A long time ago, in moviehouses not so far away, fans of a cult film about a cross-dressing extraterrestrial began turning up at late night showings in corsets and fishnets, yelling unprintable things at the screen.
Initially released in 1975, “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” was a box office debacle that belatedly found a following as a midnight movie with off-color audience participation.
Nearly five decades later, the “Time Warp” endures as an anthem for nonconformists. Two Garden State shadow casts host regular screenings of the film featuring costumed performers miming the action onstage while the movie plays behind them.
The groups, the Friday Nite Specials and the Cosmic Light Cabaret (formerly known as the Home of Happiness), have bounced back from COVID closures with sass, moxie and party hats, using the downtime to improve the shows. Both casts date back more than two decades.
This weekend, fans and first-timers (virgins) can catch a science fiction double feature, with the Friday Nite Specials screening the film Jan. 20 at 10 p.m. at Basie Center Cinemas in Red Bank, and Cosmic Light Cabaret hosting a Holiday Hangover edition of “Rocky Horror” at Teaneck Cinemas, Jan. 21 at 10 p.m.
Feb. 25 at the Basie Center, the Friday Nite Specials will present a rare screening of “Shock Treatment,” a lesser known spinoff of the original movie.
“Rocky Horror” follows newlyweds Brad (Barry Bostwick) and Janet (Susan Sarandon) as they encounter a garter-belted mad scientist named Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Tim Curry) at a haunted mansion populated with Transylvanian partygoers. The film’s message, “Don’t dream it, be it,” has resonated with generations of eccentrics. Wielding props and one-liners, audience members find a sense of community ridiculing the characters in unison.
During the lockdown period of the pandemic, the Friday Nite Specials stayed connected by staging outdoor and drive-in performances, including one with a guest appearance by Bostwick. Producer Ryan Wilson would also post videos on Facebook, offering ukulele interpretations of songs like “Time Warp.” The group also filmed YouTube parody videos such as a “Dr. Frank-N-Furter for President” TV spot. Their more elaborate efforts include a vignette where Brad and Janet order an Uber from the crater where the interplanetary castle once stood.
It’s going to be a big year for the Friday Nite Specials. In addition to performing “Shock Treatment” for the first time in February, they will host a “Rocky Horror” convention in Somerset, Aug. 3-6.
I spoke with Wilson about sweet transvestites, projectile gummy bears and a roaring slate of shows for 2023.
Q: It must have been tough going on hiatus for COVID after performing this show weekly for so many years.
A: We didn’t only survive COVID. We came out of COVID better than we went into COVID, if you can freaking believe that. ‘Cause I still can’t. We took a lot of time to think about being weekly. With COVID, we’re like, “Weekly doesn’t work anymore.” Pre-internet, pre-social media, pre-having a phone in your hand that lets you do whatever you want, weekly “Rocky Horror” was a necessity for a lot of people.. That is not the case anymore. Now, we treat “Rocky” more like a special event. Our schedule is the first, third and fifth Friday of each month. That gives us time to do more pomp and circumstance as well as specialty shows.
Q: You were in Aberdeen for a long time but your new home is the Basie Center?
A: The Count Basie Center is great because they support the arts and they let us pretty much do whatever the hell we want. It’s run by people who want to do things that are different and want to blur the lines as far as entertainment. It’s not corporate. They care more about doing artsy stuff as opposed to concentrating on how many tickets and concessions are sold.
Q: What is the key to the enduring appeal of this film? You have Gen Z embracing it, just like the millennials and Gen X before them. What is really special about this film that it speaks to so many different generations?
A: When Frank-N-Furter is in the pool, he sings, “Don’t dream it, be it.” It is a film that encourages you to explore yourself, to figure yourself out. And we just happen to provide a place where it’s OK to do that. We welcome everyone. It doesn’t matter what your race is, what your gender is, what wacky thing you’re into, as long as you’re not there to hurt anyone. You’d be amazed how many red state folks like “Rocky Horror.” They like it but they don’t understand it.
Q: Conservatives like “Rocky Horror?”
A: Yes. Right now, they’re really going after drag queen story hours. I hope they don’t come after “Rocky Horror.” We’ve had leadership meetings about it. We’re OK because we’re in a blue state but I worry about our friends doing “Rocky” in the Midwest and Florida.
