Monday, October 31, 2011

The Rocky Horror Picture Show

The Rocky Horror Picture Show
first seen @ AMC Loews Harvard Square 5, Boston MA
circa 2000

Her name was Jeanette. 

I met her at a comic book convention in Boston back in the late 90s (I'm guessing either '97 or '98). This was back when I was still making comics of my own and going to cons to promote them. Actually, this was a period in my life when I toured non-stop - mostly along the Northeast but also as far west as Chicago and as far south as Charlotte. Plenty of good stories from that period. Maybe I'll share a few sometime.

Anyway, I had a table at this show in Boston and she came by at one point to check out my comics. We talked for awhile. Turned out she was a hardcore fangirl - she liked the superhero stuff, but she also dug independently-published comics as well, like mine. She bought a copy and I thanked her and that was that.

Months later, I came back to Boston for another con and sure enough, she was there. We talked for much longer. We had comics that we loved in common and we geeked out about them for awhile. I believe we hung out after the show, if I remember correctly. Sure enough, I began to fall for her. I started rearranging my touring schedule so that I could make more trips to Boston to see her. After awhile, I didn't even need the excuse of a con to visit her.

Jeanette was bubbly, outgoing, and completely free-spirited. She knew her comics. She was generous and giving to a fault, she was sensitive and caring to a degree unmatched by most people, and if she could be a little scatterbrained at times, well, that was just her ADHD at work. She was the first person I ever met who had ADHD - this was back when it was still called ADD - and it inspired me to learn as much about it as I could. I own two books on the subject.

We had all sorts of fun together. She showed me around Boston and the surrounding area, a city I had only known from a tourist's limited perspective. She had a car, so we would sometimes go outside the city. Once we went up to Salem. Another time we went to the beach. One Christmas she took me to see The Nutcracker, if you can believe it. She welcomed me into her life with no reservations or conditions and over time, I could feel her love for me as well as mine for her. It was like my first true love, back in high school, all over again - and I never dreamed I'd feel that deeply about another girl.

So why didn't it work out?

For one thing, there was the long-distance-relationship aspect. At one point I seriously considered moving up to Boston, and I think I might have, if it weren't for the other problems... which I'd rather not go into here. I will say this much for the record: we never seriously fought (argued, yes, but never fought); I never tried to make her into something she wasn't (not possible, believe me), and I went to extraordinary lengths to attempt to understand her point of view (buying books about ADHD was just one example).

And I don't blame her for a single thing. Wish I had the chance to tell her that...

Anyway, to get to the heart of the story: Jeanette was a tremendous Rocky Horror Picture Show fan, to the extent that she would often perform with the local Rocky troupe at the Harvard Square theater on weekends, when they'd show the movie. I believe her character of choice was Magenta. As anyone who's been to a midnight Rocky screening knows, there's usually a troupe of performers who act out the film live while the audience of Rocky devotees mock the film, MST3K-style, loudly and often.

Let me just say at this point that I can find no words that can truly capture the bizarre nature of the Rocky phenomenon if you've never experienced it for yourself. That the movie itself is crap is undeniable, yet to see this entire subculture spring out from it, this Dionysian level of fandom that revels in the film's campiness and continues to endure after over thirty years is positively breathtaking. 

Of course, LGBT fans make up a considerable portion of the base, and in 1975, Rocky came out during a time of momentous strides in the burgeoning gay civil rights movement in America: homosexuality was legalized in California that year, for example. Stonewall was only six years old, and in another couple of years, Harvey Milk would be elected city-county supervisor in San Francisco. Gay pride was slowly but surely becoming a thing, and Rocky, in its own little way, captured a piece of the zeitgeist with its tale of omnisexual hedonism without shame. Try to imagine 20th Century Fox - or any major studio - releasing this movie today. I dare you.

So as soon as Jeanette discovered I had never seen Rocky before, she insisted on taking me to a midnight showing. She explained, however, that there was a certain... ritual involved with Rocky newbies - or virgins, as the fandom calls it. Naturally, she wouldn't tell me what it was, no matter how much I asked. Of course, I wanted to experience a Rocky showing, especially with her, but who knew what kind of kinkiness I had to submit myself to just for the right to see it? Finally, I agreed, because my curiosity of the movie itself outweighed everything else.

So we went to the Harvard Square theater and got on line with everyone else waiting to get in. it would prove to be a fairly big crowd - if memory serves, I think this was in the fall. Jeanette didn't perform in the troupe that night, but she did dress for the occasion. I think it was a tight black strapless number - tres sexy, naturally. As we waited on line, she got out her lipstick, turned my head towards her and proceeded to write a big scarlet 'V' on my forehead, marking me as fresh meat, to the delight of the girls near us on line. I tried not to freak out, but between this and the attention I was drawing, not to mention being distracted in general by Jeanette's overall hotness, it was a slowly losing battle.

