In the velvet darkness of The Waverly, Susan Sarandon clutches a single piece of newspaper, protecting her hair-sprayed coifs from the rain on the big screen. Her deliberately shrill Janet Weiss falsetto builds to a crescendo as an elementary school teacher named Louis Farese yells out, “Buy an umbrella, you cheap bitch.” Such was the beginning of Rocky Horror Picture Show’s so-called “counterpoint dialogue,” a tradition which would eventually become pre-recorded cassette tapes (and continue long after cassette tapes themselves were reduced to artifacts). Audience participation waxed into an art form, as shouting at the screen shifted into fully costumed, lip-synced performances, just as much a part of the midnight showings as the movie it shadowed. Long before Rocky unintentionally built itself into a tourist attraction, there was a performative scrambling to be a part of something bigger than the film. From that first jab at Janet, Rocky was becoming a cult.
Midnight showings of the movie were a weekly ritual in the late 1970s, and at the next show, the eventual president of the official Rocky Horror fan club, Sal Piro, remembers standing up with a giant joke ring during the wedding scene. He was unofficially the first Janet then, and officially when the first “shadow cast” came together for a rendition of the film a couple of weeks later at the Waverly (where the IFC Center now stands). It’s the stuff of legend at this point, though there’s no arguing those instances set off a chain reaction which laid the foundation for the now-decades-old Rocky community. The legacy of fandom sprawled out before them like a pair of hairy legs strapped hastily into fishnets. But in those catalyzing moments, they were just a couple of kids getting laughs on a pair of Saturday nights in the village.
Sal Piro introducing an early performance (Courtesy of Lillias Piro)
There’s something hyper-specific and localized about a Rocky shadow cast. Social media has allowed for a number of unexpected fandoms to prosper in 2016 (see: Bronies, Beliebers), but the Rocky community predated the internet, and has continued to require an increasingly rarefied in-person element long since its rise. Forty years after that initial shift into cult status, informal families are still thriving in the bellies of whatever movie theaters will have them. Casts from around the country, and even around the world. Rhode Island Frank N’ Furters, New Jersey Columbias, and UK Magentas stay in touch via Facebook or message boards, though the fandom is far more than a network of virtual communication culminating in a convention. It’s a lifestyle.
To track the continued endurance of Rocky fandom, we must go back to the beginning of its mutation into a branded community for the other. In the way of many camp classics, Rocky Horror was a flop when it first premiered in 1975. It got shelved after a quiet box office and lukewarm critical reviews, but was revived when its distributor, 20th Century Fox, threw it on the nighttime circuits in California, and soon several theaters in New York. There was an obvious draw for the LGBT community and theater kids, but also really anyone who felt left out of their assigned microcosms. Soon it was common to have seen the movie twelve or fourteen times, and shortly after that the shadow performances matured into the foundation for a band of outcasts, unquestioningly in love with one another, and pretty obsessed with Rocky Horror Picture Show, too.
The staying power of the film is evidenced by the new blood as much as continued involvement by the old guard. At an August performance in the Cinepolis theater in Chelsea (previously Bow Tie), a 48-year-old high school art teacher named Phil DeJean returned for a reprisal of his role as Eddie.
DeJean began performing when he was in high school, after the show moved to four blocks north to the 8th Street Playhouse in the early 80s. He hasn’t been a regular cast member for a few years now, but he doesn’t like to go too long without miming the leather-jacketed badassery of his on-screen surrogate. DeJean was a self-described quiet nerd growing up, and Meat Loaf’s renegade made him feel like he was emotionally bursting through a wall on a motorcycle. That feeling has yet to subside.
High school was hard for DeJean in the way it was for many Rocky lifers. “I wasn’t black enough for the black kids, I wasn’t Spanish enough for the Spanish kids,” he explained. “I was so left out growing up the Bronx before I found Rocky… It’s kind of like the island of misfit of toys. We don’t fit anywhere else, but we fit here.”
The show was about to start, and he surveyed the room as the audience filtered in. His stiff curls were long on his forehead, and they stuck up like pipe cleaners—a set of antennae probing the room.
