By Remy Sisk
In the spring of 1973 at the Royal Court’s Theatre Upstairs, an eclectic bunch of actors and designers were preparing to open an extraordinarily unconventional musical called, “They Came from Denton High.” At the insistence of director Jim Sharman, creator Richard O’Brien’s mashup of glam rock, Steve Reeves muscleman flicks,1950s early rock and roll and mid-20th-century science fiction and horror B movies was eventually retitled “The Rocky Horror Show” just prior to opening. On June 19, 1973, this off-beat musical premiered in that 63-seat theatre and unintentionally yet unequivocally launched an immortal worldwide phenomenon with an exceedingly gritty and glamorous history stretching from the United Kingdom all the way to Louisville, Kentucky.
Following the unexpected success of the original “Rocky Horror Show,” filming began in October 1974 for the big-screen adaptation: “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” Although the stage production had been a hit in London and Los Angeles, its debut on Broadway and the subsequent film adaptation were both critically panned – TIME magazine’s review of the 1975 Broadway version noted, “It is not easy to see why this campy trash was a long-running hit in London and a smash success in Los Angeles, except that transvestism has always fascinated the British and the L.A. scene is almost as kinky.”
The film was just as poorly received and thus quickly pulled from the few theatres to which it had been distributed. However, a young executive at Fox named Tim Deegan urged the studio to promote the film for midnight screenings, and upon this re-release, “Rocky Horror” began to grow into the cultural juggernaut that it is regarded as today.
The first theatre to offer late-night “Rocky” screenings was the Waverly Theatre in Greenwich Village in 1976. People began responding to the movie, coming back time and again, dressing as characters and eventually yelling things at the screen. This cult following grew into full-fledged organized affairs spreading across the country with “official” callbacks, prop involvement and actors putting together shadow casts that would act out the film in front of the screen.
In Louisville, Marty Sussman, who had recently subleased the Vogue Theatre in St. Matthews and rebranded it as more of an arthouse destination, noticed what was happening in other cities and decided it was time for Louisville to host its own midnight “Rocky Horror Picture Show” screenings. So in 1977, Louisville became the next market to be a part of the international glam rock party that was “Rocky Horror.”
‘Rocky’ Lands in Louisville
Within a year of beginning screenings at the Vogue, a shadow cast took shape, which, somewhat ironically, was originally mostly comprised of heterosexual actors. By 1979, “Rocky” screenings were indisputably the place to be. Held once a month – or at times, twice a month – the screenings were what unofficial Vogue archivist Dave Conover calls “a big celebration of youth.” The Vogue boasted 800 seats and regularly saw “Rocky” screenings sell out, and when it would offer double screenings of the film, such as on Halloween or anniversary occasions, both showings would fill up in advance.
Attendees, just as at other screenings across the country, were fairly split between true “Rocky Horror” fans and kids who were going just because they heard it was the cool thing to do. However, as Conover relates, once you came, it was hard to leave: “I think people would go out of curiosity and they were pretty thrilled with what they saw so they’d keep coming back.”
The show continued gaining popularity in the early 1980s, to the point where Conover attests that if you were looking for your friends, you would drive to St. Matthews because there was a high likelihood they’d be at the Vogue for “Rocky Horror.” “Everybody went to ‘Rocky’ because that’s where you knew most of the cool people would be,” he affirms. “Some people would never even come inside; they’d be out in the parking lot, so there’d be a whole culture of people sitting outside smoking or putting music flyers up on the poles in the parking lot.”
With a rock and roll and punk-permeated atmosphere infused with a sense of rebellion, “Rocky” screenings began to take on a sort of vanguard status in Louisville as one of the first places LGBTQ individuals could come and openly express themselves. Though by 2018’s standards what we see on the screen in “Rocky Horror” is remarkably tame, in its midnight screening heyday, the imagery of “Rocky” was an unparalleled symbol of openness and individuality – it glorified the sexual “others” of society and encouraged viewers to live proudly as they are.
