Late one Friday night last month, a group of people gathered at a children’s gymnastics facility in Scottsdale. “We can’t let you in yet, because the cast is still rehearsing,” yelled a man who said his name was Charles U. Farley from behind a makeshift concessions counter. “If you’ll just hang here in the lobby for a while, they’re almost ready for us.”
While Charles sold a paper lunch bag filled with burnt toast and toilet paper to a young woman wearing rainbow-striped shorts and a gold-sequined top hat, a man clutching a tube of lipstick circulated. “Have you seen Rocky Horror before?” he asked a chubby gal wearing a glitter bow-tie. She barked out a laugh and rolled her eyes.
“Oh, god, I grew up with it! My mom totally had the VHS tape, we watched it like a thousand times.”
The fellow with the lipstick moved on to a tall man whose foot was in a cast. “Is this your first time seeing Rocky Horror?” he asked.
“I don’t know who that is,” the man wearing the cast replied.
“It’s a movie. We’re all here to watch this movie called The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It’s about a drag queen from outer space named Frank N. Furter, and he seduces these kids from Ohio named Brad and Janet. If you haven’t seen it before, that means you’re a Rocky virgin and I’m supposed to write on your face with this slut-red lipstick.”
The man with the broken foot looked confused. “It’s a movie?”
“I don’t have to write on you, if you don’t want,” the fellow with the lipstick said, then walked away.
“A friend of mine invited me to this,” the man with the cast said to a pair of strangers standing next to him. “I didn’t know they were showing a movie.”
The strangers tried to explain Rocky Horror. “It’s a musical send-up of old science fiction movies,” one of them said. “The audience sings along with the songs, and they yell at the actors and throw rice during the wedding scene and blow horns during the party scene,” they told him.
“It’s been kind of a cult movie since the 1970s, and everyone here tonight used to go see it back then,” the other stranger offered. “Some of them are dressed as characters from the movie.”
Farley announced that the shadow cast, which would enact Rocky Horror while it played on the screen behind them, had finished rehearsing, and the audience filed into the gymnasium.
“I woke up five minutes ago and ran down here,” a 50ish woman whispered to her companion. “I didn’t have time for makeup, so don’t look at me.”
A young woman in a sparkly tube top squealed. “Hi, Dad!” she cried and hugged an older man with an anemic white pony tail. “Oh, god!” she yelled into his ear. “I am super stoned!”
Farley stood before a movie screen flanked by posters for cheerleading camps. “This is so great,” he hollered to the smallish audience. “We have way more people here tonight than I anticipated.”
There were, he told a friend several days later, about 60 people there. “Seventy-five counting the shadow cast,” Farley said. Last July, he’d hosted a public screening of the film that drew a third as many people.
The shadow cast was the reason for this private event, one of several members-only events produced by Farley, who referred to himself as a “Rocky lifer” and a “writer and budding filmmaker.” This was not just a secret screening of Rocky Horror, he said. “This was the shadow cast’s 221st performance,” he boasted.
Rocky shadow casts began in the early '80s, explained Farley, who’s 48. “When I first got involved, it was with the cast at the Sombrero Theater,” he said, recalling the revival house at Seventh Street and Camelback Road where Rocky played in the late 1970s. “Those performances were pretty primitive. It was basically high school kids with sheets and flashlights.”
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Farley’s aspiration then was to elevate local shadow casts. He had since produced, he said, “shadow cast performances that were almost as elaborate as any professional production.”
Shadow casting gives everyone the chance to be a rock star for a couple hours, Farley believed. Memorizing an old movie and miming along with it in front of several dozen strangers and friends, he thought, was an excellent way for misfits to unwind a little. All these years later, Richard O’Brien’s deliberately tacky rock musical still offered solace to those misfits, and that was a good thing.
“It’s dressed up in glam and '50s sci-fi and musclemen movies,” Farley said, “but Rocky is an archetypal coming-of-age story. Everyone starts out as Brad or Janet, and they get to decide whether they’re going to unleash their inner Frank N. Furter. It’s about liberation and self-expression and lack of fear.”
For lots of people, Farley said, Rocky Horror remained a cornerstone. “It’s both a foundation and a key to understanding,” he said. “I started doing shadow casts in the '80s, and it still fills a need for me. There are still people who need Rocky Horror. I’m one of them.”