Kathleen Black knew exactly how to celebrate her 61st birthday. She wanted to be surrounded by family, as most grandmothers would, but not for a fancy brunch or botanical garden stroll. Instead, she wanted to attend a midnight showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Her son Ray and granddaughters Ally and Katie, ages 15 and 14, were as excited as she was. The teens knew all the songs of the 1975 musical by heart, since Grandma had often played them the soundtrack and they’d seen the movie several times with her at home. But it was the first time they’d be taking in the cult classic with a live “shadow cast.”
It’s a 45-minute drive from their home in Butler, Kentucky (population 612), to the Esquire Theatre in Clifton, and I meet them there. The Black family is among the first to arrive on a balmy evening, cicadas and crickets singing together. “I like to get there early to people-watch,” Kathleen says, walking into the lobby with the aid of a cane as a few guests in character costume arrive. “What’s in the bags?” she asks a woman behind a table of small brown sacks for sale. “Props,” the woman replies. “Party hat, toilet paper, newspaper…” Black hands over a credit card and says, “I’ll take two.”
Black discovered Rocky Horror in 1990, when it came out on VHS and her mother suggested they rent it. After seeing the film at home, Black rewound the video, returned it to the store, and bought a copy of her own—and then sought out cinema screenings, where she became a regular. She used to bring her own cache of items to throw in the air during appointed moments in the audience-participation film. Tonight, however, she hasn’t brought the requisite rice, rubber glove, and noisemaker. (Once, en route to a screening in Lexington, she realized she’d forgotten a piece of toast, so she stopped at a Waffle House and bought one.)
As her credit card is processed, Black observes her granddaughters. How will Katie and Ally experience this unique phenomenon? Do the kids understand the film’s references to 1930s horror films, glam rock, and punk style? Does the bisexual romping and risqué humor still shock, in a time when drag queens and even gender fluidity are widely understood, if not accepted?
Time has caught up to the outlandishness of Rocky Horror, but instead of rendering the movie anachronistic it’s only increased our appreciation. Even if you haven’t seen the biggest cult film of all time, you’ve likely heard of the Time Warp—the movie’s defining dance craze—or seen shows rendering homage, including the 2016 live-action TV special remake starring Laverne Cox; a scene in the original Fame movie; and episodes of Glee, The Simpsons, even The Muppet Show. Tenacious D covered “The Time Warp” just last year; its music video features cameos by Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, Sarah Silverman, and Susan Sarandon, who stars in the original film. After 46 years, it’s still thrilling to jump to the left and step to the right.
In a nutshell, Rocky Horror depicts a gender-bending, alien version of Dr. Frankenstein (Frank-N-Furter) who comes to Earth to create a muscle-bound boy-toy (Rocky) for his own pleasure. The unveiling is complicated by the arrival of unexpected earthling visitors (Brad and Janet), and the celebration ends in tragedy at the hands of mutinous servants (Magenta and Riff Raff). And it’s all set to high-camp song and dance.
Sarandon (then an ingenue) and Barry Bostwick play the innocent visitors, betrothed virgins whose car gets a flat tire on a back road during a storm. Tim Curry, in his first major screen role, is the lusty Frank-N-Furter and baby-faced Meat Loaf is Eddie, a ’50s-style greaser whose brain is partially removed in order to bring Rocky to life. Magenta and Riff Raff have enough of Frank-N-Furter’s shenanigans and imperious treatment and stage a coup.
“Your mission is a failure,” sings Riff Raff, wielding a laser gun. “Your lifestyle’s too extreme.” Brad and Janet barely make it out of the castle by the time the entire building blasts off into space. The earthlings are left crawling in the rubble, searching for each other, shaken but also sexually awakened. The End.
A low-budget film version of a hit stage musical from London, The Rocky Horror Picture Show was initially a flop, panned by critics as silly and over the top. The studio, 20th Century Fox, shelved it, but copies trickled out to art-house theaters and college campuses and a fan base germinated.
