One of my fondest memories from high school is dressing up in a faux-fur black vest and fishnet stockings, smearing black eyeliner and red lipstick on my face, and going to see The Rocky Horror Picture Show with my friends on the night of our graduation. While the night was bittersweet, I was fortunate to have Oberlin ahead of me, where going all-out for Rocky Horror is a time-honored tradition for a student body that’s not afraid to get weird.
Rocky Horror made its big-screen debut in Los Angeles in 1975. Shortly thereafter, the show moved to Waverly Theater in Greenwich Village, NY, where the tradition of midnight picture shows was born. In the four decades since, Rocky Horror has become an American cult classic symbolizing the antithesis of all things mainstream and satirizing homophobic attitudes. The “picture show” element originated from a group of regulars at the Waverly Theater show in the ’70s who would ad-lib lines, boo their least-favorite characters, and sing along to the songs. From there, a shadow cast began organizing performances during the movie that involved dressing up, using props, shouting absurdities at the screen, and acting out scenes and dance numbers. These shadow casts began popping up at theaters throughout the country, eventually making their way to Oberlin.
The Apollo Theatre has been hosting Simply His Servants, a Cleveland-based Rocky Horror performance troupe, twice a year since 2009. This means that Obies have eight opportunities to see the show during their time at Oberlin. Despite the turnover in the student body, Simply His Servants Co-Founder and Cast Director Kev Boycik said that Oberlin students have consistently brought remarkable excitement and energy to all their shows over the past decade.
“Because of the fact that we only do it twice a year as opposed to a regular show — and the majority of the patrons are the College students — there’s always a lot more pent up energy and release,” Boycik said. “[Oberlin students are] very, very energetic, and [they] really just [want] to have a really good time. … Sometimes you feel like people [here] party twice as hard because you only get that release twice a year.”
It is typical in Rocky Horror circles across the country to go once every week. The fact that the cast gets to perform to an audience without many regulars means the enthusiasm is always fresh, which is part of what draws the company back year after year.
Sammie Westelman, OC ’19, boasted that she went to the seven of the shows that she was on campus for — and deeply regrets missing the eighth.
“Rocky Horror, like Oberlin, holds a very special place in my heart,” Westelman wrote in an email to the Review. “They both made me feel welcome, and even celebrated, for my idiosyncrasies. [Rocky Horror] and Oberlin seem to be really good at getting lots of different folks to let their freak flags fly.”
Rocky Horror culture has permeated multiple scenes on campus, including Drag Ball and OBurlesque. College fourth-year and OBurlesque’s Officer of External Affairs Jack Bens recalls a time during her second year when OBurlesque decided to plan and perform a Rocky Horror-themed Halloween show.
“[The show] brought us all a little bit closer together around that time, as we were actively coordinating songs and characters to recreate in our own show, and it really felt like a group effort,” Bens wrote in an email to the Review. “On the night of Rocky Horror that year, almost the entirety of OBurlesque was there dressed up, some of them as the same Rocky Horror characters they’d be playing for our show. Everyone was really into it and it was really fun.”
Rocky Horror has historically created supportive communities for people experimenting with style or identity, who have felt like outcasts, or who want to have a safe experience being someone they aren’t in their everyday lives.
It was this sense of community and support that heavily influenced College first-year Ursula Hudak’s decision to come to Oberlin. She attended a performance at the Apollo Theatre during her prospective-student visit and was excited to partake in the tradition once she was officially a student.
“Everyone [was] yelling at the screen and laughing and having fun together,” Hudak said. “It felt like somewhere I would like to be. I think in that moment I realized that I wanted to go [to Oberlin], which makes it really special. I mean, the first thing I did when I got my planner from the store is I looked up the Rocky Horror [showing] time and I put it down and [I was] really excited about it.”
For folks considering going for the first time, here are some things you should know:
Dressing up is not required but recommended! Bring your corsets, lingerie, and character-inspired costumes.
You may want to research some of the call-outs and traditions of the picture show so that you can participate in them. You might also want to buy a prop kit at the theater for $3 or make your own; you can find instructions online.
Do not fear the Virgin Sacrifice! Virgin Sacrifices serve as an initiation for folks who have never been to Rocky Horror before. Sacrifices vary from theater to theater, but Boycik wants to reassure students that Simply His Servants’ version is very tame.
“I look out for them,” he said. “We do not do any sort of physical contact. We don’t do anything inappropriate with Virgins or anything like that or make anybody do anything that they don’t want to do. … If you’re over 18 and you’re a Virgin and you want to come up before the show, and if you … want to be one of the people that get officially sacrificed or broken-in or whatever you want to call it, we do have cast members that go around, and they’ll hand you either a black rose or a white rose or something, and now we’ll bring you up. If you don’t want to, that’s totally fine.”
Rocky Horror is absolutely worth going to at least once. It can get a little weird, but what at Oberlin isn’t weird? It’ll be two hours of your life well spent.