Audience Participation

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Audience Participation was encouraged by instructions on how to do The Time Warp as early as 1973
Audience Participation during "There's A Light" at the Tiffany Theater in Los Angeles in September of 1978
Mountain of debris including pounds of rice thrown at The Tiffany Theater in 1983. Photo by Shani Moore

Audience Participation at The Rocky Horror Picture Show had its roots at The Rocky Horror Show, which was considered an interactive experience going back to the original run at The Theater Upstairs in London. Audience members returned for multiple performances, and began singing along to the soundtrack within days of the show's opening. Angie Bowie (then-wife of rock star David Bowie) has been quoted as saying she may have been the first to talk-back at the live performance when she screamed "don't do it" to Riff Raff, before he blasted Dr. Frank-N-Furter to oblivion at the play's conclusion. The same phenomenon was observed when the show moved to The Roxy Theatre in Los Angeles, where the show quickly developed a devoted following with many audience members coming for repeat viewings and sing-alongs over the 9-month run. Additionally, The First ''Rocky Horror'' Costume Contest was held on Halloween of 1974 at the Roxy, which may have been the official start of sanctioned Audience Participation. It is also important to note, that instructions on how to do "The Time Warp" were passed out at all the early incarnations of the play, inviting the earliest Audience Participation was well.

Although the play was revered in London, the filmed version, The Rocky Horror Picture Show was not successful in its initial opening at Rialto Cinema in London in August of 1975, closing after a few short weeks, although the play had continued popularity. The story was different in Los Angeles, where it debuted at the UA Westwood in late September to an enthusiastic group of fans of the play and others who had bought their tickets in advance, via mail order. From the earliest screenings of the movie, fans of the Roxy Cast production were returning to sing along with the film, and calling out asides from the play's soundtrack, including "2-4-6-8-10-12-14....Eat Your Heart Out, Ann Miller" during "The Time Warp." The film was scheduled to open in 10 other theaters across the US a week later, but there were cancellations and the film disappeared rapidly. It did, however, remain in Los Angeles, with a growing audience.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show soon started showing at several local revival houses in college towns, as well as having a continuing run at the UA Cinema Center and the Holly Theater in Los Angeles. Fans began traveling from theater to theater, bringing their enthusiasm and repeating callbacks as they went. The first documented costume from an audience member was that of Michael Wolfson, who began creating his first Dr. Frank-N-Furter outfit after seeing the film at the UA Westwood in 1975. Within a year, he would begin to cast the first organized performance group, The Rocky Horror Revue, who were based at the Fox Venice Theater, but traveled to other fledgling Rocky Horror movie houses that had yet to attract their own cast of regulars.

The film was tested in several markets around the U.S. in limited release and special screenings beginning in late 1975. The first major development of the cult outside of Los Angeles emerged when The Rocky Horror Picture Show was added as a Midnight Movie on weekends on a regular basis at the Waverly Theater in New York City in April of 1976. The film took hold with a group of enthusiasts who began returning weekly, and callbacks were first documented there the following Labor Day weekend (on September 4 or 5) when audience member Louis Farese yelled "Buy an umbrella, you cheap bitch!" to Janet Weiss during "There's A Light," and "How strange was it?" to The Criminologist's invitation "to take you on a strange journey".

Halloween 1976 was a major date in Rocky Horror history, as fans at the Waverly began showing up in screen-inspired costume on that day, while Los Angeles was in the midst of a city-wide re-release of the movie in over a dozen theaters, which involved Rocky-themed costumes at the annual Halloween costume contest at Fox Venice Theater (including future Rocky Horror Revue members Michael Wolfson as Frank-N-Furter and Corky Quakenbush as Riff Raff). Callbacks and costumes were also popping up spontaneously at that time in various locations including the Riverside Twin in Austin, Texas, the Gentilly Orleans Theater in Louisiana, and on the other side of the globe in South Africa. As Rocky Horror spread to new theaters, so did the matter where it screened. Each of the earliest homes to Rocky Horror claim to have created the tradition on their own, and there is clear evidence that it was a spontaneous phenomenon that happened simultaneously before any media attention.

As the film picked up more screenings and grew in popularity, so did Audience Participation. Early on, many theaters were torn between those enjoying the callbacks, and newbies who would scream "shut up" to them in response. Over time, the rowdies won out, and theaters that embraced the participation flourished while those that didn't faded away. Nevertheless, in the early years, there were theaters that were more quiet than others and did not necessarily have casts that were still drawing in big crowds. As word of the in-theater antics spread, the Rocky Horror experience became legendary, and the rowdier the theater, the longer the lines were outside to get in.

