "Look over here! I have a complete collection of Annette Funicello albums. Now I wonder what happened to my Musketeer ears?" Thomson linked his obsession to his childhood in Sydney, Australia. "When I was growing up television was a relatively new thing. Kids weren't out in the streets, they were at home watching the 'telly.' I learned a lot about American cliches just from sitting in front of the TV set. Americans are often too close to their own culture to pick up on the cliched elements. You may create them, but we enjoy them." Cliches play an important part in Thomson's visual vocabulary as a set designer. "I love to mix very obvious kitsch elements together. The end result can be quite extraordinary." The Rocky Horror Show is a prime example. A pastiche of campy science fiction, Gothic horror and British burlesque, the story piles so many cliches together that it's difficult to determine where one begins and another ends. "The original Rocky Horror script was a mail order catalog of kitsch ideas, mingled with science fiction and horror. We all brought a lot of our own thoughts into it, and what emerged was a result of this 'mating point,' because, luckily, most of us were thinking along the same lines."
Many of the people originally involved with Rocky Horror had collaborated before. Thomson met Jim Sharman in Australia and worked as set designer on his Lortbori production of Jesus Christ Superstar. "Its interesting that we were developing the same ideas on a different continent," says Thomson. 'The plot involved a group of aliens who took over Luna Park, a Coney Island-type amusement area, and turned it into their Earth headquarters. One day some rockers, people like the Eddie character in Rocky, entered the park and discovered the aliens. We took a very B-movie approach to the film, but it was really an amateurish attachment. Thomson, Sharman and O'Brien eventually pooled their mutual interests in B-movies and science fiction to fashion The Rocky Horror Show two years later. "While we were rehearsing for The Unseen Hand we'd have these great sing-a-longs. Richard would play the guitar and we'd sing these fifties rock and roll songs. Every so often he would slip in one of his originals so we suspected something was going on. Then one day he announced that he'd written this little musical and would we mind taking a look at it. Everything just finally fell together. Thomson started work with a script, a bare stage and a bone-thin budget. The idea of framing the play within the confines of a movie screen had not been formulated in O'Brien's original concept, so Thomson was given free rein to create the setting as well as the set design.
Original Lobby Cards
"One day we were all sitting around wondering how we were going to handle the staging. We wanted a hardware science fiction look, but could hardly afford it on a set design budget of $600. Suddenly I remembered an image I had stored away. A few months before I had gone to the cinema and saw this usherette selling ice cream on the side of the stage with a spotlight shining on her. I thought it was one of the most theatrical things I'd ever seen. I suggested that "Science Fiction," the show's opening number, be sung by an usherette. The setting of the show just evolved from there. Once we hit on the idea that it was a derelict cinema we were able to fashion our ideas very cheaply. In a way The Rocky Horror Show is an example of anti-set design. All you are really presenting to the audience is a big white movie screen. Now I've had no stage design schooling, but I reckon one basic principal would be never to put a big white blob in the middle of the stage. Thomson has designed the sets for the four Rocky Horror productions in London as well as in Los Angeles, Sydney, Melbourne, New York, Tokyo and Oslo. "The only time the set design failed was in New York. We simply lost control of the show. I wanted to stage it in some old cinema down in Greenwich Village, but Lou Adler, who produced the show in the U.S., wanted to duplicate a cabaret atmosphere. It worked with Rocky In L.A. at the Roxy, but New York is not L.A. Adler pulled out the whole orchestra section of the Belasco Theater and put in tables and chairs. Waitresses served drinks and hamburgers. It was publicized as "The Beautiful Belasco, New York's first cabaret theater." Well, as it turned out, New York didn't need a cabaret theater and Rocky was a disaster. For the film, most of the sets were throw-aways from other older films, some were acquired from the Paramount lot. Interiors were dressed down for the movie and color was to have a major statement.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show was released first in the United Kingdom on August 14, 1975 and in the United States on September 26, 1975. Made in Eastmancolor and mono optical) in a 1.85:1 ratio (for the 1990 video release Fox remixed the film using the soundtrack LP masters), . It was filmed with a budget of $1.2 million and did not make a profit on the first release. After the midnight showings became popular, the movie has made, to date, an amazing $139 million for 20th Century Fox. Almost all critics were unanimous. This film was awful, a complete disaster. Roger Ebert said that the show belonged on the stage not on the screen, while Variety said that "Overall, however, most of the jokes that might have seemed jolly fun on stage now appear obvious and even flat. The sparkle's gone." But not all reviews were bad, because of pressure on reviewers when the film was released on video, due to the popularity of the film, the critics seemed to warm up to the film substantially. In 1980, the film was inducted into the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films Hall of Fame and was added to the National Film Registry by the National Film Preservation Board in 2005. The film's soundtrack has passed the million mark, and I-tunes reports constant sales for the songs.
