Before its launching as a midnight film, The Rocky Horror Picture Show made its Austin debut more quietly, playing regular feature screenings at the Varsity Theater on the Drag (now the site of Tower Records) in October 1975. It received an enthusiastic review from UT's Daily Texan, and a more qualified one in the Austin American-Statesman by Paul Beutel (who quoted from it in 1991 when, having since become manager of the Paramount Theater, he introduced Rocky's 15th Anniversary to an audience of 700 there).
After the Varsity run, Rocky resurfaced again at Dobie Theater, in early May 1976, and then began its long midnight run at the (Presidio) Riverside Twin in Southeast Austin later the same month. At the time only a few cities had a print of Rocky yet. Austin is a College Town and the area around the Riverside was a huge warren of largely student-occupied apartment complexes, a built-in audience. It was the golden age of real midnight movies, when foreign films, the more outrageous splatter, black comedies, martial arts flicks, and any film with some connection to rock n roll, might be playing the witching hour at UT, Dobie, and various area multiplexes. Rocky Horror caught on immediately in this eccentric, tolerant town, and soon attracted sell-out crowds, with many people returning repeatedly, dressing up, etc. (The theater, 19 weeks into its run, also showed it experimentally at regular feature times as well for one week.)
The First Annual Birthday Party and Costume Ball, cosponsored by Presidio Theaters and the underground newspaper The Austin Sun, was held Saturday, April 23, 1977, at the enormous, ornate Paramount Theater in downtown Austin. Tim Curry showed up and was awarded a certificate of honorary citizenship of Austin by Mayor Jeff Friedman, himself attired not in full Rocky drag as the legend has it but in a Jimmy Carter mask for the occasion. (Curry was also interviewed by the Austin Sun while in town.) The band Texoid played, and a costume contest was held. UT drama student Leo Lerma performed "Sweet Transvestite" with the band, and won first prize as Frank - one of Curry's corsets from the play The Rocky Horror Show. The evening's audience numbered 1300 people.
Rocky continued its successful run (on two screens) at Riverside for another year. One event enjoyed by its audience at this time was Meat Loaf appearing in concert at the Armadillo on February 5th, 1978.
Second anniversary was held, again at the Paramount, on Friday, May 12th, 1978, with the band Uranium Savages performing, Leo Lerma reprising "Sweet T", and a costume contest whose judges included Crazy Carl Hickerson (flower seller and perennial political candidate) and (current Selena/Stevie Ray Vaughn biographer) Joe Nick Patoski. Third anniversary was again at Paramount, on Saturday, April 28th, 1979 with musical guests Weedo, a costume contest, and a performance by the 12-member Hot Patootie Production Company, featuring Leo Lerma. Fifth anniversary was held at Paramount Saturday, April 25th, sponsored by KLBJ-FM and Riverside Twin, featuring a performance by Esther's Follies' Rocky Horror Revue and another costume contest.
Shock Treatment made its debut in Austin at the Riverside in September 1981. Richard O'Brien was in town to promote the film, appeared at Riverside, was on the cover of the first issue of The Austin Chronicle (his image half Riff/half Cosmo McKinley), and was interviewed within by SF author Howard Waldrop. Shock Treatment's run, as everywhere, was quite short.
In the early 80s, a cast based in San Antonio, known as "The Roxy Cast" began road-tripping to Austin to play every month and sometimes every two weeks. This was headed by a military couple, John and Karen Yant, who played Frank and Magenta. Austin regulars began performing in their show, and then formed their own resident cast, "Creatures of the Night" (founded by Pamela and Rhonda). Austin and San Antonio maintained ties and, from the mid-eighties onward, Austin cast road-tripped every year to perform at San Antonio's annual multi-auditorium anniversary bash.
