Rocky Horror Returns at the Guild

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Every year, on the first Saturday of October, fans line up outside the Guild Theatre in Menlo Park. Illuminated by the moonlight, people glow with glitter, strut in gravity-defying high heels and sport bright red lips, characteristic of many of the characters in Rocky Horror. Some dress in the more modest look of Janet, while others go for the provocative style of Dr. Frank-n-Fruter. No matter how the fans dress up, all are ready to experience a late-night showing of the cult film, Rocky Horror Picture Show.

First released as a motion picture in 1975, the musical was groundbreaking for its time. Featuring a host of characters that defied gender norms, the movie quickly became famous for highlighting androgyny and sexual liberation. The cult following was comprised mostly of members of the LGBTQ+ community, who found solace in the movie’s themes of identity, self-discovery, and alienation. Since a large portion of the movie is centered around peculiar or “othered” characters, many consider it to be an allegory for the queer experience. 

The plot centers around a young, recently-engaged couple, Brad and Janet, whose car breaks down during a storm. They end up seeking refuge at a castle filled with strangers dressed in elaborate costumes gathering for a convention. The head of the house, Dr. Frank-n-Fruter, is a mad scientist who hails from the galaxy of Transylvania, and spends his time creating a muscle man named Rocky in his basement laboratory. His appearance resembles that of a modern day drag performer, as he portrays himself in a traditional feminine Hollywood style, complete with pearls and a bold red lip. Considered both a parody and a tribute to the kitsch science fiction and horror movies, Rocky Horror encourages the audience to embrace the absurd.

Usherette introduces Rocky Horror
Gabe's Rocky-Horror-esque outfit

While the film originally failed at the box office, it quickly became a favorite among the queer community. Unlike other horror films of its time, Rocky Horror doesn’t hide or villainize the queer aspects of its characters, but instead celebrates them. Fans themselves find that the self-expression Rocky Horror gives them a safe haven and a creative outlet to express themselves without fear of judgment. Gabe, a first-time viewer, or a “virgin,”, as the fanbase affectionately calls them, said,“I was encouraged to go by my parents, who remembered going in the 90s.” As for his outfit, he said, “I grabbed everything weird in my closet and threw it on.” Matt Ritcher, another fan, has been attending Rocky Horror since it first came out. He said, “The counterculture was really a thumb in the eye when it first came out.” His wife, Sheryl, has been attending the movie since high school and dressed up as many of the characters, including Rocky, Magenta, and Columbia. She said, “The culture of Rocky Horror is so important for your generation, particularly because so much of y’all are playing with gender expression.”

The community formed around this musical has increased visibility for queer people, inviting the audience to play with gender expression and sexuality as they see fit, embracing the slogan of the movie, “Don’t dream it, be it.” 

Midnight showings of the film originated in New York City in 1976, at the Waverly Theatre and quickly became a national phenomenon, particularly in big cities. The showing at the Guild is unique because not only does it provide a screening of the cult-classic, in true Rocky Horror fashion, there is a group of actors, known as a shadow cast, that stand in front of the stage. They act out the movie for the audience and lip-sync their characters’ lines. Each actor memorizes their characters’ movements, lines, and stage presence, captivating the audience with flashy costumes and exaggerated gestures.

At the Guild, a local shadow-cast, Bawdy Caste, performs alongside the movie. They are a volunteer theater troupe based in San Francisco that specializes in screen-accurate renditions of movies, including Rocky Horror. 

Longtime troupe member and avid Rocky fan, Julie, performs every year, and has been every character in the cast. She joined the cast when she was nineteen on a break home from college. She said, “At the time I was painfully shy, so I played the criminologist, which is the only role where I kept my clothes on.” From that point, she expanded to other characters, including Frank, Rocky, and Magenta. She said that, “My favorite part of performing with Bawdy Caste is “getting to be a different person on stage. I suffer from a lot of insecurities and self-esteem issues, and when I’m on stage, I can ignore those.” To her, Bawdy Caste is her home. “The cast is a chosen family which is very important in the queer community, or really any marginalized community.” She stressed the importance and modern relevance of Rocky Horror as a whole, saying that, “Especially with all of the anti-trans laws and bans going on right now, we want Rocky Horror to be a safe gathering space for people to just come and be able to be who they are and who they want to be.”

Dr. Frank-n-Furter introduces himself to Brad and Janet
Bawdy Caste perform ‘Sweet Transvestite’

The current emcee, Dan Reynolds, has been performing with Bawdy Caste for 23 years. He encourages everyone to live according to the message of Rocky Horror, saying, “Don’t dream, be it. It’s a really safe space, where you can truly choose how you want to present. “If you want to be sexy, be sexy, if you want to be more modest, do that. It’s a free, open and accepting place, which is why I’ve stuck with it for so long.”

Much of the culture surrounding Rocky Horror revolves around audience participation. Fans are encouraged to throw rice, toast, and snap on rubber gloves at various, predetermined moments in the movie; some of the best lines, which weren’t actually written in the script, are improvised and shouted out by audience members. Ritcher mentions that this is one of his favorite things about the movie. “When you have everybody getting into it during Time Warp, you really feel the audience. It’s such a great community.”

This year, Bawdy Caste will be performing at the Guild in Menlo Park, Balboa Theater in San Francisco, the Clover Theater in Cloverdale, and the Greater Nevada Field in Reno. You can watch them perform live in San Francisco on October 28th at the Balboa Theatre.

Ellen is a senior at M-A and in her first year of journalism. She hopes to write about stories that highlight social issues within M-A’s community. In her free time, she enjoys baking, reading, swimming, and spending time with friends.

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