A line that goes halfway down the block and snakes from the Clay Theater is, without a doubt, the line for “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” On the last Saturday of every month, some wait in fishnets, even more with feather boas. Over-the-top makeup is almost mandatory, and men, women and everyone else have raccoon eyes and bright red lips. First time attendees are marked with a “V” for virgin, written in sharpie or lipstick on their face. What’s great is that there are always virgins; for all the old timers who have seen the movie hundreds of times, there are dozens of people who are new and talk excitedly to their friends. The line is buzzing as the crowd moves inside.
The “Rocky Horror Picture Show” opened in 1975; it is the longest continually running movie of all time. Based on a successful musical, the film serves as a loving homage to early sci-fi and horror cinema, as well as a joyfully transgressive celebration of queer sexuality and gender. It follows the white bread couple of Brad and Janet (Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon) as they descend into sexual deviance and “absolute pleasure” with the help of mad scientist Frank N. Furter (Tim Curry). In 1976, New York theaters started showing it at midnight, attracting a specific kind of night-time audience. After a few months, viewers started harassing the characters on the screen with melodramatic insults and comedic responses to the dialogue. This evolved into a practice of throwing objects in the theaters. Eventually, some fans grew to love the film so much that theatrical troupes were created to recreate the film. Now a staple of a “Rocky” show is a live cast in front of the screen, singing and dancing and recreating the events of the film as it plays behind them.
The Clay hosts performers like the Bawdy Caste, a group that has been performing since 1995 across the Bay Area and in Reno. An MC comes out to start the show to profane applause. They remind us that this performance is done out of love. The Caste isn’t being paid, and donations for the past few shows are going to hurricane and fire relief. This gets loud applause and cheers. There is an overwhelming mood of positivity in the audience. People are starting to strip to their underwear, they are dancing in the aisles, laughing, shouting. The virgins are called to the front so they can compete for a minor role with the Caste.
The MC then reminds us that the most important part of “Rocky” is that the theater is a safe place for self expression. As Frank says in the film, “don’t dream it, be it.” A showing of “Rocky Horror” is for everyone, no matter what. It is a place where people come to show off themselves in drag or half naked, it is a place where marginalized people come to feel part of something. For me, these shows are about losing myself. I’m just as unrecognizable at “Rocky” as everyone else. This packed, tiny, old theater is essentially the only place where I can completely let go of the inhibitions that keep me miserable in the real world.
At “Rocky,” it’s okay that you can’t sing or dance — but you still should come. It’s okay that you can’t talk to people or shake hands without panicking a little bit. “Rocky Horror” at the Clay Theater is one of the only places I know that preaches total acceptance and actually follows through. Until around 2:30 p.m. the next day, I remain in a cloud of positivity. For one night a month, you can be truly honest and still be loved.
Featured Photo: The Bawdy Caste performs at the Clay Theater. The Bawdy Caste/THE CLAY THEATER.