Appropriately enough, it started with a girl. Not my girl, by any means, but a pretty, artsy type my friend was chasing. She was into Rocky Horror, and thus, we went. Teenage hormones have a way of surmounting doubts about a midnight start or hanging out with a bunch of weirdoes we didn't know.
This was in 1988, and Rocky Horror was playing at the late Balboa Theater, and my just-shy-of-16 self found the whole thing mesmerizing.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show, starring Tim Curry, Susan Sarandon and Barry Bostwick, was released in 1975 and though it immediately bombed at the box office, it was embraced by a hardcore cult following almost immediately, with actors imitating the actions on screen and the audience shouting jokes and obscenities. But that's almost beside the point.
Outside, a guy was juggling fire to entertain the crowd in line. Inside, a tall, gangly punk held court amid a harem of Goth girls. The Ramones were on the loudspeakers, and alcohol was being passed in paper-bagged bottles. I knew nothing about any of this, but somehow I knew I'd come home. And that was before the famous part of the cast imitating the movie began. There was something indelibly alive about the whole experience, an electrifying freedom for a shy high school theater geek.
Newport Beach's Balboa closed in 1991, and the cast–Midnight Insanity–had resided at the Art Theater in Long Beach since January 1992. And now, as the theater readies to change hands, it seems The Rocky Horror Picture Show is back on the streets; its last show at the Art was July 27.
"The building inspection's this weekend," explained Midnight Insanity organizer Mark Tomaino just before Art's last Picture show. "And the new owner wanted us to have our props out, and we weren't going to be able to store them there afterward anyway. He also wanted us to get independent entertainment insurance. Basically, we'd be paying to perform on a reduced scale."
Tomaino, who says he bears the new owners no ill will in the move, says the cast performs beginning this Saturday, Aug. 5, in a ballroom at Long Beach's SeaPort Marina and Saturdays thereafter while they look for a new, permanent home, which he says Midnight Insanity intends to buy. The interim show will be called "Club Rocky," and will run indefinitely.
While all of this is a lot of change, they're hardly the only changes Midnight Insanity's experienced in its 18-year run. What started as an unpredictable punk rock show has, in a lot of ways, become an extraordinarily well-run burlesque. What once was an unpredictable, rag-tag group marked by an improvisational spirit has given way to elaborate set pieces and even-more-elaborately choreographed skits and routines that run before the movie. What was once a quick pre-show routine to warm up the audience has become a show unto itself. The cast has appeared on The Drew Carey Show and performed at the Hollywood Bowl. The last show at the Art, ironically, was stripped down somewhat, as all their props had already been removed. Fittingly enough, it was also lingerie contest night, with winners chosen from the audience, so everyone was stripped as bare as their surroundings.
At times, it's easy to wonder if Rocky still serves a purpose. Certainly, there's more risqu entertainment on TV these days, and the show itself seems far more tame, if professional.
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But Bill Ung, a computer programmer who's performed with the cast since 1989, still sees a place for Rocky.
"I didn't belong to a theater club or any team sports in high school," he says, "and yet, now here I am, I've been on TV, I've performed at the Hollywood Bowl. What else could allow a guy like me to do those things?"
Maybe it's mere nostalgia, but the 16-year-old geek I was concurs, because no matter how much Rocky changes, that small first taste of freedom still lingers in my mouth.
SEAPORT MARINA MOTEL, 6400 E. PACIFIC COAST HWY., LONG BEACH, (562) 235-8053; WWW.MIDNIGHTINSANITY.COM. EVERY SAT., MIDNIGHT, INDEFINITELY. $7.