Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Time Warping, Again

 This photo of Larry Rohr riding through the Biograph's larger 
auditorium on was shot on March 1, 1980.
In 1975 “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” produced by Lou Adler, was released by 20th Century Fox. Adapted from the British gender-bending stage musical, “The Rocky Horror Show,” the movie died at the box office. The critics didn’t particularly like it, either.

The odd-ball story of the movie’s second life — as the cult midnight show king of all-time — is said to have begun at the Waverly Theater in Manhattan, when during the spring of 1977 audience members began calling out sarcastic comeback lines at the screen. It became a game to make up new and better lines.

Later that same year the rather unprecedented interaction between audience and screen jumped to other cities, where “Rocky Horror” was also playing as a midnight show — chiefly, Austin and Los Angeles. Cheap props and campy costumes mimicking those in the film appeared.

So, by the spring of 1978 “Rocky Horror” was playing to wildly enthusiastic crowds in a few midnight show bookings. Yet, curiously, it had not done well at others. At this point, what would eventually become an unprecedented pop culture phenomenon was still flying below the radar for most of America.

We had already asked Fox, the distributor, about playing it but were told there weren't any prints available. Then a trip to LA in May of that year boosted my interest in the film. I was fascinated with what I was told about what was happening out there with “Rocky Horror.” I told my bosses in Georgetown what I'd learned and we decided to try harder to book it. Their former partner, David Levy, had beaten them to it for the D.C. market; it had recently started playing at The Key.

Once again, our inquiry to the distributor hit a roadblock. With all of the existing prints of the movie still in use, the brass at Fox felt unwilling to risk money on striking any more prints to cater to a weird fad that might fizzle any time; there was no enthusiasm for the picture’s prospects in Richmond.

In those days Richmond was generally seen by most movie distributors as a weak market — not a place to waste resources. Besides, no one at Fox seemed to understand why the audience participation following for the picture had started, or what was making it catch on in some places, but not in others.

Over the telephone, I was told we would simply have to wait for a print to become available; there was no telling how long that would be.

So, sensing the moment might pass us by, we got creative. The Biograph offered to front the cost of a new print to be made, which would stand as an advance against film rental (35 percent of the box office take). For that consideration we wanted a guarantee from the distributor that we would have the exclusive rights to exhibit “Rocky Horror” in the Richmond market, as long we held onto that same print and paid Fox the film rental due.

Fox went for the deal. Based on the quirky success of the movie in the cities where it was playing well, I decided to use a concept that had worked with other cult films at the Biograph — let the audience “discover” the movie. Don’t over-promote it and draw the sort of general audience that might include too many people who could leave the theater bad-mouthing it.

Instead, the strategy called for attracting the taste-makers, the ones who must see everything on opening night, to see it first. Their endorsement would spread the good word. Accordingly, I produced radio spots using about 20 seconds of the “Time Warp” cut on the soundtrack to run on WGOE-AM. The only ad copy came at the very end. The listener heard my voice say, “Get in the act … midnight at the Biograph.”

There was no explanation of what the music was, or what the ad was even about. We put out a handbill with a pencil drawing of Riff Raff — a character in the movie — against a black background, with the distinctive dripping blood title in red. The “Get in the Act” theme was repeated. The hook was that none of it gave the listener/reader as much information as they expected. Still, it was more than enough to alert the fanatics who had already been going to D.C. or New York to see it.

“The Rocky Horror Picture Show” opened June 30, 1978 and drew an enthusiastic crowd, but it was far short of a sell-out. Some of those who attended called out wisecrack lines, to respond to the movie’s dialogue. Most did not. A handful of people dressed in costumes drawn from characters in the movie.

In the next few weeks a devoted following for the rock ‘n’ roll send-up of science fiction and horror flicks snowballed. At the center of that following was a regular troupe who became the costumed singers and dancers that turned each midnight screening into a performance art adventure.

John Porter, a VCU theater major, emerged as the leader of that group; they called themselves The Floorshow. Dressed in his Frankenfurter get-up, Porter missed few, if any, midnight screenings at the Biograph for the next couple of years.