Consequently, straight folks who acted in or attended “Rocky Horror” screenings were, however deliberately, public allies of the LGBTQ movement of Louisville, and LGBTQ attendees themselves were at last enjoying a public place to freely be themselves that was not a bar or nightclub. “It was one of the only semi-open alternative communities there was,” Conover recounts of the screenings. “In the 80s, if you were gay or gay-friendly, you could always go to the clubs – you could go to [LGBTQ bar] Discovery or something – but that was still a pretty cloistered environment off on its own. Whereas if you went to ‘Rocky,’ it was a little more open, it was a little more public, and it was a little more accepted for a lot of people. Because they all knew they were going to get acceptance at the Vogue.”
The screenings, which frequent attendee and videographer Bob Markwell calls “this amazing party you would go to that your friends would throw every couple of weeks,” would always begin with a compilation of three music videos: Meatloaf’s “Bat out of Hell” and Tim Curry’s “I Do the Rock” and “Paradise Garage.” The film would see the usual callbacks that would sometimes be updated to include pop culture references and, at least in the early years, a good amount of prop involvement as well.
Due to insurance concerns after a while, however, throwing props – it became expected for audience members to squirt water guns and throw toast, rice, playing cards and more – was prohibited. But not before, as Markwell recalls, one audience member repeatedly sprayed Frank, at the time played by Steve Carey, with a squirt gun to the point where Carey leapt from the stage and escorted the heckler out himself. Around the same time as the props were banned, for clearly good reason, the use of a real motorcycle for the the character Eddie’s entrance in “Hot Patootie” was discontinued for similar reasons.
The shadow cast, as with everything with “Rocky,” had a good amount of cyclical turnover but only seemed to get better with time. As the film was kept off of home media in the U.S. until 1990, early cast members used a bootleg recording of the screen to practice in addition to coming in to rehearse on Sunday mornings when Vogue Assistant-Manager-turned-Manager Carl Wohlschlegel would run the film for them privately.
As the years went on and “Rocky” got released on VHS, attendance kept up at the Vogue, though screenings were not as consistently selling out or filling up in advance as they used to; however the shadow cast, which now featured a much more promient LGBTQ presence, got more and more dedicated to making their performances the absolute best they could be. Mickey Cain played Frank on and off for about eight years and is widely hailed as one of the greatest Franks the cast ever saw. He emphasizes that what they were doing was about much more than dancing the Time Warp – they were building a community and inspiring pride that resounded far beyond the walls of the Vogue.
“The atmosphere at the shows made all feel welcome and created a sense of family for not only the cast, but the audience as well,” Cain recounts of the time. “It was a safe space for all who didn’t feel like they were part of ‘the norm.’ ‘Rocky’ created a home at the Vogue for us. Because of the bond with everyone involved – cast, crew, audience participants etc. – I think it made the show the best it could possibly be.”
During Cain’s run as Frank, Sandy Harned began hanging out with the cast and soon was regularly playing Janet, which she did until 1996. Harned maintains that there was, just as there had been for the very first crowd that ever came out to a screening at the Vogue, a sense of rebellion inherent in attending “Rocky” shows. “Probably the funniest part is that my parents were pretty strict so they never knew I was even going to the show for most of my tenure – much less that I was onstage!” she remembers.
The Vogue continued to screen “Rocky Horror” right up to its closing on September 17, 1998. The theatre shutting down was the result of a host of complex reasons, and although its closing was universally mourned by its regulars, this was not the end for “Rocky.” Folks involved were not going to let this now legendary tradition die and consequently contacted Baxter Avenue Theatres and asked if they could transfer the regularly scheduled screenings to one of Baxter’s auditoriums, one of which, conveniently, already had a stage in front of the screen. Baxter immediately was on board and the first screening in this new location was held just over a month later on Halloween night 1998.
