Oct. 14 2015 11:30 AM

'Rocky Horror' released 40 years ago, still draws a crowd

Ian Griffin’s first encounter with “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” he admits, was not love at first sight.

“The first time someone brought me, it was just the movie and eight or 10 people shouting lines,” he said. “I thought, ‘This is bizarre.’”

But Griffin grew to love the movie and eventually joined with some friends to start a “shadow cast” — a group that lip syncs the lines and reenacts the movie in front of the screen — in the fall of 1990. He was 17 and a student at East Lansing High School. After the first performance, Griffin knew it was something special.

“The reaction was incredible,” he said. “Everyone seemed to enjoy it and was grooving on it.”

Spartan Triplex, the defunct theater formerly located in Frandor, hosted the weekly showing. The theater showed “Rocky Horror” at midnight on Fridays and Saturdays, but the shadow cast only performed on Saturdays.

Griffin, 42, was a member of the shadow cast for nearly two years. To him, the enduring appeal of “Rocky Horror Picture Show” — and the culture that grew up around it — lies in its unabashed weirdness.

“What spoke to me — and to the regular crowd — had to do with inclusion, celebrating being different,” he said. “It was a place for people who didn’t feel like they belonged anywhere else to be themselves.

Griffin believes this is why “Rocky Horror” events appeal to young people in high school and college. This is the point in life when most young people are trying to figure out who they want to be.

“For young adults, a lot of them feel like misfits,” he said. “To have a place to go and not worry about being weird or being judged, that’s the core that’s kept it going a l l these years.”

The unapologetically campy send-up of sci-fi and horror B movies was released 40 years ago in August 1975. Based on a stage production of the same name, the musical juxtaposes upbeat, ‘70s rock ‘n’ roll numbers against a backdrop of bacchanalia, cannibalism, murder and infidelity.

The plot of the movie centers on newly engaged couple Brad Majors (Barry Bostwick) and Janet Weiss (Susan Sarandon), who seek refuge at a foreboding mansion after getting a flat tire on a secluded road. Here they meet Dr. Frank N. Furter (played by a cross-dressing Tim Curry, complete with high heels, fishnet stockings and a leather bodice), a mad scientist who claims to be from a location known as “Transsexual, Transylvania.”

What follows is a bawdy series of events, mostly driven by Frank’s voracious sexual appetite. The movie is rife with themes that were controversial when it was released. It celebrates sexuality, both homo- and hetero-, and Frank is portrayed as a sort of martyr for hedonism. (The climactic scene features Frank dying in a nod to “King Kong” — a misunderstood figure, just wanting to love, done in by an unaccepting society.)

Music therapist Denise Travis, who played Janet in the Spartan Triplex shadow cast for almost a year, was drawn into the inclusiveness of the show.

“There was community there,” she said. “It was where every misfit could fit in. A second family, of sorts.”

Travis, 45, first encountered “Rocky Horror Picture Show” in, of all places, Germany. A 16-year-old high school student, Travis was on a student exchange program in Salzburg. At one point she was feeling homesick, and her host sister suggested watching “Rocky Horror” to cheer her up.

“She thought it was something everyone in America watched,” Travis said.

Initially, Travis was attracted to the more salacious parts of the movie.

“It was taboo things,” she said, “Things your parents didn’t want you to talk about.”

She joined the Spartan Triplex shadow cast in 1991, while she was a student at MSU. The group was looking for someone to play the role of Janet.

“A lot of my friends knew I was into ‘Rocky Horror,’” she said. “They suggested I give it a try.”

Travis believes the crux of the film’s message is the mantra delivered by Frank at the movie’s climax: “Don’t dream it, be it.”

“You have the power to buck the system,” she said. “That’s what humanity needs to hear.”

Almost 25 years later, Travis is surprised at how important this stint in the shadow cast meant to her. At a recent informal reunion, many of the shadow cast members gathered together to sing songs from the film and reminisce.

“I was surprised to realize that it wasn’t just this fun little crazy thing I did in college,” she said. “It meant a lot to me.”

“Rocky Horror” has endured for 40 years because it has become more than a film; it has become a cultural phenomenon. The movie was mostly ignored during its initial release, but gained steam when it was picked up by the midnight movies circuit. Viewers at New York showings began yelling wisecrack lines back at the movie — the same sort of B-movie mockery that “Mystery Science Theater 3000” would harness to achieve its own cult following a decade later.

From there, it snowballed. Shouted audience participation lines — “call outs” or “call backs” — became semi-codified. Viewers started to bring props to the shows: rice to throw during the opening wedding scene, squirt guns to simulate a rainstorm, even pieces of toast to throw when Frank proposes a toast. Eventually, some participants started performing as a shadow cast.

This audience-participation-fueled version of the film has become cemented as part of the film’s legacy — so much so, that many “Rocky Horror” apologists will insist that watching the film at home “doesn’t count.”

While no local groups are doing year-round “Rocky Horror” productions, there are a handful of annual performances. One upcoming showing, Oct. 23 at the Sun Theatre Williamston, will feature a live shadow cast. Austin Gullet, 21, is one of the organizers of this showing. He believes there is a message in the movie that still resonates with youth today.

“The plot is about letting yourself go from a preconceived idea of what will make you happy,” Gullett said. “They sense a kindred spirit there. They can drop the things they’ve been told they have to be.”

Gullett began performing as a shadow cast member at 16 when friends invited him to join the annual “Rocky Horror” performance and the Sun Theatre Grand Ledge.

“I just got sucked into it,” he said. “It’s fun to see people react to it.”

And while the message of the film still has appeal, Gullett wonders if the cultural edge of the movie has been dulled as once taboo topics have become acceptable in mainstream culture. He cited major network television shows that feature subjects like gay characters and crossdressing.

“(‘Rocky Horror’) used to be more social, now it’s more of an event,” he said. “It used to be a counter-cultural thing. Now it’s more of a youth thing. Kids do it because it’s fun.”

A parent herself, Travis is planning on attending the Williamston show and is looking forward to sharing this experience with her own children.

“I have teenagers of my own now,” she said. “Two of them are coming with us.”

She has some advice for any first-time attendees.

“You have to come with an open mind,” she said. “And be prepared to have fun.”

Griffin noted that each group has its own set of rituals — including how they treat newcomers.

“Everybody does things a little differently,” he said, noting that most groups have their own “virgin initiation” for first-time viewers. The initiations can run from “mild to extremely embarrassing,” he said.

Gullett said the Williamston show will feature an initiation, but that first-time viewers shouldn’t be afraid of it.

“It’s not as intense as some of them. It’s uncomfortable but not petrifying,” he said. “It gets you into the spirit. You just have to let yourself have fun.”

This is the consistent advice from “Rocky Horror” veterans to newcomers. Yes, it will be strange, but just try to take it in.

“Don’t be freaked out. Sit back and enjoy the ride,” Griffin said. “Enjoy it for what it is, a celebration of weirdness.”

“The Rocky Horror Picture Show”

With live shadow cast 9:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 23 $10 (tickets available in advance at the theater box office) Sun Theatre Williamston 150 W. Grand River Ave., Williamston