There were a lot of crazy things that happened in the years of babysitting “Rocky Horror.“ Among them was the Saturday night we threw out the entire full house, because so many people had gone wild; bare-chested rednecks were hosing the crowd down with our fire extinguishers. Fights were underway when we shut down the projector and the movie slowly ground to a halt. Everybody got their money back.

Interestingly, after that melodramatic stunt, we never had much trouble with violence to do with “Rocky Horror” again.

However, there was no stranger night than when about six weeks into the run, a man in his 30s breathed his last, as he sat in the small auditorium watching “F.I.S.T.” Yes, that Sylvester Stallone vehicle was particularly lame, but who knew it was potentially lethal?

The dead man’s face was expressionless … he just expired.

When the rescue squad guys got there they jerked him out of his chair and onto the floor. As jolts of electricity were shot through the dead man’s body, down in Theater No. 1 “Rocky Horror“ was on the Biograph’s larger screen delighting a packed house.

The audience had no idea of what was going on elsewhere in the building. A couple of times, I walked back and forth between the two scenes, feeling the bizarre juxtaposition.

Learning just how much to allow the performers to do, what limits were practical or necessary, came with experience. Porter’s leadership of the regulars was a key to keeping it fun, but not out of control. For his part John was given a lifetime pass to the Biograph.

On Friday, March 1, 1980, with its 88th consecutive week, “Rocky Horror” established a new record for longevity in Richmond. It broke the record of 87 weeks, established by “The Sound of Music” (1965) during its first-run engagement at the Willow Lawn. 

March 1, 1980.

That night Porter and I were both dressed in tuxedos (as pictured above). In front of the full house he held up a “Sound of Music” soundtrack album. I smashed it with a hammer, which went over quite well with the folks on hand. A couple of the regulars came dressed as Julie Andrews, in a nice touch to underline the special night‘s theme.

The late Carole Kass, the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s sweetheart of a entertainment writer/movie critic, wrote up a nice feature on what was basically hokum. 

That same night Larry Rohr (as seen in the photo at the top of the page) rode his motorcycle through the auditorium’s aisles at the point in the story when Meatloaf’s character in the film, Eddie, rides his motorcycle.

Rohr’s careful but noisy rides happened only on a few special occasions, like the record breaking night. Nothing bad ever happened. One time, after we had just barely dodged the fire marshal, to get Larry in position at the proper time — which underlined some nagging what-ifs about what we were doing — I had a dream that the Biograph exploded. The nightmare scared me so much about the danger of the stunt that the motorcycle rides were discontinued.

Afterwards, one of the Floorshow members occasionally rode a tricycle through. Now, of course, it seems crazy as hell that I ever facilitated such shenanigans. In the context of the times, it was just another part of living out the theater’s slogan/motto — Have a Good Time.

While “Rocky Horror” had an underground cachet in the first year or so of its run, its status eventually changed in the staff’s eyes. Rice, toast and all sorts of other stuff that got tossed around — never at the screen! — had to be cleaned up each and every time by the grumbling janitors, who grew to detest the movie. To keep the peace they got “Rocky Horror” bonuses — a few extra bucks for their weekend shifts.

Once into the third year of the Friday and Saturday midnight screenings the demand began to wither. By then much of the audience seemed to be tourists from the suburbs … any city’s suburbs. The Fan District’s fast crowd in the punk rock scene mostly ignored it. The shows didn’t sell out, anymore, but they continued to do enough business to justify holding onto that original print.

No doubt, some number of lifelong friendships stem from the nights the kids were dancing to the Time Warp in the aisles at the Biograph. The five-year run of “Rocky Horror” ended on June 25, 1983.

-- Photos by Ernie Brooks

-- 30 --

Monday, December 11, 2017

Remembering Rozanne Epps (1922-2008)

Photo from STYLE Weekly
Note: The remembrance below was originally posted here on SLANTblog nine years ago (Nov. 20, 2008), shortly after the death of Rozanne Epps (pictured right). 