Meanwhile, Northcross Mall in Northwest Austin had become home to a subculture of North Austin teens dubbed "mall moles" who congregated there Fridays and Saturdays before capping their evening of mall-crawling and socializing with a communal repeat viewing of (then AMC) Northcross Six Theater's midnight staples, Heavy Metal and The Wall. Northcross added Rocky Horror to its midnight roster on September 23rd, 1983. Rocky continued to play at Riverside as well, with its established cast and regulars, while Northcross attracted a different batch of regulars, primarily teen-age drama students from LBJ and Reagan high schools, most of whom had grown up together and remained a clique. They formed a secondary cast at Northcross, and the two casts peacefully co-existed. Relations between the older cast and Riverside management had begun to be a bit strained, and they, during times of stress, had begun journeying to Northcross to perform. They assimilated eventually with the Northcross performers into one cast, although in some ways remaining two distinct groups.
Shock Treatment played as a midnighter at Northcross, opposite Rocky, briefly in March 1984. There was not a cast, but some lines had developed from its sporadic Austin screenings.
The Riverside group went back and forth between the two theaters as Riverside's affections for them waxed and waned, until Riverside finally dropped the movie in March 1985 and Northcross became home.
Anniversaries from 1984 on were then celebrated at Northcross, though somewhat scaled down from the yearly bashes at Paramount. At some point here, the cast did a road trip to perform at the college in San Angelo. They also performed at various screenings at UT's Texas Union and Hogg Auditorium, and at San Antonio anniversaries.
The Rocky Horror Show made its long anticipated debut in Austin in August-September 1986, as a co-production with Dallas' New Arts Theater, which had staged the play previously in December 1984 and Summer '86, and brought down its own cast and director. Director Stephen Hollis invited the Northcross cast to attend dressed up, rehearsed them in some pared-down dialogue with the actors, and installed them up in the opera boxes to interact on cue. As Frank, Paul Thomas Taylor, now an actor of renown in the Dallas area, fractured his ankle onstage three days into the run and had to be replaced. (Candy Buckley, this production's Magenta/Trixie, can be heard on "The Worst", Josh Alan's Ed Wood Tribute CD, for those whose taste in musical horrors doesn't begin and end with RHPS.)
During this time the smallish Northcross cast opened up a bit, with many regulars off at midnight shows of the play, and new cast members were added in large numbers. There was a road trip to Dallas, a mini-one to Georgetown's Southwestern University, and one to Houston in 1987. The cast's name at the time was "Little Cast of Horrors", the first one adopted in years, but "Austin Rocky Horror" supplanted this.
In early 1988, still playing at Northcross, RHPS opened at a second theater, the (then AMC) Southwood II in South Austin. A splinter cast left Northcross to take up residence there. Due to Southwood's cheaper admission prices, Northcross temporarily discontinued the movie in March 1988, and the two casts became one again at Southwood. A limited run of RHPS at the Dobie Theater coincided with 13th anniversary (held at Southwood in May). A special 2 AM screening for the graduating class of St. Stephen's was held at Southwood in May 1988 as well.
On May 27th, with Rocky still continuing at Southwood, it also opened at the Riverside Dollar Cinema, the latest incarnation of the Riverside Twin, which had been closed for some time. The older cast members moved back there and the Southwood contingent stayed put. But not for long, since the Southwood (a huge theater where the crowd seemed smaller than it was) let Rocky go in June 1988. It went immediately back home to Northcross. The majority of the cast stayed at Riverside, with a small band of Southwood survivors forming a splinter cast that performed at Northcross.
Throughout 1988, there was a big influx of new cast members, many from Round Rock, dubbed Round Rockies. They started as secondary performers, and many rose and shone as the original Northcross kids (cast leaders and senior performers by '88) had before them.
Up to this point, relations between sub-casts had been reasonably civil, with people going back and forth between, say, Southwood and Riverside. This was the first time a real rivalry developed, and the two considered themselves two entirely separate casts. By January of 1989, Riverside Dollar Cinema parted company with Rocky and, of necessity, peace was made and the cast returned to Northcross, where it remained for the next nine years after that year of playing "musical theaters". (Riverside soon closed down for good; the building is now the home of Mission Hills Church, whose current patrons probably have no idea the old ones used to dance in corsets and fishnets in the parking lot to "Too Young To Date".)
