The cult-classic “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” has a special place in Milwaukee’s heart.
The Oriental Theatre holds the record for the longest continuous showing of the cult hit, which is a wild musical parody of old horror and science fiction films. The theater has played a midnight showing since January of 1978 and now shows the film at midnight on the second Saturday of each month with the shadow cast Sensual Daydreams, which acts out the movie live and in costume.
Sensual Daydreams, which formed in 1993 from remnants of the previous cast, Celluloid Jam, is grateful for the opportunity to use the Oriental Theatre because mall theaters often do not allow casts to perform. The theatre also has ample space to run around while also leaving room for large props.
“I always joke with the cast that if I owned this theatre, I wouldn’t let people throw rice and use squirt guns and run around because, it’s a beautiful place,” said Jerry Dunk, the director of the group. “The cast has dressing rooms that a lot of other casts don’t have. We don’t have to get ready in the bathrooms. We are really spoiled.”
The original theatrical release of “Rocky Horror” was by no means a success. Originating in England as a hit play, the show appeared in the U.S. in the same format but minus the success. It was made into a movie in 1975 but did not last long in theaters.
It wasn’t until a New York theater showed “Rocky Horror” at midnight that the concept of the midnight showing took hold. The management of the theater found that the crowd kept growing each week, and the same people kept showing up.
“It grew organically. It wasn’t like, ‘At this point, you’re going to throw this, and here, you’re going to say this,’” Dunk said. “People just started dressing up and yelling things, and it developed and became a big thing on its own. Eventually people started getting together and forming little casts.”
There are now casts in various cities across the country, and Sensual Daydreams is Milwaukee’s 16-member cast. While the movie plays, the group acts out what is happening in different spots in the theater, dressed as the characters of the film. In addition to the group performing, audience participation is an important part of the experience.
“They (the audience) are yelling lines at the screen or at the actors,” Dunk said. “They are throwing rice during the wedding scene, throwing toast during one scene, toilet paper during another, so there’s all kinds of things going on in the theatre throughout the whole movie.”
Even though the cast is performing what is happening on screen, the goal of the group is not to distract the audience from the film itself. As opposed to some casts that try to place the emphasis on the live show, Dunk said Sensual Daydreams lets the audience choose what it wants to watch.
“We’re there to augment the movie; we aren’t there to replace the movie,” Dunk said. “We have a few scenes where we are a little bit in front of the screen, but we still pretty much try to keep from being distracting from the movie itself. We try to add an extra dimension to the movie by acting it out.”
A typical midnight show includes announcements that tell people the basic rules and a special event for newcomers to the midnight show, called “virgins” in the “Rocky Horror” world, and then the film itself plays and Sensual Daydreams perform.
The special virgin games vary at each show, but Dunk said there is nothing anyone has had to do that they do not want to.
“Sometimes I hear people are afraid to come to the show because they have heard of the ‘de-virginizing,’ and they think it’s something scary,” Dunk said. “But you can come to the theatre and not worry about that at all.”
In past years, Sensual Daydreams has traditionally done a single show during the Halloween season. The Halloween show last year sold out, prompting Sensual Daydreams to add a second this year to satisfy audience demand. The shows will be on Oct. 26 and 27.
“Halloween is when more people think of Rocky Horror,” Dunk said. “(But) we actually do good numbers all year long. We already had one of those on Oct. 13, so the fact that we have three shows this month shows we keep up with the demand.”
The theater holds 1,000 people, and with a traditional show getting hundreds of people, Dunk assumes the theater will be sold out at both shows.
“It seems like we are getting a little extra interest this year because there are ‘Rocky Horror’ scenes in ‘Perks of Being a Wallflower,’” Dunk said. “We expect that some people who don’t know about the show to see it in the movie and (are) curious about it.”
For the two Halloween shows, Sensual Daydreams adds some fun special events, including a special preshow and two costume contests.
The preshow is a 10-minute skit written by the cast and performed as the audience enters the theater. It is often a parody of something else or a dance number. Annaleigh Vytlacil, the current Dr. Frank-N-Furter, said that the preshow will be 1800s-themed.
Another special event Sensual Daydreams has in store for audiences at Halloween shows is a two-part costume contest with a prize for winners.
“General costumes have one category, and then if you’re dressed as a Rocky Horror character, you have a chance to win something else,” Dunk said. “People who usually go to the show know that the prizes we give away are usually joke prizes, and nothing real serious. For the costume contest, we have real prizes, not just jokes.”
The midnight showings of “Rocky Horror” have become home for all sorts of people, attracting all types and ages. As the years go by, the audience has increased and brought even more diverse groups. Dunk notes that when he first joined the cast, a big show would be 50 people, but now, it’s rare to see less than 200 “Rocky Horror” fans at a show.
“A lot of our audience is late high school and early college age, but the audience goes all over the age range,” Dunk said. “We’ve seen a lot of people in the theater lately who went back in the ’70s but are now coming back, or coming back and bringing their kids with them.”
A big tenant of why people keep coming back, Dunk said, is the welcoming environment of the midnight shows.
“You can dress how you want, you can be whatever kind of person you want to be, and it’s all OK,” he said. “No matter who you are in your daily life, you can be whoever you want on that weekend in the theater.”
This welcoming environment is the main reason why Vytlacil joined the cast in 2007.
“I’ve always been an outcast, and most of the people in the cast have never really been the types that other people have wanted to be like,” Vytlacil said. “And when you go there, it’s just a bunch of people who aren’t perfect. Everyone’s different, and everyone is accepted. And once I felt that, I loved it. It’s like a family when it comes to the cast, and I wanted to join that.”
As to why “Rocky Horror” has become such a midnight hit, Dunk’s guess is as good as anyone’s. If the success of it could be explained, Dunk said other movies would have been made to work the same way. “Rocky Horror” is one of the few films that succeeds at midnight, and Dunk points to the uniqueness of the experience as the reason for that success.
“They delayed putting it out on video for a really long time because they figured no one would see it in the theater anymore,” Dunk said. “Now it’s funny because it’s available on DVD, it’s on Blu-Ray, you see it on TV all the time, yet there’s more people in the theater than ever before. The movie is the central thing of the experience, but you don’t get the experience from watching the movie. The experience is being there with all the people and being in this community of misfits, having a great time.”