I would like, if I may, to take you on a strange journey. It is the journey of a 15-year-old Tucson boy named Charley Brown, who traveled to the planet Transsexual in 1979, did the time warp and never quite made it back home.
Every Saturday for the past 25 years, Brown has pulled on his fishnet stockings, or some other unlikely bit of apparel, and gone to the Loft Cinema's midnight showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Brown is 40 years old, and he's still doing it. In fact, he directs the local "cast" of regulars who dress as Rocky Horror characters, lip-synch with the movie's songs and generally preside over the audience-participation elements of the ultimate cult movie.
Brown has obviously taken the advice of his favorite character, Frank-N-Furter: Don't dream it, be it.
"This is my hobby," he explains unapologetically. "And it fits well with my career." Please note that Brown is a videographer, not a professional transvestite. He works mainly with the local production facility Terrazas Video, and has produced three Rocky Horror documentaries of his own.
In case you've been visiting some other planet for the past 30 years, The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a campy, sexually charged 1975 rock musical in which recently engaged straight-arrow Ohioans Brad and Janet (Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon) happen upon a classic horror-movie castle inhabited by odd people clad in goth lingerie. They're led by Frank-N-Furter (Tim Curry), "just a sweet transvestite from Transsexual, Transylvania." A few months after its unimpressive initial release, the movie found a loyal following when theaters started screening it at midnight. At one point, a fan started talking back to the screen (first documented callback line: "Get an umbrella, you cheap bitch!"), and within months, there developed an intricate tradition of audience participation, involving firing squirt guns, tossing rice and toilet paper, and shouting "asshole!" every time Brad's name is mentioned.
"It defies all explanation," says Brown, who, even in private life, maintains a mane of dark, curly hair like Tim Curry's. "It isn't just a movie; it isn't a play; it isn't professional, but it isn't really nonprofessional, because it has to be controlled. It's a mode of expression. It's karaoke for people who can't sing. It's a party."
It's no longer possible just to go and see the movie. Each weekly midnight screening involves not only the audience brandishing props and talking back, but also a crowd of hard-core costumed fans miming the action on a stage below the screen. The Loft has been encouraging all this since Jan. 6, 1978--probably making this, by one day, the longest-running Rocky Horror in the nation, although Brown hasn't yet gotten the film studio to confirm this.
"It gets lots of traffic through the theater," says Peggy Johnson, executive director of the Tucson Cinema Foundation, which owns the Loft. (Brown says the audience averages 101, but anything from 56 to 160 may show up, depending on the time of year.) "People might not come to see the latest film out of France, but they come to see Rocky Horror. It pays its own way, and some weeks, it even makes us a lot of money. It would be a sin to cut it off now; it would be like erasing history."
You'd think that after all this time, there'd be nothing new to report. But just as the movie involves a power struggle between Frank and another character, the local Rocky Horror performances have, in the past few years, involved a struggle for coexistence--perhaps even dominance--by two different casts. And one of those casts has now prevailed.
Several casts have come and gone, old ones morphing into new ones over the years, but until recently, only one cast at a time presided over Rocky Horror screenings. "Cast members stick around three or four years," says Brown. "It depends on how long they need this environment. Some can't handle the responsibility and drop out after only a couple of months."
Around 1981, the Tucson casts started giving themselves names inspired by obscure elements of the movie. In 1989, a cast calling itself A Jump to the Left came together; Brown was a part of it, ultimately becoming cast leader. But internal squabbling in 2000 led Brown and at least two others, with the blessing of the Loft's then-owner, to form a second cast, called Heavy Petting, to perform in alternation with Jump to the Left.
Naturally, the two groups didn't get along.
"Of course, there would be philosophical differences," says Glenn Stockellburg, who was in the Jump to the Left cast for seven years but threw his allegiance to Brown's Heavy Petting group. "We're striving to have as much showmanship and professionalism as possible; they wanted to be more free-form, which is fine. But they just didn't like Charley."
Adds Brown, "They were calling me a pedophile pothead dictator."
Stockellburg continues, "Well, there has to be a dictator, but Charley always welcomes input before he makes a decision."
Loft management wasn't happy, either, but not because of Brown. "During the year and a half we've owned the theater," says Johnson, "Charley Brown's group has helped paint the theater; they've pulled up carpet in the lobby; they've just been very involved with us. They've become part of our little Loft family. The other cast didn't have that same interest in knowing who we were, hence we didn't know who they were. The leadership changed a lot; there was a lack of stability and continuity. So I decided it would be better to have one go-to person who would have control over the content and quality of the program."
And that was Charley Brown. Last month, the two groups were supposedly consolidated under Brown's direction. So far, however, former members of Jump to the Left have entirely withdrawn from performances.
To quote a character in the movie, it's not easy having a good time. Brown casts each show about a month in advance, rotating people through the choice parts. "I stipulate that they must have a good costume," he says. "I can't ask them to be terrifically talented, but I do ask them to try hard." Everybody gets into costume at Brown's house, then they all head to the theater with the sound system, wardrobe rack and such necessities as a wheelchair and creature tank.
Who joins the cast? "We get the oddballs, the outcasts, a lot of high-school-age people, people in college and in their 30s and 40s, people who did it when they were kids and now bring their own kids," says Stockellburg. "It's like a second family to people. We put the 'fun' in 'dysfunctional.'"
Brown and company organize theme nights that go beyond the Rocky Horror routine. Recently, they had a "Psycho Beach Party" event in which people played volleyball with a beach ball in the theater; the losers had to do a striptease.
First-time attendees, known as virgins, should be ready for mild public humiliation. They may be forced to spin the Virgin Wheel of Sacrifice and perform some awful ritual activity: suck the filling out of a Twinkie, put a condom on a banana using only their teeth, call mom. ("It's like a frat hazing," says Brown, "except we know we're idiots.") To get the most out of audience participation, virgins should bring a newspaper, a roll of toilet paper, a squirt gun, rice, unbuttered toast and a party noisemaker. For the unready, prop bags and instructions are sold at the theater for $3.
The Rocky Horror phenomenon has spun off more family-oriented audience participation screenings like Sound of Music and West Side Story sing-alongs, and the Loft's edgier interactive version of Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
"There's something liberating about being able to talk back to the screen and get involved, as long as there aren't people in the audience who want to have a 'pure' experience," says Johnson. "It's a nice community feeling."
Warns Brown, "Those other movies don't have the biting edge Rocky Horror does, so I'm not sure they'll catch on. A lot of people come to Rocky Horror to feel dangerous."
So it's not the sort of thing to which you'd take your parents, which was surely part of the appeal when Brown was younger.
"My mom used to be embarrassed, and would hide all the pictures and press clippings I gave her," he admits. "But now she keeps them out in a scrapbook, now that she knows I'm a heterosexual."