Northcross switched from AMC to Presidio in 1989, and the pre-Rocky shorts were replaced by current coming attractions trailers, which got their own lampooning. (Riverside opened for years with the crowd-beloved "Basketball Jones", an animated Cheech and Chong video. Northcross in the mid 80s had the "AMC Midnight Express", a wild celebration of midnight crowds' weirdness before midnight movies became a 12 am showing of say, Home Alone 2, and later, Snacks, a slasher parody by the directors of Nice Girls Don't Explode, in the late 80s. These had their own set of lines evolve.) Eventually we got the RHPS trailer that now precedes the movie.
In September 1989, Meat Loaf returned to play in Austin, at the (long-gone) Sneakers location on North Lamar; many cast members turned out to see him and were very entertained, as he put on a wonderful show, sweating buckets and singing his heart out. He signed autographs after the show.
There were two more limited runs of Rocky at the Dobie Theater, in July 1990 and May-June 1991, with performances by old or fledgling cast members and all-girl shows, while things continued at Northcross.
Fifteenth anniversary was celebrated the weekend of May 10th-11th, 1991, at Northcross and then at the Paramount Sunday, May 12th, with an old cast reunion show featuring mainly 80s veterans. The print Paramount had obtained gave Austin its first big-screen appearance of Super Heroes. (Within a year Northcross finally acquired one with it, and there was much rejoicing.) Sixteenth anniversary was May 8th-9th, 1992, at Northcross, and Sunday, May 10th, at Hogg Auditorium on the UT Campus.
In the 90s special shows gained momentum, with road trips to Brownsville, Houston, and Dallas, plus the yearly guest spot at San Antonio's anniversary, and several early evening shows at UT's Jester Auditorium. In 1991 they adopted the name "River City Rocky", which was then replaced in turn by "Northcross Dressers", "Lip Service", "Conniving Vicious Little Two-Faced Brats", back to "Northcross Dressers", and now finally to "Queerios".
The Rocky Horror Show reappeared in Austin from September through Halloween, 1991 at the Vortex Repertory on Ben White (since reincarnated at a new location on Manor). Cast members from Northcross played Columbia, a Transylvanian, and drums in the band. We had to wait until December 1996 for the RHS to return to Austin, and when it did it was a one-night only performance - a student production for the director's grade at Mary Moody Northen Theater on the St. Edward's University campus with one of our Franks, Chris Busby, playing Frank on stage.
In the meantime, the Austin cast made frequent mass road trips (still leaving a cast at home, of course) to San Antonio to experience the Commerce Street Stage production of The Rocky Horror Show, which featured San Antonio's amazing RHPS Frank, Lee Marshall, and had two separate runs, in December 1994 - XXX and XXX. A side effect of our rejuvenated relationship with San Antonio RHPS (and the decline and eventual closing of the Central Park Fox Theater in San Antonio, leaving them without Rocky ever since) was the addition of some San Antonio cast members who began driving the 70 miles north to play in Austin.
Other theatrical productions in Austin relating to Rocky included a 1989 chorale concert at UT of Halloween-type show tunes from Rocky Horror, Little Shop of Horrors, etc. (One of the singers joined the cast the next year.) Esther's Follies, the comedy troupe that's spent over 21 years entertaining Austin, has given a tip of the hat to RHPS on several occasions, in such skits as "The Rocky Horror Airline Show", "The Bill Clinton Horror Show", and "The Ronny Velveeta Horror Show". The UT law school also put on a parody entitled "The Rocky Lawyer Show", probably sometime in the early 80s. (I met a gentleman wearing one of the T-shirts at the Paramount RHS in 1986.) The UT law students' annual "Assault and Flattery" musical revue has also featured a song to the tune of "There's a light..." one year. (They all turn up on ACTV occasionally, if you want to watch for it.)
