Encore: The Rocky Horror Picture Show -- Two decades ago a sweet transvestite made talking at the movies a craze

By Laura C. Smith
Updated September 22, 1995 at 04:00 AM EDT

Let there be lips!” the audience shouts as a pair of obscenely huge crimson kissers appears on screen. And so The Rocky Horror Picture Show begins. But it didn’t always start that way. There was no audience participation — nor much of an audience — after the musical premiered on Sept. 26, 1975, in L.A. On the way to becoming the cult rage that put midnight movies on the map, Rocky Horror tanked in town after town. In fact, Twentieth Century Fox execs wondered if they’d recoup the film’s $1 million budget.

Just a year earlier, Rocky Horror had seemed like a good idea. The heady concoction of Frederick’s of Hollywood camp, monster and sci-fi satire, and glamrock opera had been enormously popular on stage in London and L.A. The movie would star beloved cast members, including plummy Tim Curry reprising his delicious mad scientist/alien/transvestite, Dr. Frank-N-Furter; Rocky creator Richard O’Brien as the hunchbacked butler, Riff Raff; and Meat Loaf as hapless half-brained greaser Eddie — plus up-and-comers Susan Sarandon and Barry Bostwick, who, as super-square innocents Janet and Brad, appeared mainly in their skivvies.

Rocky Horror grossed a paltry $450,000 in its first six months — but it also drew an unusually loyal following in L.A. Encouraged, Fox arranged for it to play the midnight show at Greenwich Village’s Waverly Theater, beginning on April Fools’ Day, 1976. By late summer, Rocky Horror was packing theaters in late-night shows from New York to Austin.

At one Manhattan showing, while Sarandon’s Janet shielded herself from rain with a newspaper, someone shouted, ”Buy an umbrella, you cheap bitch!” The audience, which had already made it compulsory to sing along, discovered a new dimension — back talk. And thus, in an era when the Net was still for butterflies, a kind of interactive entertainment was born.

The trend spread, becoming, in Gene Siskel’s words, ”a genuine show-business phenomenon.” Back talk became codified ritual; adherents brought in props — squirt guns for rain and slices of toast for proposing an on-screen cheer; they dressed like their heroes and, in some theaters, performed the movie as it played overhead. Rocky Horror was a cheap, raucous party — a way, some of its fans once said, to ”release tensions” and ”all be weird together.” Today, The Rocky Horror Picture Show plays in more than 200 theaters worldwide and has earned $150 million in North America alone. And as a rite of passage for succeeding generations of teenagers, it still enthralls a perennially youthful audience, who show up to ”do the Time Warp again” and again.

Time Capsule
Sept. 26, 1975

David Bowie enjoyed ”Fame” atop the pop chart; Dog Day Afternoon collared movie audiences; TV viewers hung out with Sanford and Son; and Sylvia Porter’s Money Book rang up the most nonfiction sales.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975 film)

  • Movie
  • R
  • 100 minutes
  • Jim Sharman