Somehow, The Rocky Horror Picture Show became a cultural artefact of the 1970s, the perfect reflection of a unique moment in American pop-cultural history. With a new generation of sexually-liberated post-hippie youths rising from the underground and a proliferation of cinemas offering gloriously seedy midnight screenings, this camp masterpiece couldn’t have been more perfectly timed. It quickly became one of the most-talked-about films of the day, drawing hordes of devoted fans who fell for the elaborate drag-inspired aesthetics of Rocky Horror.
One of those fans was R.E.M frontman Michael Stipe -— or, at least, the man who would go on to become R.E.M’s frontman. In the clip below, a young Stipe is being interviewed by a TV reporter while dressed as the immortal Dr Frank-n-Furter. This footage, taken in 1978, shows Michael Brown interviewing a crowd of expectant youths waiting to gain entry to a late-night screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show at the Varsity Theater. The crowd are excited and, as the newscaster observes, “Some people obviously think [the queue] has been here too long”. When approached by the news crew, the teenage Michael Stipe is quick to assert that what he’s wearing is a “normal” dress, much to the reporter’s bewilderment.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show‘s cult status is thanks in large part to the “midnight movie” phenomenon. The film was originally a flop, but when places like the Waverley Theater in New York City started putting on their special midnight screenings, the movie quickly developed a loyal following. As Patricia Corrigan said of the midnight screening Stipe attended: “Rocky Horror came to St. Louis in March of 1976, showing at the now-defunct Varsity Theatre in University City.”
Adding: “The movie ran every night, as the main feature, for three weeks. Pete Piccione, who owned the Varsity, brought the film back as a midnight movie on occasional weekends for the rest of the year and on through 1977. By May of 1978, Rocky Horror was playing every weekend as the midnight show.”
More than anything, this footage is a beautiful time capsule of that moment in 1978, when America’s underground subcultures came bubbling to the surface. It also serves as a reminder that the roots of things like Comicon go way back, and that dressing up as our favourite characters has always been a way to express our enthusiasm for our favourite films.