The Austin Rocky Horror cast has appeared and/or performed on various ACTV shows including "What're You Thinkin'?", "The Jason Osbourne Show", and (many times) "The Old Bitty Show".
Aside from the various long-term and limited runs at local theaters, RHPS has played in a few Austin bars and clubs with varying degrees of audience participation. It played on video at Maggie Mae's, a rock club on 6th Street, one night in October 1992. RHPS was also a regular attraction in late 1994 at Auntie Mame's, a Cheers-type drag bar downtown. It played there on a VCR and TV hung from the ceiling in the corner, with the bar passing out party hats, cards, noisemakers, etc., and varying degrees of audience participation. The night I attended was overflowing with raucous good cheer, loud line-calling, people acting out parts of the movie, etc., and the energy level put some of the deader theater screenings I've seen to shame. The frequency of these video screenings at Mame's did decrease as time went on, and then Mame's closed. Kansas, a now defunct gay bar on 4th Street, briefly tried screenings of RHPS Friday nights in the Cabaret Room off the main bar, projecting the video onto a good-sized screen. Kansas (decorated with ceiling-high sculptures of the crotchety talking apple trees from "The Wizard of Oz"!) seemed like an ideal setting for RHPS in a gayer environment, but the participation was mainly good-humored line calling.
There have also been at least two San Marcos casts begun by Austin cast members (in 1989 and 1993). When the movie ended there, cast members who started there came up to join the one at Northcross. Rocky has had a handful of screenings at Georgetown's Southwestern University, one of which Austin's cast performed at. Houston, Dallas, and some San Antonio cast members have done guest shows at Northcross.
For a long time the cast had a lot of security at Northcross, which we appreciated while watching other casts bounce from theater to theater. We had a sentimental attachment to the theater, where so much of our history, memories, and in-jokes were made. On a personal note I met my husband and many of my friends there, and watched dozens of Columbia since tapping in the aisle, sequins shining, a lot of Franks throw off that cape, and many Rocky kids run shrieking in costume to greet each other, startling the normal people by the mall skating rink. Our run at Northcross came to an abrupt and unexpected end in August 1997, one month short of fourteen years there, when Act III Theaters decided to cancel the midnight shows there. We were all shocked and the next few months weren't very happy, but I'm proud that the cast stayed together. We performed every few Friday nights with the videotape in someone's living room, drove to Houston and Dallas every few weeks to watch their shows, and did manage to rack up several performances - a pre-Halloween show at The Texas Union Theater, a road trip to play at a Waco club called The Martini Factory's annual RHPS party, and five more shows in one weekend at The Texas Union.
On January 23, 1998 we began performing at the Cinemark Discount Cinema 8 in Wells Branch (thanks to Dorothy, who set it all in motion) and have picked up where we left off. The management has been wonderful and supportive, and it is great to be back in a theater, going forward.
All my memories of the show over the years, I take to the theater with me in lieu of rice and toast, and the sense of time telescoping I get now and then during the show can have a hint of sadness, but mainly all these memories are as rich and sweet as chocolate. Not many places have enjoyed such a long, continuous run as we had, so we have a tradition and a history. If you mention RHPS to almost anyone you meet in town, they have their own memories (my nurse in the hospital years ago turned out to have been the popcorn girl at the Varsity during Rocky's original feature run there). An old cast member's little sister grew up to join the cast herself and do an excellent Frank among other parts. Everyone who has been a part of this has added to it all. Not everyone has behaved well (some of what was brought to Rocky should've been left at home, or in a political science class) but a lot of times people shone, and we've kept a cast, every week in a theater (and sometimes without one!) we've had people performing, participating, and putting their energies into the show.
A lot of the new cast members don't know most of our history in Austin and hopefully this will be the crash course. They are the newest chapter in this long history, part of something that started before they were born, and it continues forward with the latest Janets, Franks, Riffs, etc. Thank yous are due to Pamela, Sam, Kyle, Trina, and many others for answering all my questions about what I missed.
- Joanna Stephens, Cast Historian
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