For Halloween during the 2010 season of the Fox TV series Glee, the cast was made-up and a special episode written saluting The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The episode was one of Glee's highest ratings up to that time.
A "Rocky Horror Picture Show" Fan Club was started by Sal Piro and a group of original audience participants from the Waverly Theater in 1977. After the success of the Tenth Anniversary of the movie in 1985, the Fan Club, which was previously an independent organization, came under the support of Twentieth Century Fox. Members receive a welcome letter, membership card, button, an up-to-date RHPS newsletter and current product information. Services provided by the Fan Club include answering all questions on RHPS theaters, history, availability of memorabilia, miscellaneous requests and forwarding of mail to the film's stars. The Rocky Horror newsletter (new news) is printed quarterly (January, April, July, October) and members are asked to send a new S.A.S.E. at the appropriate time and mark on the envelope "new news". The Fan Club now has approximately 50,000 U.S. and Canadian members, and 5,000 internationally. The fan club also has a representative system. In this system, appropriate fan club members represent the club at the respective RHPS theater. The duties of a "rep" include recruiting new members, and being a liaison between the club and other fans, keeping them informed of the latest news or events. The fan club provides the "rep" with plenty of information and incentive for keeping RHPS alive and active in their area. They receive a copy of "Transylvania University" which deals with forming and maintaining a cast, publicizing their activities and keeping harmony with theater management and among themselves.
Cast shot of Shock Treatment
In 1981, Fox released a prequel titled Shock Treatment. The entire film takes place inside a television studio. In fact, the entire town of Denton is a television studio, and its residents act like running characters in TV series that have gone wildly out of control. Jim Sharman directed and co-authored the screen-play with Richard O'Brien. O'Brien also wrote the book and the lyrics, composed the music with Richard Hartley and plays a leading role in the film. Lou Adler and Michael White are the executive producers, the design is by Brian Thomson and the costumes by Sue Blane. All performed the same functions on The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Also reunited with O'Brien are "Rocky Horror" troupers Charles Gray, Nell Campbell and Jeremy Newson. Gray, a distinguished British character actor, won an entirely new and decidedly rowdier following through his appearance as the Criminologist in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. In Shock Treatment, Gray is Denton TV's favorite egghead, Judge Oliver Wright, a specialist in in-depth discussions. Jeremy Newson is the only member of the "Shock Treatment" cast recreating the same role he played in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. As Ralph Hapschatt, he's the M.C. of the Faith Factory, Denton TV's inspirational program devoted to mental health. The station's other favorite M.C. is Bert Schnick, host of Marriage Maze Australia's Barry Humphries plays Bert like a silent film villain of the German cinema of the 1920s, a Dr. Caligari.
A legend in its own time, and most certainly one of the most popular cult classics of all time, The Rocky Horror Picture Show continues to delight audiences both at home and in the theater, where friends and fans gather to relive what seems to be an endless love affair with the Time Warp! The stage musical regularly plays around the world not only in touring productions, but also community theaters. It seems the Rocky Horror craze will be continuing for a long time to come.
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All materials in this and other Silver Screen columns are copyright their respective studios, Blu-ray.com and the collection of Robert Siegel. This edition all artwork and production photos/drawings copyright 20th Century Fox.