Kids: Let me tell you a story about when your dad wore fishnet stockings and your mom slathered on black lipstick. Once upon a time — 1978, to be exact — your parents started escaping square society through midnight showings of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”
You may have heard of the new version of “Rocky Horror,” premiering Thursday on Fox, if only because its young stars Ryan McCartan and Victoria Justice are kind of cute. But whether or not you enjoy the TV movie’s silly songs and Laverne Cox’s performance as a mad scientist (you will) it can’t compare to how your folks felt when the lights went out on Saturday nights at the Uptown Theatre, never tiring of the sweater-set couple who let their inhibitions unravel in a Transylvanian castle that made the Playboy Mansion look like a monastery.
Those screenings, which encouraged costumed attendees to talk back to the characters and hurl rice at the screen, laid the groundwork for “Star Wars” fans to sweat through film marathons in Imperial Stormtrooper uniforms and made it acceptable to sing out loud to “Edelweiss” during “The Sound of Music.” They also helped turn a B movie, packed with nods to Dracula, space aliens and “Beach Blanket Bingo,” into the longest-running theatrical release in history.
More important, those weekly get-togethers were a safe haven for the 99.2 percent of teenagers who felt like outsiders in an era when society didn’t encourage gay people to come out of the closet and “nerd” was still a dirty word. The Uptown, which threw a weekly “Rocky” party until 1996, still does the time warp the last weekend of every month.
But enough from Uncle Neal. Here are some thoughts on what it was like from some current-day grown-ups.
Cynthia Dickison, a Star Tribune features designer, started going to the Minneapolis screenings in the late 1970s. She covered a guest appearance by the film’s star, Tim Curry, for the Minnesota Daily.
“At the time, the Uptown neighborhood was much seedier. Not dangerous, but we felt like we were being really daring going there late Saturday nights. It was the place to be. The first time I went, I had no idea what was going on. I just remember all these people in crazy costumes waiting to get in. For me, it was about the movie. The crowd throwing things at the screen could get annoying. I still remember soggy toast running down my shirt. But when Tim Curry came down that elevator on the screen, it was a revelation. I had never seen anything like that. I immediately thought, ‘I’ve got to keep coming to this.’ ”
MaryLou Tyler, a furniture buyer in White Bear Lake, became a regular in the early ’80s while attending St. Paul’s Harding High School.
“My boyfriend, who was in college at the time, said that we had to do this. I remember my parents being amused at how we would clean out Golden Griddle syrup bottles because my boyfriend said they squirted the best during the rain scenes and the goal was to get people as wet as possible. I had never come across people cross-dressing before, or girls kissing in the bathroom. Suddenly, the rest of the world was in front of you. I realized people have different relationships and nothing really bothered me after that. We were all there for the same fun experience.”
Sara Kerr, director of content and communications at St. Paul’s Children’s Museum, started going around 1985.
Growing up in Minnetonka felt like being banished to the edge of the universe. My friend and I, who were pretty goth at the time, were looking to escape the cookie-cutter mold of the suburbs. We would put on loads of hair gel and hair spray. After the show we’d eat pie at Perkins and stay out until 4 in the morning. Lots of coffee. As long as my grades stayed up, my parents were OK with it. We were rebelling against the Reagan ’80s. At ‘Rocky,’ I didn’t feel a square peg in a round hole. You could be who you wanted to be.”
David Pipho played Dr. Frank-N-Furter, the scientist who builds an Adonis to fill his sexual appetite, during Uptown screenings in the late ’80s. The six-month gig eventually led to Pipho becoming a drag queen under the name Camille Collins, first at the Gay 90’s and now Sunday nights at the Saloon.
“Frank-N-Furter is so powerful. He’s got this desire to be accepted, even in his own bizarre way, creating a companion for himself. Unfortunately, his vulnerable side is ultimately exploited. I guess that’s the lesson. That vulnerability can lead to success or demise, depending on how much you want to show it. In this day and age, ‘Rocky’ is almost normal. There’s no shock value. I think that’s a good thing.”
Playwright Brian Watson-Jones first attended a screening while studying at Sarah Lawrence College in New York. In 2012, he became a member of Transvestite Soup, a Minneapolis group of actors who “shadow” the action on screen from the front of the theater. For the past three years, he has served as Soup’s casting director.
“The screenings used to have a crew of regulars that would attend every single show. At least that’s the legend. These days, that’s less true. I would say about a third to a half of every audience now are ‘Rocky’ virgins, seeing it live for the first time. It’s sort of astonishing that there’s still word of mouth and people still want to join the cultural phenomenon. When ‘Rocky’ started, it was a safe zone for people who were LGBT before the community even had a name — crossdressers and others who wanted to express themselves in a culture that still wasn’t comfortable with them. There wasn’t even an internet for people to get support. Obviously, that’s changed now. People are a lot more accepting. But ‘Rocky’ is still a chance for people to go into a real-life situation where they will not only be accepted, but celebrated. It’s still a safe space.”