The mayhem that became the early Rocky Horror cult had people returning to for multiple visits and was rooted in an anything goes, all-inclusive, anyone can participate feeling. Audience members would try out a callback, and revel in the laughter. Participants would return later to find their remark had stuck. The same went for early prop usage. For example, in February of 1977, a girl was spotted holding up a teddy bear during "Eddie's Teddy" at the Bay Theater in Pacific Palisades, CA. After seeing that, Lisa Kurtz Sutton decided to bring a teddy bear to the Nuart Theater when Rocky Horror played there a month later. She also brought party noisemakers for the creation scene, which got a big laugh, so it became a tradition. At that time, people were already dancing "The Time Warp" in the aisles and dressing up like Transylvanians on a regular basis. In April of the same year, the Waverly crowd started throwing things in the theater for the first time, beginning with throwing confetti off the balcony during the wedding scene. According to Fan Club president Sal Piro, Amy Lazurus and her friend Teresa were the first people to engage in this activity at the Waverly. The following night, confetti was replaced with rice. Within weeks, everyone at the Waverly was throwing rice at the wedding scene.

Various venues developed their own culture around the growing interest in the film. Many theaters, including the Waverly Theater, started with performances before the film. At the Fox Venice Theater in Los Angeles, where the film had multiple screenings on a single night once a month, the "Floor Show" was in-between screenings, once or twice on a night. Other theaters, though boisterous and enthusiastic, had the audience (costumed or not) generally remaining in their seats, though it is suspected that in most places, many got up to dance "The Time Warp" in the aisles. The cast at the Waverly, later transplanted to the 8th Street Playhouse, became well known via The Rocky Horror Picture Show Official Fan Club and began performing during the film itself, alongside with the movie during certain scenes. Additionally, Fan Club president, Sal Piro, began a tradition of making general announcements as part of the pre-show in the late '70s that would eventually become a wide-spread part of the experience.

In the late 1970s, media coverage of the Rocky phenomenon was national as well as local, and participating in the madness was for all attendees, not just those who chose to dress up.

By 1978, there were national callbacks heard at virtually every theater (like "Meat Loaf Again" and "Antici...say it...pation") while each theater had their own local remarks that came and went over time. Other documented audience-inspired activity included 5-audience members holding up large letters spelling out "J-A-N-E-T" during "Dammit Janet," Flicking your Bic during "There's A Light", tossing Scott-brand toilet paper when Brad says "Great Scott!" and of course, jumping up to do "The Time Warp" during the film (and during the end credits, before the Super Heroes Cut was put back into circulation).

A smorgasbord of food-products were flying at most screenings of Rocky Horror ; Rice was thrown not only at the wedding scene, but every time someone said "Weiss" or "Vice" (instead of the current practice of calling Janet a "slut" each time her name is spoken). Mounds of rice were swept up after particularly enthusiastic rice-fights, as were piles of toast that were hurled as Frank proposes a toast. Airborne hot dogs were a regular hazard, as were the occasional, individually-wrapped packets of mustard.

Both the Gentilly Orleans Theater in New Orleans and the Tiffany Theater in West Hollywood took things to a dangerous extreme, having a real motorcycle ride through the aisles as Eddie burst out of his deep freeze in the movie. No injuries were reported, though complaints of the fumes stopped the practice.

The current concept of the Rocky Horror Shadowcast grew out of Audience Participation, but did not replace it. In the '70s and early '80s, there were casts, but not necessarily the same concurrent performance with stage props that is standard today. Auditions and rehearsals were documented as far back as The Rocky Horror Revue, but that was the exception, and not the rule as it is today. It was instead more like a group of people who dressed up to attend the movie, and would perform along to The Rocky Horror Picture Show Original Soundtrack Album before the film or in breaks between screenings where the film played more than once in a night. Audience members and performers were equally important to the experience.

Audience participation evolved at a different pace at each theater, though the trend mushroomed when the feature film Fame included a scene filmed with the 8th Street Players, including their pre-show. After that, casts across the U.S. were given a new template to follow, which created somewhat of a script for performances that remains to this day. Audience callbacks since the early 1980s have been often based on existing Audience Participation Scripts, though these scripts do evolve as new and more topical and up-to-date callbacks are tried out. Additionally, the 1983 release, Say It! The Rocky Horror Picture Show Audience Participation Album was a direct nod from the owners of the Rocky Horror franchise of the importance of phenomenon, which has remained and evolved over the 40-plus years of the film's release.