Show Biz Part 2: Oh, Rocky!

Last week I wrote about getting a job at a movie theater when I first moved to Madison, Wisconsin many years ago. The theater was an “Art house,” showing foreign films, documentaries, and basically filling a niche that other theaters had ignored at that time. The theater I worked at — the Majestic — was technically part of a chain: the chain also managed theaters in Seattle, Minneapolis, and Milwaukee, among other cities.

One of the things this theater was known for, regionally, was showing the “Rocky Horror Picture Show” every Saturday at midnight. Madison being a college town, Rocky Horror was a popular, late-night offering, and college students were lined up around the block to get in. There were others in line too; drunken adults with time on their hands, and trendy people who heard it was cool. One of my jobs — which I took because no one else wanted it — was to search patrons coming in to the theater. Contraband include glass or metal containers, booze, weapons, and excess amounts of toast, rice, or water launching devices. I’ll come back to this list in a bit to explain.

People were creative — ingenious, even — at finding places to hide things they knew we didn’t want brought in. Since my search, though invasive of personal space, was largely a cursory one, lots of stuff got through. Even so, we still managed to fill an entire garbage can with contraband every Saturday night — entire boxes of uncooked Minute Rice; whole loaves of bread, both toasted and untoasted; beer cans, liquor bottles (some not even opened) and hip flasks. Once, I had to take a trench knife away from someone, promising they could have it back when they left. Incidentally, a trench knife is a knife attached to a set of brass knuckles. In this case, the knife folded into the knuckleduster for greater ease of storage and reduced chance of losing a finger when plunging a hand into your coat pocket in search of your keys. The fellow was quite polite about surrendering his weapon, and got it back afterwards.

We also had an elite club at the Majestic, known as The Cookie Club. People who attended Rocky Horror often had been drinking a fair bit beforehand — shocking, I know — and sometimes, the last alcoholic beverage that person consumed convinced the patron’s stomach that it hadn’t wanted the other, previous drinks either, and so up they all came, along with whatever gut bomb they had eaten to mitigate the alcohol. Enter the poor slob of a janitor, who had to come through at some point between 1:30 AM when the film ended, and roughly noon, when Sunday’s movies would start. Cleaning up after someone who had tossed their cookies (hence “Cookie Club”) was no fun; fortunately, it didn’t happen too often, and while we had a compound to pour over it to neutralize and help solidify the mess, it still smelled bad and the yuck factor was pretty high.

Cleaning up after Rocky Horror was always an ordeal — wet rice glued to the carpet, barf every now and then, and slices of toast — to go with the usual spilled soda, dumped buckets of popcorn, candy wrappers, cockroaches, and empty booze bottles and beer cans left behind to taunt us. We had a backpack style vacuum cleaner that we used to blow all the loose bits down the aisles to the front of the theater, making it easier to shovel into garbage bags. Of course, when popcorn — and particularly rice — gets wet, the blower isn’t good enough; we sometimes had to use a beat-up snow shovel to scrape the soggy mess off the floor. I’m guessing by now you can imagine how much fun that job must have been.

I don’t know how you feel about cockroaches, but I admire them. They still give me the screamin’ willies and I absolutely don’t want to be near them, but I admire many things about them. For example, the fact that they can survive for several days even having their head cut off is incredible. Imagine picking up trash in a semi-dark theater — the house lights can only help so much — and when grabbing a half-full soda cup, you accidentally trap a roach between your hand and the cup. The fun never stopped at that job.

Yes, this was during the late 1980s

Another part of my job was reading the rules. At points in the film, there is a wedding scene where people throw rice; there is a scene set during a downpour, so people sneak in squirt guns and “make it rain” inside the auditorium; and there’s a scene where one of the characters announces a toast, at which time people throw slices of toast. Reading the rules consists of reminding patrons not to throw things at the screen, not to smoke in the auditorium, and not to block the aisles during the dance number (the Time Warp, for those of you who don’t know.) I had a patter down, and it became kind of popular. So much so that, some months after I left employment at the Majestic, the then-manager contacted me to ask if I would come back to read the rules for some special occasion, the nature of which I’ve forgotten. I was surprised and humbled to discover my name on the lower marquee when I arrived:

It was my first taste of (VERY minor) celebrity, but it was the last time I read the rules for Rocky Horror. I don’t really feel any loss over that. Rocky Horror’s cult status basically is all about being naughty, and appeals mostly to teens living away from home for the first time. Another strong draw is the audience participation element. People shout clever lines back at the screen in response to the film’s flat dialogue: I have no idea how the audience participation started, but by the time I was involved, most of the lines were well-known, and were usually amusing. At the time it was released in the early 1970s, it was edgy. It was never a good film, really, but dealing with gender and sex issues wasn’t really done forty years ago. (You read that right: FORTY YEARS AGO) It is my belief that Rocky Horror doesn’t deal with these issues in any way that is sensitive and encouraging, but rather in a teen-aged, point-and-snicker sort of way. Maybe it helped some people deal with their own issues of gender identity, but that seems unlikely. It’s cheap thrills for the whitebread elements of Western civilization, and I hate to think what someone dealing with those gender issues might think of it.

But it’s also possible to overthink things, and that’s something I often do. Rocky Horror was a fun escape for a whole lot of people, and exposed them (pardon) to whole new concepts in sexuality. Maybe it did some good; it certainly was profitable for Richard O’Brien, the writer, director, and a star (as Riff Raff) of the film. It’s an experience best served live, with audience participation, and it always amuses me when network television airs the film. Without the audience to shout clever lines back at the screen Rocky Horror is pretty dull.

Despite my bitter cynicism, Rocky Horror is an experience worth having. If you go, don’t wear clothes you really like, unless they are not prone to stains from the water, toast, and rice that goes flying. You could invite me along, but I would politely decline. After three years of working the film nearly every week, I know more of the lines than I really care to. Plus, I know how it ends.

One thought on “Show Biz Part 2: Oh, Rocky!

  1. Never broke a rule at RHPS, not once in the 364 times I viewed it in s theater. Thanks Bill you made it fun every time I sw it at the majestic.

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