I would like, if I may, to take you on a strange journey...
Given my topic of choice for today, I just had to start things off like that. It’s late October again in Peoria and every year at this time, the freaks come out. They raid their kitchens and bathrooms for stuff to throw and their underwear drawers for something to wear, all in the privacy of a crowded theatre.
That’s right, I’m talking about those annual midnight showings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the original safe haven for teenage misfits, a late night place where boys could dress like girls, and the unsexy felt anything but. The film/show’s philosophy of “Don’t Dream It…Be It” resonates with outcasts and mainstream folks alike looking to let their freak flags fly (along with toast and other everyday items).
This whole phenomenon allegedly began in New York in the 1970’s (even depicted in the film Fame) as a way to enhance viewings of a massive flop of a movie, itself an adaptation of a mildly successful fringe stage musical. Rocky Horror is largely responsible for bringing the concept of a “cult film” into the mainstream, and I challenge anyone to argue that it’s not the most famous cult film ever. An oxymoron, if ever there was one.
Midnight showings of Rocky Horror are an annual Halloween tradition everywhere now, and no matter where you live you are probably within driving distance from one. Peoria Players began producing their Rocky Horror as a theatre fundraiser in 1991. They weren’t the first or only place in town, as places like the Madison and before that even, the Fox Theatre had served as homes for local “Creatures of the Night” on and off through the early years.
The show at Peoria Players however has been the most consistent, longest running, and now the only one in town. Actors take to the stage and audiences from all walks of life show up, much different (and much rowdier) than the usual patrons spending a night at the theatre.
It’s a tradition that’s been going strong there for nearly a quarter century, and if you saw Rocky Horror at Peoria Players anytime between 1997 and 2012, I was there. Not among the rest of you lobbing toast and toilet paper or yelling at Tim Curry and Susan Sarandon as if they might answer you back...I was onstage hustling as Riff-Raff, the faithful handyman, and for many years served as one of the show’s leaders and directors. Doing such a bizarre event for so long, you see a lot of crazy things and gain a lot of fun stories. And now you get to hear about them. Strap yourselves in, this is going to be one Rocky ride back in time!
I first attended the show at Peoria Players in early high school (a regular rite of passage for most teens to be sure) and started appearing onstage in 1997. I didn’t have a drivers license yet, so I was dropped off at the first few rehearsals which consisted of watching the movie ad nauseum and trying to mimic it without looking—a strange practice that requires little to no talent.
I was the token “kid” in the show—the rest of the cast were all at least in their early 20s (they seemed so old) and despite multiple rehearsals, the whole event was very thrown together and felt very last minute (a feeling that I learned would always be constant, no matter how prepared you were.) I gained a lot of street cred with the kids at school that went, so that was kind of cool. It even scored me dates, but consider this a protip: never date anyone you meet at “Rocky Horror”.
Performing was nothing new to me, but mimicking another actor’s performance to an audience of rowdy people throwing stuff and shouting at you in their underwear was something else, especially at barely sixteen years of age.
Dodging all the “props” that get hurled during the show was an added challenge, as was the risk of slipping on rice, but the worst were the little masses of wet toast and toilet paper smashed together and thrown—they got pretty good distance and they hurt. That first year, I got hit in the head with one and worked up the guts to break character and flick off the audience. Little character breaks like that one would become common through the years when dealing with unruly spectators or really funny callback lines shouted at just the right time.
When the theatre got new seats in 2005, the water guns were outlawed, and the toast/TP globs were fortunately no longer an issue.
The following year, which was only my second, proved interesting. I got a call from the Madison Theatre, who decided to hold their own Rocky again and had poached the cast from Peoria Players. I politely passed on the offer—it was to be an 18 and up show there, and I was only 17, so how would my friends get in? So with only one previous year of experience, I suddenly had group seniority. I helped round up a new cast, and it came together just fine despite competition from the Madison (which we harmlessly poked fun at during the show).
I went to college in Chicago the next year, but still came home for Rocky Horror, as did many of the other college-age folks participating in the show. We soon realized what a money maker it was for the theatre, and considering we put it on every year decided to invest more time and energy into it—better costumes were constructed, our makeup got better, we began selling prop bags and worked harder on making an even better experience.
We even managed to retain cast members for years at a time, which made putting it back together each year much easier. Projecting the rented print of the film was often cumbersome, especially when only one projector worked and we would have to freeze onstage while the film reels were swapped out. It was much nicer after the switch to digital projection a few years ago.
When you raise the quality on something, expectations get raised too. We always thought Rocky audiences really didn’t pay much attention to the actors, but it turns out they’re some of the most damn critical audiences you could perform to.
They were brutal to the ladies, and God help us a if a “Rocky” wasn’t toned enough or “Frank” couldn’t walk properly in his heels—they’d let you know about it. I even got into a verbal row after the show once when an inebriated girl from the audience accused me of doing Riff-Raff’s “follow the bouncing thumb” bit with the wrong hand.
Regardless, attendance burst at the seams each time so we started bringing it back multiple times a year, adding February and June weekends to the schedule to spread it out through the year, and we also occasionally added “Friday the 13th” performances if one fell at the right time. Once or twice, Halloween fell on a Sunday and we did 3 shows then...now that was a draining weekend.
One year we realized April 1st fell on a Saturday, and since we’d always joked about what it would be like if we all tried switching roles for one show, figured it was the perfect opportunity to try this idea out for shits and giggles. So, at the end of the February show we encouraged the audience to come back six weeks later and see all us regulars do a “mix-up” version. I was Frank-n-Furter. Pictures do exist of this, but I’m not putting that up here...