Re-released in 1976, Rocky Horror grew to cult status via midnight screenings in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. The gender-bending attracted a gay demographic, many of whom say it helped them come to terms with their sexuality. Outsiders of all types gravitated to the movie’s embrace of all things bizarre, and cinephiles loved its references to Hollywood’s glorious past. No one had ever seen a femme fatale the likes of protagonist Frank-N-Furter, whose depiction by Curry is unquestionably a genius star turn.
“The outsiders who found Rocky Horror and [John Waters’s film] Pink Flamingos are the same kind of person,” says Sal Piro, who helped start the audience participation rituals at New York’s Waverly Theater in 1977 and is the longtime president of the film’s official fan club. “It was people who want to be left of center. It went past all the different stereotypes. First it was gays, then straights, and then ethnic people started coming.”
And coming and coming and coming. And then the call-backs started.
Piro and a gaggle of Waverly habitues started making cracks during the show. Louis Farese, a kindergarten teacher, was the first person to do a call-back. When Janet walks in the rain with a page of The Plain Dealer on her head, he yelled, “Buy an umbrella, you cheap bitch!” Not the funniest line, but it caught on, and other audience members shouted it in unison at subsequent screenings. Other call-backs from the early days remain in circulation.
Frank-N-Furter: I see you shiver with antici-
Audience: Say it!
Here is Sal Piro’s debut call-back, also now set in stone:
Frank-N-Furter (singing): Whatever happened to Fay Wray?
Audience: She went apeshit!
Fans flocking to screenings in costume one-upped each other’s wisecracks. Props were introduced: Theater-goers put a newspaper over their heads along with Janet, threw rice during a wedding scene, and jettisoned toilet paper when Rocky is unfurled from mummy-like wraps.
The subculture, for some a lifestyle if not a raison d’etre, spread quickly via word of mouth and eye-candy reportage. Soon shadow casts formed, with fans acting out and lip-syncing the scenes in real time in front of the screen. The 3D show paralleling the 2D projection added another layer of entertainment to the experience of seeing a movie for the 10th time, the 100th time, or the 1,000th time. (One fan has supposedly clocked 5,000-plus screenings.)
By 1978, the subculture had spread to dozens of big cities and college towns, even reaching small hamlets such as Camden, Maine (population 3,000 at the time), where I lived. Attending Rocky Horror and acting like the naughty kid I would never be in real life was an emotional lifeline for me, a city-bred teenager relocated to a provincial village. Camden society revolved around skiing, boating, and L.L. Bean, all things out of my monetary reach. Bored out of my skull and majoring in unpopularity, I yearned for something I could not name and a community that “got” me. Rocky Horror was just that—a moonlight netherworld where freaks were the stars, preppy clothing was uncool, and boundaries existed only to be crossed.
Rocky Horror is rated R, but it isn’t “soft-core porn,” as a friend of my mother’s warned, scandalized that Mom allowed me to attend it alone. The sex is suggested rather than graphic, a couple of brief nip slips are all the nudity on view, and a single F-bomb is uttered. The call-backs, however, made the film naughtier.
While other 1970s trends waned—streaking, roller disco, CB radio—the Rocky Horror experience spread internationally. Its costumes and makeup inspired the nascent punk scene. The film is now the longest continuous theatrical release in history, earning $170 million on its original outlay of $1.4 million.
Academics have likened the call-and-response screening sessions to religious ceremonies. Shadow casts have grown, too, in hundreds of cities. Cincinnati’s own, The Denton Affair, born in 1979, is one of the oldest and most active. “The casts are the heart and soul of everything,” says Piro, who has visited Cincinnati to witness the local group.
The Denton Affair is 30 members strong these days, and in addition to engagements every other weekend at the Esquire it performs at bars, festivals, and fund-raising events. The group is so well established that even its pre-show announcements and hijinks have their own set of rituals and call-backs.
As Kathleen Black and her brood wait excitedly in the Esquire lobby, about two dozen people in their 20s and 30s ferry props from a storage space in the building to stage left and stage right of the venue’s largest screening room (with 221 seats), including a shower curtain hanging from PVC piping, a steering wheel, and a casket. The stroke of midnight approaches, and the cast assembles in front of the seats.