After watching the excellent new HBO documentary, "The Newspaperman: The Life and Times of Ben Bradlee," I had a telephone conversation in which I rambled onto citing the importance of having good editors (in the old days), and now ... which eventually led to mentioning Rozanne as an example of a skilled editor that I loved working with. So I decided to re-post this brief tribute to a person who deserves to be remembered well.   
Rozanne Epps led a full life before she died at the age of 86 on Sunday. For over 20 years she worked at STYLE Weekly, going back to the days when Lorna Wyckoff was still its publisher. I knew of her long before her days at STYLE, because of her noteworthy career at VCU. (Click here for background in the STYLE obituary.) And, I knew her as Garrett Epps' mother. I knew him only casually when he was a member of the staff at the Richmond Mercury, along with Frank Rich, Harry Stein, Glenn Frankel and others in the early-70s.
But my only real association with her began in 1999, when she accepted one piece I submitted to STYLE and sent me to Richmond.com with the other. The one that ran as a Back Page piece was about baseball. The one that began my relationship with Richmond.com was about the closing of the Texas Wisconsin Border Cafe.

Over the years since, STYLE, and especially Richmond.com, have published a lot of my work. So, I'm grateful to her for that good turn. However, what I got from her as an editor is why I'm writing this remembrance. Rozanne taught me to be a better writer. She did that with good humor and fairness. It was always fun to exchange emails and talk on the telephone with her.

So, to those who knew her far better than I did, yes, we are all lucky we knew Rozanne Epps.

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Texas 71, VCU 67

Tues., Dec. 5, 2017: It was the 105th consecutive sell-out crowd for the home-standing VCU Rams. ESPN2 was in the house, so a national television audience had also watched the Texas Longhorns build a 19-point lead with 11:59 left in the game.

Then VCU went on a run and there were moments it got as loud as I've heard it at the Siegel Center. OK, maybe it was louder when the Rams beat the Louisville Cardinals, on Nov. 19, 1999, the night the first game was played in that arena. I'm not sure.

At the 3:52 mark VCU took its only lead in the game: VCU 63, Texas 62.

For the next two-and-a-half minutes neither team scored. Then the visitors pulled ahead and went on to win what was a first class college basketball game. Indeed, both teams left it all on the floor.  

Final score: Texas 71, VCU 67.

The Rams senior forward, Justin Tillman, led all scorers with 22 points. Tillman also grabbed 10 rebounds. Much of the game he was working against Texas forward Mohamed Bamba, the 7-foot-tall freshman phenom with the monster wingspan. Bamba blocked 4 shots, changed several others and got 13 boards to match his 13 points. He is widely expected to be a lottery pick in the next NBA draft.

Anyway, after the game in the media room, it was packed with sports writers, broadcasters and others who have access. Hoops fan Stuart Siegel was there; he frequently is. So were Dr. Eugene Trani (VCU President Emeritus) and his wife, Lois. VCU's Coach Mike Rhoades faced the assembled press. He did his usual fine job of handling the ordeal.

After Rhoades cleared out, Shaka Smart sat in the hot seat. Smart seemed eager to say, "This is a special place to play a basketball game." He also seemed tired.

When Smart was through answering questions the reporters started to pack up and leave. Dr. Trani approached Smart and the two had a warm but brief conversation. So I snapped a quick shot of them with my cell phone. Then Trani asked me to take a photo of the three of them. I was happy to document the moment.

The Washington Post also covered the scene with a nice feature article by Dan Steinberg.

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Person of the Year?

If this happens no one will be more surprised than Rebus. 
Oh, and Donald Trump, of course.


Monday, December 04, 2017

Rea's Rams Report: No. 3

Shaka Smart returns to Richmond on Dec. 5, when his 
Texas Longhorns will face the VCU Rams at the Siegel 
Center. ESPN2 will carry the telecast (7 p.m.).

VCU's senior forward Justin Tillman has been named Atlantic 10 Conference Co-Player of the Week. He shares the award with George Washington's senior guard Yuta Watanabe.

In leading the Rams to two wins last week,  Appalachian State (85-72) and Old Dominion (82-75), Tillman averaged 24.5 points and 6 rebounds per game. The 6-foot-8 forward's 28 points (10 for 13 from the floor) against ODU on Saturday was a career-high. For the season, Tillman is averaging a team-high 15.5 points per game.

The Rams (5-3) next game is on Tues., Dec. 5, when they will host Shaka Smart's Texas Longhorns (5-2) at the Siegel Center. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m.

To read my STYLE Weekly preview of the Texas vs VCU tilt, with background on Smart and VCU head coach Mike Rhoades, click here.

 -- Photo from VCU.