A New Home
The transition was fairly smooth with some Vogue cast members training the new Baxter cast, and many Vogue patrons came out to the Baxter screenings, at least for a while. Screenings, for the most part, sold well, rarely dipping below three-quarters full; although, the theatre at Baxter only held about 150 compared to the Vogue’s 800 and then 700 following the renovation.
As “Rocky” attendance was always a sort of cycle, the younger audience members at Baxter were becoming children of some of the individuals who had gone to the early Vogue shows. Thus, a mentality began to form that involved certain expectations. Whereas the original midnight screening audience members in Greenwich Village had organically developed the traditions, which the cult following across the country subsequently amplified, these new audience members had heads full of preconceived or told ideas of what a “Rocky” screening was. They weren’t taking out the newspaper during “Over at the Frankenstein Place” because it was part of this novel ritual to imitate Janet but because it was what they thought it was they were supposed to do at “Rocky.” Their parents had told them “Rocky” was a party, so they almost felt that they needed to make it a party, and that intention, which had not been present at the cult’s genesis, began to rob “Rocky” screenings of the very essence that had made them the extraordinary pop culture phenomena they had been. Make no mistake, many of these new age attendees of course did authentically enjoy seeing the film and greatly relished the audience participation aspects, but the fundamental reasons for the traditions began to get lost across generations.
Moreover, into the early 21st century, everything that was depicted in “Rocky” had reached a far more accepted place in mainstream society – not to the point of 2018, but certainly what was seen in the film was by no means shocking. Additionally, LGBTQ folks were gaining much more acceptance in all areas of life – again, definitely not as it is in 2018, but “Rocky” shows began to lose their indispensable identity as a necessity. LGBTQ people didn’t have to go to “Rocky” to express themselves; it was a fun place to go, but it wasn’t the only place to go as it had been in the past. It was almost as if the decline in “Rocky” attendance, though surely lamentable, was concrete evidence for the positive and progressive direction of society.
As, at least at the time of this writing, there is no longer a regularly scheduled movie theatre “Rocky Horror” screening in Louisville, the history must of course come to an end. The shadow cast at Baxter was mostly made up of high school and college students, so not only was there an at times frustrating amount of turnover but also personal issues between cast and management, which threatened the stability of the screenings. Eventually, in 2010, the organizer of the shadow cast decided the show needed to take a break, and the break simply became indefinite.
But that was not before “Rocky” had made its impact on a whole new generation of viewers. John Magness played Dr. Frank ‘n’ Furter the last five years it played at Baxter and also hosted the pre-show. “I loved performing there,” he remembers. “I never had the opportunity to attend a screening at the Vogue but I went for the first time at Baxter during my freshman year of high school and immediately felt like I belonged and even said to myself that I was going to be a part of that one day. No one was out of place no matter how different you were. As far as performing, how could you not feel like a rock star? Especially as Frank. It was very exciting to back into the doorway before ‘Sweet Transvestite’ and hear everyone start cheering before I turned around for the big reveal.”
Following the Baxter’s ceasing to screen the film, a new tradition emerged in Louisville of theatre companies presenting the thing that really started it all: the live “Rocky Horror Show” on stage. After having done it once in 2002, LGBTQ-focused theatre company Pandora Productions presented the show three years in a row in 2010, 2011 and 2012. Following that final year and the Baxter show’s ending in 2010, there was simply no more “Rocky Horror” in Louisville. Other than a few pop-up screenings here and there, this glittery and glorious 35-year history had come to an end.
Fortunately, the lull was short. Two years later, noticing the lack of “Rocky Horror” in town, nonprofit theatre company Acting Against Cancer picked up the show and produced its own live version in the fall of 2014. The show starred recording artist and restaurateur Karter Louis as Frank and launched the company on a still-continuing tradition of doing “Rocky” live every fall.