PARTICIPATION IN THE MOVIE’S CINCINNATI SHADOW CAST HAS BEEN A WAY TO EXPLORE PERSONAL IDENTITY, SAY DENTON AFFAIR MEMBERS, WHO FIND THE GROUP A NONJUDGMENTAL PLACE TO BE THEMSELVES.
Shadow Woolf, a 36-year-old Cliftonite dressed as Eddie, practices a dance scene with 22-year-old Jordan Curtis, a UC student decked out as Columbia, Eddie’s girlfriend, in a gold sequin swallowtail jacket and shorts. “You’re strong,” he says, beckoning her. She jumps into the air and straddles him. He thrusts his pelvis, swinging her on a count of 1-2-3, and then lifts her up and sets her back down. “It’s going to be messy,” he says, “and that’s OK.”
The audience files in—college students, fishnets, giggles—and fills the majority of seats. The Black family occupies the middle of a row about one third of the way back. The show begins. But not the movie; that’s still a half-hour away. The Denton Affair has business to attend to first.
Anjali Alm-Basu, a cast member for 11 years, takes a mic. (Alm-Basu uses they/them pronouns.) They’re in in a black T-shirt, black cut-off jean shorts, and a necklace and earrings dripping gold. They ask if there are any virgins in the audience—virgins to the show, that is. Another cast member weaves through the theater rows applying a lipstick V to the newbies’ cheeks, foreheads, or arms. One young man drops his trousers to receive his just below the hem of his plaid boxer shorts. And we’re off.
Ally and Katie Black, skinny girls with long straight hair, are among the uninitiated to be brought up front and quizzed about birth control and sex toys, among other lightly lascivious subjects, as part of their “devirginization.” They’re slapped on the butt with a rubber chicken.
Alm-Basu primes the already rowdy crowd on rules and traditions. “Rocky Horror is an audience participation movie,” they say. A roar from the audience, in unison: “What the f— does that mean?” Alm-Basu explains: “When someone says ‘Brad,’ you say ‘Asshole!’ For Janet, ‘Slut!’ For Dr. Scott [who uses a wheelchair], ‘A f—ing Nazi!’ and ‘Jerry Lewis loves you!’ ” Alm-Basu, slightly embarrassed, says, “We probably shouldn’t do that one anymore.”
Call-back and prop-throwing norms differ from theater to theater and group to group. Few props are thrown at the Esquire this particular evening, a blessing to Denton Affair members; even though they sell prop bags, they must also clean up everything after each show.
In other theaters, the shadow cast will remain silent on call-backs. Here, cast members seem to be the most frequently and loudly vocal among those calling back. Most attendees are au courant with all of these traditions, but every now and then an unsuspecting theatergoer will walk out of a screening.
A handful of call-backs (and call-befores) remain from the old days, but funniest are the modern and localized ones.
Frank-N-Furter: You see…
Frank-N-Furter: It’s no crime to give yourself over to pleasure.
Audience: It is in Cincinnati!
Audience: How did Jeffrey Epstein die?
Frank-N-Furter: It was a mercy killing.
To the repeated claps and chant of “Start the f—ing movie!” the film begins, and The Denton Affair acts, dances, and lip-syncs in meticulously handmade costumes. Women play men, men play women, short people play tall people. Body positivity is often mentioned by cast members as part of the group’s appeal.
The troupe is amateur, but their tight bond and obvious joy radiate charm. You can picture yourself up there, and that’s the point. There are no auditions to join The Denton Affair. You just show up, go through some training, and get comfortable with being half naked in front of strangers.
Rocky Horror is for everyone,” says Emily Lloyd, a Denton Affair cast member since 2015 who works for the Butler County Visitors Bureau. “This is a party, and everybody is there to have a good time.”
