By Jacqueline Nelson
Just a moment Janet. They may have a phone,” says Brad, who rings the doorbell.
“DING DONG, ASSHOLE CALLING. SAY HELLO RIFF!” yells the rowdy audience.
“Hello…” purrs the butler Riff Raff
“Hi!” says Brad, “My name’s Brad Majors.”
“ASSHOLE!” cries the audience.
“…and this is my fiancée, Janet Weiss,” says Brad, who has obviously missed the sentiments of his viewers.
“SLUT!” the audience jeers as Janet sweetly smiles.
The crowd erupts with laughter. It’s Halloween, the most important day of the year at the Bloor Cinema. This is Rocky Horror.
The concept is perhaps as bizarre as the film: hordes of naughty French maids, rambunctious transvestites and nervous-looking Rocky Horror virgins easily fill the theatre’s 900 seats, watching a cast re-enact each scene — every word and every action — on a stage as the film plays behind them.
To add to the chaos, about 200 die-hard fans scream their own, collective script, full of clever and crude quips, like “slut,” as it unravels on screen.
For these regular patrons the beauty of Rocky Horror’s subculture isn’t in the fishnets, sequins or face paint, but in the way the cinema has become a safe haven for sexual and social explorations, and through experimentation with drugs. Like an experienced older lover, the plush theatre seats comfort the viewer and ease the discovery of their secret desires. Watching the Rocky Horror Picture Show is a rite of passage.
But time hasn’t always been kind to the noir mock-horror flick. Despite it’s inexplicable popularity and legion of fans, Toronto’s cast has had many problems keeping their show afloat, including finding a place to play and the disruptive drug abusers who could cause serious problems for not just the cast and theatre, but the success of the show.
Rocky Horror Picture Show has enjoyed impressive staying power in Toronto, and has been mesmerizing audiences since it was released in 1975. In the beginning, Rocky Horror shocked and seized crowds in the east end at the Roxy theatre (now known as the Grand). By the late 70s, there was a whole script of audience interjections — known as audience participation, or AP to aficiondos — and the city’s first organized cast manifested under the guise of “Erotic Nightmare,” which referenced the film’s comical exploration of sexuality.
When the Roxy was converted into a concert hall the cast became a band of beatniks who would perform wherever they could, drifting as far out as the airport. As the musical’s popularity waned it looked like the end of the line for the mixed-up musical.
But Bloor Cinema eventually adopted the alternative entertainers in 1989, saving the show from expiring on the road. And after a bout with new management over the interactive audience, the Bloor and Bathurst location became the clubhouse of Toronto’s Rocky Horror culture. The cast changed their name to “Excited Mental State,” a name which reflects the enthusiasm of the fans who refuse to give up on tradition.
A man and woman seemingly in their mid-seventies with newspaper over their heads (part of the AP) sway to the sound of protagonists Brad and Janet’s harmony in the second song. Hearing the lyrics “there’s a light…” they are among the first in the theatre to spark their lighters and wave them high. These are not new fans, they’re devotees left over from the good old days, and they are not the only ones.
The front few rows are full of keeners, mostly in their first couple of years of post-secondary study who come quietly in search of companionship in the dark theatre. Full of borrowed nostalgia, the enthusiastic groups quickly earn themselves names based on where they sit. The “Second Row Spectaculars” are made up of established regulars who know all the audience lines. The “Groupie Garden” sits off to the right and the “Unholy Triangle of the Floating Eye” occupies the left.
With just a jump to the left the whole theatre rises to their feet for the main event: The Time Warp. “With a bit of the mind flip,” croons the butler Riff Raff, as one pocket of the theatre begins a spontaneous hand jive, “You’re into the time slip!” chant’s Magenta the French maid.
The audience naturally answers Magenta’s line with a cry of, “fuck that bird! Eat this bagel! I’m not Jewish!”
But with all the dancing and singing it’s easy to miss the darker corners of the theatre. Not all of the regulars in search of a safe haven are looking to fit in; some are looking to escape. The youth who have taken Frank-N-Furter coos of “don’t dream it, be it” as permission to merge fantasy and reality through the use of drugs, alcohol or sex aren’t new, but they are becoming detrimental to the show. Last year, drug use in the theatre grew to staggering proportions.
“Unfortunately some of the audience are a lot more into the drugs, and a lot more into the drinking and they use [Rocky Horror] as a safe place to go,” says Stephen Cardie, 27, who plays “Crim,” the narrator and criminologist in Excited Mental State’s re-enactment. He estimates that most of the crowd who come to see the show under the influence are around 16 years old. “You can’t blame them for needing a safe place, I just wish it wasn’t at our show.”
The cast and theatre officials might have turned a blind eye towards the users had they not abused the system by being disruptive. “We were actually threatening to bag search for stuff,” says Cardie.
“It got to the point where we couldn’t hear ourselves talk, and it was so loud at the back and nobody was paying attention.”
In an attempt to put an end to the idle chatter, the cast started a Facebook group begging the audience to stay sober. The online response was positive; people were showing up sober and said they had never had more fun. A small but important victory, Cardie says.
But tonight, that victory won’t save the show.
As Magenta and Riff Raff sing their final song, eyes to the sky, the restless audience seems ready to move on to other Halloween festivities. From the balcony, someone yells, “If you forget your lines, they’re written on the ceiling,” to Magenta, who comically rolls her eyes toward the smoke-stained roof. There are a few chuckles, but the audience energy is unexpectedly low for such an esteemed evening. Jessica Lewis, 22, doesn’t seem bothered by the lackluster crowd. As she crumples her newspaper and zips her jacket closed over an all-black ensemble, she is all smiles about the evening. “I think it’s great that there’s so much support for the show in Toronto,” she says. “I hope the tradition will continue for decades to come.”
And while die-hard fans undoubtedly share that cheery outlook, the future of Rocky Horror depends on the good behaviour of the audience as much as the dedication of the cast. On the way out of the theatre the cast jingles a hat out to the spectators, looking for donations which will barely cover their costs.
Outside, there’s a brand new lineup already snaking down the street for the late show. When the doors are opened the neon-clad keeners make a break for the front row while the more subdued crowd’s bloodshot eyes drift up to the balcony. And no matter how animated the cast, the success of Rocky Horror is sitting in those seats.