Rocky Horror weekends were always a pretty long and exhausting haul, and I imagine they still are. Because of other productions, we typically wouldn’t have ownership of the theatre until the day of the show. I’d go in Friday morning and set up the scenery while others came in and set up props and costumes later in the day. We would do a final run-through onstage around 7pm, just a few short hours before the actual performance (which was often the only rehearsal with everyone present, if we were so lucky).
Someone would inevitably forget their black underwear or fishnets and have to run home, but around 10pm everyone starts getting ready, and by 11:45 the whole cast is ready and dancing to YMCA backstage while the audience dances in front. The “virgin ceremony” happens at exactly midnight, then showtime!
The next 100 minutes were always a blur, but I can say that being onstage during Rocky Horror and looking out over the audience is by far the greatest people watching experience of your life. When the movie ends around 2am, the night is still not done for cast and the generous volunteers that come for cleanup, which can last anywhere from one to three hours (in later years, the amount of trash decreased—either that, or the system got better.)
The rakes and shop vacs come out, and you usually find lots of items left behind (sometimes unintentionally, like cell phones, keys, etc.) I never had to buy a flashlight or playing cards for years, and if you ever wipe your ass at Peoria Players, it’s a strong possibility that you’re using toilet paper left behind at Rocky Horror. The weirdest thing I ever found in the mess? An unopened can of Vienna sausages.
After cleanup, we’d gather in the lobby for pizza, chuckle about the night, then head home and usually, after a thorough cleansing, my head would hit the pillow around 5 am. You’d sleep most of the next day away (“Rocky recovery” I always called it), then around 9:30 that second night, it was back to the theatre for more of the same.
On the second night cleanup, everything gets taken down and stored until the next time which is now once a year. It got to be a bit draining (and impractical) to keep putting it on multiple times a year so eventually we scaled back to just the Halloween shows again.
With such a weird show, you have to deal with some crazy stuff as well. In October of 2003, the theatre received a bomb threat called into the box office during the show. The theatre was evacuated right in middle of the “Meatloaf’s for dinner!” scene and everyone was sent home. We happened to be recording the show that night to help train future cast replacements, so I got the whole evacuation on tape.
At the next Rocky show the following February, we sold shirts that said “Rocky Is The Bomb!” to commemorate it. They were a hit, and people were still wearing them to the show as of 2012.
Others in the audience chose to commemorate the bomb differently...
Things also got a little nerve-wrecking in 2005 when a crazy woman called and legitimately threatened to shut us down, claiming it was a “strip show with underage children”, completely missing the fact the theatre had been putting it on for over 15 years and police were always present.
Another nerve-wrecking moment for me was once doing the show with a psychotic, recently dumped ex-girlfriend screaming at me the entire time from the front row. That was interesting.
The weird stuff didn’t just happen in the audience. Once, a “Brad” and “Rocky” were smashed and acted like idiots during the show and one of them somehow got a minor head wound, and then, these two macho “dude bros” started making out during the floor show. They weren’t asked back.
Years went by, and eventually I started thinking about how much longer I’d stick with it...I was still having fun and with only one a year again and gradually relinquishing a lot of the responsibility, it wasn’t a huge strain on my time either. But as I got older, the audience stayed the same age. Kids in the hallway at school were still recognizing me from the show, but I wasn’t their classmate, I was their substitute teacher now. Yikes, awkward.
By 2012, I had reached my 16th year with the show. I was 32 years old, and had spent half my life with Rocky Horror each Halloween. The first time I experienced the “show” live was around age 14 or 15, which made me realize if anyone in the audience was like me, then it meant I had been doing this since before they were born...that told me it was time to retire.
My final Rocky Horror in 2012 was everything you would want it to be—a full, enthusiastic audience having a great time. If you spend half your life doing anything crazy like that, you can’t help but look back on it fondly.
I lost actual count years ago, but I performed somewhere over 60 times in 16 years, sharing the stage with around 5 or 6 “Franks”, 8 or 9 “Brads” and “Janets”, around a dozen “Eddies” and about 20 “Rockys” (they were always the hardest to retain, for some reason.) My dad was the MC and Criminologist for most of that run, and this year my sister “retires” from playing “Columbia”.
This was my Halloween for a very long time-from high school until my early 30s—so it feels a little strange to not be there anymore, sweating from Riff-Raff’s “hump” (through all the changes over 16 years, I used the same crudely stuffed and sewn hump in every performance since my start in 1997.)
Last year (my first year “retired”) I was in bed and asleep before it even began...as many wise men have said before, “it’s hell getting old”. But it’s still going strong and audiences of all ages are still flocking to it every Halloween season, and I suspect as long as there are people out there looking to “give themselves over to absolute pleasure” then the “Time Warp” will continue for years to come. Have fun folks. I know you will, and so did I.
Bonus Pictures From Randy Owen!
“Regular Frankie Fan” and friend of the show Randy Owen and his daughters spent many years attending Rocky at Peoria Players, and he’s graciously allowed me to share just some of the hundreds of photos they took through the years, some of which even pre-date my involvement with the show. They’re featured below. Thanks Randy!
Rocky Horror Picture Show (Midnight tonight, doors open 11:30PM)
Peoria Players Theatre
4300 N University
P.S. 30th Anniversary of the Peoria Collectible Record Convention Happens Tomorrow!
Tomorrow is the 30th Anniversary of The Peoria Collectible Record Convention. You can go take part of the festivities tomorrow from 10AM to 4PM at the Travel Lodge (formerly The Grand Hotel) @ 4400 Brandywine Drive, right across from the Northwoods Mall. I’m going and I hope to see you there!