Longest to The Denton Affair party is Missy Stricklett. A banking professional by day, she was the youngest cast member when she joined in 2000 at age 15; now, at 36, she is the oldest. She wears her graying hair in a Bettie Page style with short bangs. “I had never laughed so hard in my life, and it felt like something I wanted to be a part of,” she says of her attraction to The Denton Affair. “Rocky Horror is where the outcasts fit in.” Stricklett met her boyfriend in the group, as did Zoë Peterson, who is 20 years old and sports a white streak in her shoulder-length black hair.
“The Denton Affair was doing a show at Video Archive [bar] in Over-the-Rhine two years ago,” Peterson recalls. “I met Jack [Alexander] there. I found out we are both UC students and both love Rocky Horror. That’s enough to have in common with a person.” Alexander, whose floppy brown hair makes him a natural for the part of the straight-laced Brad, says The Denton Affair is “my only creative outlet.” He’s a pre-med major, not the theater-geek type Peterson thought she would encounter in the cast.
For Anjali Alm-Basu, the movie and participation in the shadow cast has been a way to explore personal identity. “Rocky Horror was a good testing ground for different ways of gender presentation,” they say, “and an important part of queer history.” All cast members speak of feeling like outsiders and finding this group a nonjudgmental place to be themselves.
The rebellious coming-of-age ritual is not for everyone, of course. Though the movie has just one curse word in it, the call-backs are relentless, vulgar, and laden with F-bombs. There was cursing from the very first call-back in the ’70s, but Kathleen Black remembers that in her past, and at other cinemas, the audience was not quite so potty-mouthed. Because of it, she says, she won’t bring her grandkids back to this particular venue. “I just found the level of profanity there a bit excessive,” she says.
“The question of whether we should be more restrained or not allow certain callbacks comes up every few years in casts all over the country,” says Hannah Davis, a Denton Affair cast member who’s attended RockyCon conventions as well as shadow casts in other cities. “Not everyone agrees where the line should be drawn.” Adds Lloyd, “The movie is obviously rated R, so we encourage cursing. One thing we’re trying to phase out are some of the older call-backs that may be offensive to some people.”
The Denton Affair can’t control what guests say and do, but members set the tone. Stricklett remembers the group being more clever and less off-color in the past, “aimed at being more funny than shocking. But the experience is still the same.” For older folks like Black and myself, the language can be tedious, but we understand that Rocky Horror is not about restraint. If cursing up a bawdy storm is the worst thing the kids are up to on a Saturday night, well, things could be worse.
The Denton Affair was started by Tony Wright, an elusive fellow who mustered the courage to stand in front of a screening and mouth the opening song—likely at a now-defunct downtown cinema or the 20th Century in Oakley, where the movie unspooled before coming to roost at the Esquire in 1998. “People were bringing props and costumes to me and I would do the show,” Wright says in The Denton Affair Celebrates 40 Years, a short documentary by Alm-Basu. “And it’s like, ‘If you can bring props, you can do the show, too.’ ” A volunteer joined Wright, playing the female roles to his male roles, and the act grew from there. The Denton Affair took its name from a dossier that a criminologist character reads from in the movie.
The Esquire maintains a laissez-faire relationship with The Denton Affair, neither paying the group nor charging them for admission. “It’s a good community,” says Julianne Reisenfeld, vice president of operations for Theatre Management Corporation, which manages the Esquire. “They bring the fun.” The shadow cast has helped keep turnout high for close to 600 total shows so far, with ticket sales at a level the cinema typically sees for mainstream films rather than the spottier attendance for independent/art-house movies.
It’s past 2 a.m. when the credits roll. Shadow cast members take their bows as their counterparts’ names appear onscreen. Alm-Basu announces that interested parties can learn more about The Denton Affair online or by speaking to a cast member. But for now, the cast is sweaty and exhausted. “Get the f— out!” they shout to us.
Kathleen Black and crew make their way back out into the still-warm evening. “Loved it!” Katie and Ally say together. Kathleen beams. Her birthday was a complete blast. “I will take them again,” she vows. Before the family boards its minivan to make the journey back to Butler, singing along to the soundtrack on the way, the sexagenarian adds, “We hope we get a chance to see it with my mom.”