Q: The film seems to speak to so many different types of people.
A: I’ve talked to many people over the years that have said they figured out who they were by coming to “Rocky Horror.” They weren’t sure, but then they saw people dressed the way they were, or acting the way they were, presenting the way they were. And they said, “It’s OK for me to be this way. I can be this way here. Nobody’s gonna hurt me. Nobody’s gonna call me a name. No one’s gonna ostracize me.”
Q: What was your intro to “Rocky Horror?”
A: I had some friends who took me to a show and I was terrified. I didn’t understand what was going on. I didn’t understand the virgin concept. Everyone was yelling and I felt like they were all yelling at me. It was a lot less organized back then, so that didn’t help. Now we’re extremely organized. You’re coming to see a show, not a mess. Back then, it was more of a mess. I left the theater and I go, “OK, well that was something.” Eight months to a year later, people were like, “Hey, you wanna come?” At that time I was 16. I was going through a fair bit of depression. I’m like, “I have nothing else to do, so I might as well.”
Q: You went again even though you had a bad experience the first time?
A: It wasn’t bad. I mean, nobody beat me up but it was clear to me when I left that it was an initiation. The Friday Nite Specials don’t approach “Rocky” the same way. Back in the day when you were a virgin, it was a little more torturous. We don’t want to laugh at you. We want you to laugh with us. We don’t want to humiliate anybody. Unfortunately, back then, there were some times where it got a little borderline humiliating.
Q: It was like hazing.
A: A lot of stuff we do is way more tame. And let me tell you, it leads to better customer retention.
Q: Was there one character that you connected with the most?
A: It’s always been Brad. Brad is like Sam Eagle. He’s the out-of-place guy. I have always been the guy who gets it but if you look at me, I’m out of place. I’m like a cross between Kermit and Sam Eagle.
Q: Sounds like a winning combination.
A: It really is like The Muppets. Kermit’s in charge of the show and he’s a little manic and neurotic. But Kermit has to keep it together. Sam Eagle is like, “You are all weirdos.” Sam Eagle has to do the taxes and keep everything going. So I’ve always connected with Brad and the idea of being thrown in the deep end and being liberated, being made to understand that you can be a freaking weirdo.
Q: People who are going for the first time on Friday, what can they expect? Do you have any advice for virgins?
A: We always do something. We have rotating games but nothing’s terrible anymore. We throw gummy bears at them and make them catch them in their mouths. We make them wrap each other in toilet paper. If I have an older crowd, I make them blow up condoms to see who can pop them first. When I have large audiences, like if I know I’m going to have 200 virgins, I dress up as the Pope and I do a fake Catholic mass where I make them repeat what I’m saying. I make them say, “I went to ‘Rocky Horror’ and now I’m popped.” The Catholics get a yuck out of it.
Q: Are they vegetarian gummy bears?
A: I don’t think so. I check for latex allergies before we do the condom thing. I used to do a marshmallow game sometimes and I made sure there’s no vegans.
Q: You don’t want to be feeding vegans marshmallows.
A: Nothing’s mandatory. Everyone has the option to not do anything they want. It’s never going to be like, “They made me eat gummy bears.”
Q: Maybe you could throw broccoli as an option for the vegetarians.
A: I’ll get a pile of broccoli and say, “Catch this, hippies.”
Q: It’s interesting that the Friday Nite Specials started in 2001 when the world was changing and it was a tragic, horrible time. Do you see any connection between what was happening in the world in 2001 and having this place where people could go and get away from all this tragedy?/strong>
A: In 2001, “Rocky Horror” was somewhere to gather. We did not have social media. We did not have cell phones that could do all the cool stuff they do now. Communities always have their gathering points. You have churches, community centers, schools, social clubs and “Rocky Horror” is no different. It is a place for people to gather. We also had George Bush as president in 2001 and a lot of people did not like him, especially not young, gay and goth kids. That was also another type of driver for a lot of people to gather.
Q: COVID is different because you couldn’t gather.
A: Exactly. That is why we’ve done so well since COVID. It’s like the post-Lent beef boom. People hadn’t done this for so long. Halloween was freaking huge for us.
