Almost 50 years later, Tim Deegan, Sal Piro and Richard O’Brien reflect on ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’

Tim Curry and Richard O'Brien pose wearing costumes of their characters for The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
The production gained immediate attention after the midnight shows were released in 1973. (Courtesy: ™ and © Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation)

This Halloween, the 5Cs had a chance to experience two live performances of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” put on by 5C students. Pairing a live show with the film running in the background, acting and audience participation, the show created a chaotic, energetic and memorable experience.

“The Rocky Horror Picture Show” has found a large community outside of just the 5Cs. The production gained immediate attention after the midnight shows were first released in 1973, and people around the world are currently preparing for the production’s 50th anniversary celebration next year. 

As a liberating production that allows audiences to free themselves from the restrictions of society, this anniversary of the first midnight show is more than just a celebration of a movie. It is a celebration of liberation, freedom, queerness, community and support.

In an exclusive interview with Tim Deegan, an advertising manager at 20th Century Fox at the time of the show’s premiere and a lead point in the marketing of Rocky Horror, he explained the origins of the production. 

“After a poor box office showing in Los Angeles, and a failed test market for a college audience in Columbus, Ohio, the studio shelved the movie,” he said.

The first screening was a disappointment, but many were too afraid to admit it because Fox 20th Century had already bought the distribution rights. Deegan was twenty at the time, and he explained that Lou Alder, the producer of the film, looked to him to provide honest feedback. 

“Everyone was scared stiff,” Deegan said via email, “of being associated with a gay movie which is how they perceived it … “sweet transvestites from transsexual Transylvania” was a slogan that gave them shivers.”

Unafraid and interested in the challenge, Deegan fought for the failed film to be shown in the Waverley Theater in New York City at midnight. These midnight shows immediately blew up. 

“The movie was so unique that once audiences ‘discovered’ it […] word of mouth would carry it. My marketing plan was two-pronged: no advertising and you can only see it at midnight. No studio had ever played a movie at midnight,” Deegan said via email. “It was an instant success.”

Richard O’Brien wrote the show in 1973 and acted as Riff Raff in the movie. O’Brien explained via email that the production had “freedom of joyful expression and [an] ability to poke fun at many norms in a satirical fashion.”

This “satirical fashion” allowed the production to flourish into the popular show seen today with callouts from the audience. 

Sal Piro, the president of the Rocky Horror fan club, saw some of the shows’ earliest productions and explained how the audience began to become a part of the experience.

“It’s from that camaraderie we had with each other that we started to explore the possibilities of participating [with the show],” Piro said. 

Piro explained how he and others would find new things to say with the film to continue mocking its contents, many of which are still said today. This mocking is lighthearted and coincides with the production’s ability to expand beyond the expectations of society. 

“I don’t think that there was any ‘queer’-driven agenda attached to our production,” O’Brien said via email.

Even without a queer agenda, Rocky Horror was one of the first representations of queerness in the media scene, and audiences turned the production into a show that represented liberation. This combination allowed for limited homophobia towards Rocky Horror in the media world especially for the time of when it was released.

“There were NO homophobic outbursts,” O’Brien explained via email. “In fact, one of the great surprises is that the audiences loved the Frank character so much that they were surprised by their own attraction to him.”

Everyone had their own reason for seeing and loving Rocky Horror. Piro explained that his connection with the film “became a lifestyle.”

This lifestyle, however, “wasn’t easy in the beginning because people didn’t like what they saw,” Piro explained.

He explained some of the dangers he faced as gangs would torment people trying to see the show, and his life was threatened. 

Despite this danger, audiences kept coming to see the production. Deegan explained via email that “in a metaphorical sense, maybe the only ‘flag’ those kids had to rally around was ‘Rocky Horror’ as a safe refuge for a couple of hours on weekend nights.”

The refuge Rocky Horror created allowed a unique and inclusive community to form, which expanded to include the fan club that Piro helped found. Started shortly after the release of the midnight shows in 1977, the fan club was used to spread information about where shows were happening, as well as any Rocky Horror news. 

“What turns me on is the group, the family. Everybody’s sharing this movie with each other.”

Sal Piro

Originally, the club spread news through letters, but today the fan club primarily functions via a website. “20th Century Fox, the producer, saw that we were good tools,” Piro said, “we were better than [their] paid people.”

Eventually, the fan club evolved and grew with time while retaining the strong community that it started with.

“What turns me on is the group, the family,” Piro said. “Everybody’s sharing this movie with each other.”

The production was a safe space for audiences and a starting point for O’Brien, Deegan and Piro. As a launch pad for their careers, they were able to create names and legacies for themselves, as well as provide a representation of queerness that had been lacking. 

“Dream big,” Deegan said via email. “Don’t have such rigid expectations that you miss a golden opportunity that may pass you by. Take chances.”

Rocky Horror is one of the best examples of what it means to take a risk: O’Brien risked his career to portray queerness, Deegan risked a failed viewing and Piro risked his life to experience camaraderie. Audiences impacted the production’s meaning and the production impacted audiences.

“There were more people at that time accepting [queerness], then rejecting it,” Piro stated. “I saw a change that people began to accept it.” 

The production’s influence is getting another chance to impact the 5Cs. Look out for news from @rockyhorror5c on Instagram to hear more and join the experience!

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