In its second year, AAC did the show outside in Louisville’s Central Park, but by the third year, 2016, the company had formed a partnership with LGBTQ nightclub PLAY Louisville. Now, Acting Against Cancer starts what the organization refers to as “Rocky Season” with touring the show to PLAY Nashville earlier in the month before presenting it at PLAY Louisville at the end of October.
Meanwhile, Copper & Kings Distillery has renewed the tradition of screening the film in public. The first event was held in September 2017 with another one in April 2018. And this fall in 2018, the Speed Art Museum will hold a screening on October 19 as part of their Speed After Hours programming. Members of Acting Against Cancer’s “Rocky” are also the shadow cast performers for the Copper & Kings and Speed screenings, and in October, it truly can feel like “Rocky Horror” has never been more alive in Louisville than now.
AAC doing the show at PLAY, in a way, does evoke a bit of the original essence from the Vogue. Just as Mickey Cain described the Vogue screenings as being safe spaces for those who felt like they did not fit in, PLAY has a strong reputation of also being a kind of haven for LGBTQ individuals or anyone who may feel marginalized by society. So while it may not be as vital as it once was, “Rocky” in Louisville is still a sanctuary for individuality and an indelible incubator for expression.
“Almost five years into being here in Louisville,” says PLAY Louisville Co-Owner and Operator Micah McGowan, “we at PLAY continue to strive to bring not only a top-notch entertainment experience but also serve as a community center for the LGBTQ community.” Indeed, PLAY, like the Vogue did, allows those who may feel out of place a space to be themselves – with confidence and pride.
The Lips Live On
“Rocky Horror” has, in part, always been about celebrating individuality. Although what’s seen in the film and on stage is no longer shocking, the visualization and encouragement it gave LGBTQ individuals in the 1970s and ’80s was nearly unparalleled. It set a generation on a path to freedom and expression. “The memories from doing ‘Rocky’ are some of the best times of my life,” Cain remembers. “I am who I am today because of ‘Rocky’ at the Vogue. It gave me the strength to be who I am and know that it was okay to be different.”
While in their heyday “Rocky” events may have been a stepping stone to LGBTQ liberation, they are now, in 2018, a celebration of how far we’ve come. Acting Against Cancer’s “Rocky Horror” audiences at PLAY are indeed some of the original folks from the Vogue but also younger members of the community who are gay, trans, bisexual, straight, gender nonconforming – the list goes on. It is a show for everyone and ultimately about everyone – we all have pieces of ourselves we may be shy to freely express, but if there’s one thing “Rocky” tells us, “Don’t dream it, be it.”
“Rocky Horror” is without question ingrained in Louisville. It played such a tremendous part in multiple generations of locals and fortunately now continues to be a part of the area’s robust culture. Louisville is often regarded as a bastion of liberalism in Kentucky and it seems probably that the city’s embracing of “Rocky Horror” has in some way contributed to that. But regardless of its part in developing the progressive and forward-thinking mentality of Louisville, at its heart, “Rocky Horror” is just a whole lot of fun and unlike anything else. And after over 40 years of being a part of Louisville, it looks like the party’s only sure to continue. As Bob Markwell said of screening events, “It’s two hours of insanity that is just the most awesome time in the world.”
Upcoming “Rocky Horror” Events
“The Rocky Horror Picture Show” at Copper & Kings Distillery: Friday, September 28: 9:00 p.m.
Rocky Horror Season Launch Party at Acting Against Cancer: Friday, October 5: 8 p.m.
“The Rocky Horror Show” at PLAY Nashville presented by Acting Against Cancer: Friday-Saturday, October 12-13: 8:00 p.m.
“The Rocky Horror Picture Show” at the Speed Art Museum After Hours: Friday, October 19: 8:00 p.m.
“The Rocky Horror Show” at PLAY Louisville presented by Acting Against Cancer: Friday, Saturday, Wednesday; October 26, 27, 31: 9:00 p.m.
Author’s Note: Remy Sisk currently serves as the executive director of Acting Against Cancer and directs its productions of “The Rocky Horror Show.”