Q: At any point during COVID, did you fear that the Friday Nite Specials might not come back? I know you canceled your Roaring Twenties night in March 2020.
A: Yeah. I still have the giveaway button.
Q: The twenties have been roaring in the wrong way.
A: We were initially under the impression that we were going to be out of commission for a few weeks. Three, four months into sitting at home, we’re like, “What is gonna happen?” But then we did a show on a roof in Asbury Park and we were able to do all our Halloween stuff outside. It was a light at the end of the tunnel.
Q: Did the masked performances work better than expected? That had to be a challenge.
A: Let’s be real. They weren’t particularly fun but they were necessary. We made masks that matched the outfits. For Brad, I had four masks. We made it work. We made it cute.
Q: You must have been really hot.
A: It was terrible and I’m a very expressive guy. All of my comedy is in my face. I have to be more expressive with my eyes. And that is hard when I have glasses on.
Q: What was that rooftop show like in August 2020?
A: It was surreal, almost like it was tingly. This thing was so consistent for us so after six months of not doing it at all, it was like, “Do we remember how to do it?” Of course, we all know what the hell we were doing so it was fine.
Q: I was watching the videos of older pre-shows on your YouTube channel and you would do this topical sketch comedy. Have you done anything with COVID or Trump or do you stay away from that?
A: We’ve stayed away from it. We’ve done some jokes about anti-vaxxers but we mostly stay away from it. It’s like jumping the shark at this point. I still do some Trump jokes and they don’t always fly. I did one on Saturday and apparently someone yelled, “Let’s go Brandon.” Stuff like that doesn’t phase me. We’ve never had any major problems.
Q: What do you think are some of the biggest misconceptions about “Rocky Horror?” You mentioned before that some people think it’s a cult. Are there other misconceptions?
A: I think a lot of the bad stigma is gone. It’s really become a local curiosity. “Hey, there’s this thing where all these weird people are doing weird stuff. We gotta go see it.” We’ll get dude bros who seem like they’re not here for the same reason as everybody else, which is fine. They’re not causing trouble. We know we’re never gonna see these guys again.
Q: Have you started rehearsals for “Shock Treatment?”
A: Right now we’ve just been casting it and costuming it. I’ve been building the sets and making decisions on what we’re gonna do and what we’re not gonna do as far as big heavy duty things. We’re trying to make this ridiculously immersive. We want you to walk in and feel like you’re trapped in a TV studio. “Rocky” has all this stuff that goes with it, like the callback lines, the pre-show, the virgins. “Shock Treatment” has none of that.
Q: Since “Shock Treatment” isn’t really a sequel, people can appreciate it without having seen “Rocky Horror.”
A: Yes, but all my marketing has been towards “Rocky” fans. You’ve got to see it once and this is your opportunity because these opportunities do not come along. There are a lot of reasons why people don’t do “Shock Treatment” all the time. On a logistical level, it’s so complex.
Q: Have people who come to see “Rocky” been asking you to do this?
A: No. My cast wants to do it. The film is this thing that people know as a curiosity. You can stream it on YouTube. It’s the B-est of B movies. It’s not as popular as “Rocky.” It’s never going to be and that’s OK. We don’t expect to be doing it on a semi-regular basis. It’s just an endeavor. It’s a nightmare to block. It’s a nightmare to cast.
Q: What is the process like, joining the regular “Rocky” cast?
A: We hold open casting once or twice a year. You’ve got to be of age. You need to have reliable transportation. We do an audition and it’s not too complicated. We just want to make sure you’re not a serial killer and that you’re competent. The rest is teachable. We don’t require experience. We look for people we can mold into a performer.
Q: What do you think is a common quality that the cast members share? Obviously you have people from all different backgrounds, all walks of life.
A: For most “Rocky Horror” casts over the last 40 years, it’s just a bunch of like-minded misfits that enjoy doing this crazy thing together. I can’t say it’s because everybody’s gay, because they’re not. It’s a group of misfits coming together to put on a show.
For more on the Friday Nite Specials, visit rockyhorrornj.com.
For more on the Cosmic Light Cabaret, visit cosmiclightcabaret.com.
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