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New Jersey Does the Time Warp Again and Again

Actress Laura Marie performs as Janet in Rocky Horror Picture Show with Home of Happiness. Photo by Michael Hambel.

In the late 1970s, lines began to appear outside of a handful of New Jersey movie theaters on Friday nights. An underground phenomenon born at The Waverly Theatre in Greenwich Village had started to spread nationally. The Art Cinema in New Brunswick was of the first to embrace it, followed by theaters in Belmar, Teaneck and Hackensack, and for soon-to-be regulars, a new tradition was taking shape — the weekly pilgrimage to see The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Steve Davidson, a lifelong science fiction fan, saw the film for the first time at Rutgers University in the late 1970s and quickly went from first-timer to weekly attendee at a movie theater in Hackensack. “It was completely overwhelming,” he says. “Obviously nobody had ever seen anything like that up on the screen… It really spoke to folks in college who were still experimenting and figuring out who they were.”

Between screenings at theaters and watching at home, he estimates to have seen the film a total of 400 or 500 times — a small number compared to others as he points out.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show was a commercial flop headed for obscurity in 1976 when Tim Deegan, a young advertising executive at 20th Century Fox, approached The Waverly in with an idea: screen the film at midnight, a time slot that provided successful runs to cult classics El Topo and Night of the Living Dead at the theater.

Returning audiences began dressing up as characters and eventually shouting back at the screen, a trend widely attributed to one of the first regulars at The Waverly. Dressing up led to acting out the film in “shadow casts” in front of the screen, which spawned Rocky performance companies who led audience participation weekly.

Now, more than 35 years later, The Rocky Horror Picture Show phenomenon is still going strong. In several locations throughout New Jersey, the movie is still screened and performed regularly, with several additional showings popping up for Halloween.

In New Brunswick, The State Theatre is screening the cult classic on the Friday following Halloween. The presenting house, which hosts performances ranging from orchestral concerts and ballets to rock shows and national tours will be screening the film for the first time in recent memory. “We have a wonderful new film system and we’ve been showing films again,” says President and CEO Mark W. Jones. “We decided it would be fun at Halloween to do Rocky.”

The theater was a property of the film company RKO during the time period that many of the horror films referenced in Rocky Horror were produced, and RKO itself plays a role in the movie as well — a fact that adds another layer to the theater’s event. “I think it kind of makes it fun. That’s our history and our roots,” Jones says. As for clean-up, “We don’t expect it’s going to be a tidy crowd,” jokes Jones. “It’s part of the fun of film.”

In Hoboken, the Halloween tradition takes on special meaning as a fundraiser at Maxwell’s on Oct. 31 benefiting the Historic Jersey City & Harsimus Cemetery. Home of Happiness, a Montclair-based shadow cast well known in the national scene, will perform the benefit. Company members Shawn Stutler and Larry Viezel, who will appear in Thursday’s show, see Rocky Horror as an opportunity to give back in more ways than one.

“I’ve seen the people who keep the show alive do some really incredible things,” says Stutler. “I mentioned charities and fundraisers, but that’s only one small part of it. These Rocky Horror groups act as surrogate families for people all across the country.”

For that reason, Stutler and Viezel hope to shine a spotlight on those they see as unsung heroes of the ongoing phenomenon through a documentary they’re creating called Rocky Horror Saved My Life. “The people who have kept Rocky Horror alive are not the people on the movie screen, they’re the people who dance around in front of the movie screen, in the aisles, talking and engaging with people,” explains Stutler. “These people aren’t honored or remembered in any way,” — a fact the duo hopes to ameliorate.

In another part of New Jersey, engaging audiences is being taken to another level. Director and actor Anthony D’Amato is working with The Strand Center for the Arts in Lakewood to put a twist on the Halloween classic, mounting an immersive production of the stage version of Rocky Horror. Following in the footsteps of commercial hits like the immersive theatre/dance production Sleep No More in New York City, D’Amato hopes to bring back the shock value of seeing this story for the first time.

“Having done eight different productions and being such a huge fan of the film for my entire life, I feel like I understand what is necessary for the audience participation aspect of this,” he says on the new production. “I know that I can satisfy an audience, but still give them a completely new show.”

This revamping means a telling of the story that unfolds above, below and all around the audience. “The seats are on stage,” D’Amato says, “so you have no choice but to be among the show.”

For first wave “unconventional conventionalists” like Davidson, nothing will beat the thrill of seeing Rocky Horror in its original form. “There’s no way…to retain the shock value that it used to have in the ‘70s,” he says. “On the other hand, if you’re going to achieve that kind of a shock value and give the show the same kind of a feel that it had back then, I think that…you’re going to have to put a new twist on it.”

While pushing the boundaries plays a role for some in keeping the film fresh, the essence of the story, in any form, remains much of the reason audiences continue to dance “The Time Warp.”

“There’s definitely a message of acceptance and across the board. Almost anything you’re into or any kind of person you are, that’s fine,” says Stutler. “If you follow the characters of Brad and Janet…they start out very shy, very timid, very conservative, and they’re slowly opened up to a different world…and they’re brought around to see the beauty of that lifestyle. That sort of acts as the metaphor for how people engage with Rocky Horror.”

And with 36 years of history in New Jersey and no end in sight, it appears The Rocky Horror Picture Show will welcome new Brads and Janets throughout the Garden State for years to come.