The small auditorium had a center aisle that led to a stage at the front where the troupe would perform during the movie. The joint filled up fast. I can recall slumping in my seat, praying whatever it was I had to go through, it would be quick. Everyone got a small bag of rice at the door, to be thrown during the opening wedding scene between Brad and Janet. 

Eventually, the host got up on the stage, made a few quick announcements about upcoming shows and such, and then got down to business. Don't recall what he was dressed like, either, but I'm sure it was probably black leather. He called for any and all Rocky virgins to come up on stage, and Jeanette immediately yelled out and pointed to me and pulled me up out of my seat.

The moment had come.

I was one of what must have been eight or nine virgins that night, which seemed like a big amount to me. The host had us line up facing the audience, we briefly introduced ourselves, and then the hijinks began. First we had to take a red balloon between our legs and bend over, while the host would pop them one by one - thus "busting our cherries." Yes, it was as humiliating as it sounds, especially with the audience yelling and cheering and the host vamping it up. I tried not to look at Jeanette, who I'm sure was thoroughly enjoying the whole thing.

Then we had to dance the Time Warp - sexily. The audience would pick a winner who would appear with the troupe in the opening wedding scene. Like many people, I had known about the song and the dance; it's the most popular portion of the movie. I felt fairly certain I could do it... but to do it sexily? Ugh. As if I knew the first thing about how to dance sexily.

At this point I should say something. I don't recall if I was the only black person in the room. I might've been, but I don't remember for certain. This is something I can't help but be aware of most of the time, especially in situations where one doesn't normally see a great many people of color. I do recall, in the back of my mind, feeling aware of myself as a large black dude willingly submitting himself to a semi-kinky public display in front of a crowd of strange white people in a relatively strange city and feeling really scared... but then I thought of Jeanette. And I knew that she wouldn't bring me to this if she didn't think it was safe for me. So I put my faith in her and proceeded to do what was expected of me.

And I started to enjoy it. I've written about performing in public in the past, mostly through acting, but in those cases I had time to prepare and I had a great deal more confidence in what I was doing. This, obviously, was way different, but still, amidst all the fanfare, I slowly but surely found myself beginning to let go of my fear and actually having some fun. It helped that Jeanette was there; this would've been next to impossible if I was by myself.

I must've done something right, because the audience picked me as the winner. God knows why. I used to suspect Jeanette had some sort of hand in this, but how could she get so many people in on it? So the host took me backstage to get in costume and in moments, the movie began. Oh, did I mention I wasn't gonna play Brad? That's right; in true, twisted Rocky fashion, I portrayed Janet. They fitted me into a very simple white wedding dress that fit me surprisingly well.

When my cue came, the dude playing Brad and I came out and walked down the center aisle as the same scene unfurled on the screen above and the audience threw rice at us from all directions. By this point I had completely given myself over to the craziness of the whole thing. Did I still feel embarrassed? Of course. But I no longer cared.

The scene ended, the troupe member went back to join the girl actually playing Janet that night, and I made my way back to Jeanette as the movie continued. I buried my face on her shoulder, laughing (to keep from crying, no doubt). She laughed too. I sat back up and watched the rest of the movie. I knew some of the familiar call-backs that all Rocky fans know, but I was able to figure out others and use them myself, and I just laughed at the ones I didn't know. And when it came time to do the Time Warp, I got up along with Jeanette and everyone else and busted a move like it wasn't no thing. And it really wasn't.

I've never been glamorous. I've never looked like a movie star and at this point in my life I doubt I ever will. I've more or less accepted that. But one thing I'll say about the Rocky experience: It's so over-the-top, so ridiculous, so utterly campy that in the end, if you're willing to let your hair down a little and give in to the madness, you can be accepted no matter who you are or what you look like. And that is by far the best thing I can say about Rocky and its fandom.

Previously in Halloween 2011 Week:
The Ghost of Yotsuya 
The Gorgon 
Soundtrack Saturday: Danny Elfman


  1. Hi, Rich. I'm a new follower, and I love your approach of sharing your experience of a movie as opposed to just reviewing it. Your story of Rocky Horror is probably the best I've ever heard--certainly the best I've ever read! I have yet to "pop my balloon" with Rocky, but will one day. I'm looking forward to following and checking out posts your archive.

  2. Many thanks! As you've no doubt figured out by now, don't expect traditional movie reviews here, at least most of the time. I take a different approach. This, for instance, is a story I've been waiting to tell for months, though I didn't expect it to come out quite this long.

    Feel free to poke around the rest of the site...


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