DeJean leaned on the seat of a 22-year-old aspiring model and midwest transplant Tres Maxwell Wuerffel, who wore a “V” for “virgin” on his forehead, and a gold lamé bikini bottom he’d borrowed from a friend. He might have been embarrassed that he was going to have to fake an orgasm for the theater in a few minutes (as all first-timers are required to do), but perhaps found himself bolstered by his impossible cheekbones, and an aesthetic best described as “beatific twink.” The lights dimmed, and Wuerffel slumped down in his seat in a way that should have given him a paunch, but instead added two additional abs.
“They do a great job, but things have really been sanitized,” DeJean whispered, as the two hosts made their entrance. “There used to be pot smoke filling the air. There’s probably still sex, though.” A glimmer of Wuerffel’s bottom certainly suggested as much.
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Courtesy of Lillias Piro
Of course, it wasn’t a big deal for him to be nearly naked. Pretty much everyone is nearly naked during the show, and that’s part of what’s so thrilling about it even now. Take for example recently graduated 23-year-old Rachel Guercio, who joined the Cinepolis group three years ago, but only started performing a few weeks back, when the cast’s co-directors and Brad and Janet left to get married and begin their life together. Now, she and her boyfriend, Eric Garment, 25, play Brad and Janet. Even a month ago, she could have never imagined herself stripped down at the the front of the house.
“I’ve definitely love to come performing a lot more now as I’ve gotten comfortable playing Janet,” Guercio said, her round face blushing as Janet’s might. “All of a sudden I was center stage in nothing, in a bra and underwear. I’ve come out of my shell entirely.”
Guercio saw the show early during her freshman year at St. John’s college. From that first night in Chelsea, she felt like she fit in, and she kept coming back until it only made sense to help out with the show. Or, actually, maybe “fit in” isn’t the quite the right way to put it.
“Not even just fitting into it, but them accepting me as who I am,” she explained. “Just coming in and being like ‘I’m Rachel, this is who I am,’ and them being like, ‘Hey Rachel, you’re awesome.’ That was the first time that had happened to me.”
There is a brightness in her voice. She’s self-aware of the vulnerable earnestness of her statement, and also totally comfortable with it. In a way, that only makes sense: these are her people. Guercio starting dating Garment when she started working tech three years ago, and they’ve been together ever since. Hooking up through Rocky isn’t rare. Heck, getting married through Rocky isn’t rare. (DeJean married his cast’s Columbia, though they’ve since divorced.)
“Most of my friend group comes from this or spins off of our main group,” Adam Jankas, a 25-year-old bartender at Schnipper’s in Times Square, told me over the phone.
Jankas was drawn to Rocky as a performer. He’s an actor, currently auditioning not quite as much as he’d like, who gets his theatrical fix from starring regularly as Riff Raff. He doesn’t love Rocky as much as he respects it, and enjoys exploring his identity through the lens of each character. By the time this piece goes live, he’ll have played all of them.
“Every character is very different, and you can find a part of yourself in it,” he said. “I find different parts of myself that I don’t get to express, and I let it out through that character. With Riff, I love to play the creep by making him horrendously overly sarcastic. I don’t get to do that so much in real life.”
Jankas was first exposed to Rocky in college at Middleton State University just south of Nashville, as was his best friend and the cast’s Magenta, Stephanie Mack, at Florida State. Both brought a love for shadow casting when they moved to New York after school, and it’s now very much the bedrock of their identities in the city. They’re passionate about delivering a quality show to their audience, giving the performances a crucial sense of dignity. Or, in other words, if you’re going to show up someplace twice a week at 11 p.m. for a hobby, the hobby better damn well feel like it matters.
“There’s no incentive other than you wanting to be there, so you have to put a little time in first,” Mack said of the audition process for adding on new cast members. “At first, we’ll put you on props or on lights, to show you’re committed, and not flaky.” Proving that you take things seriously is crucial to the emotional ecosystem of the Cinepolis cast.