The Mayfair Theatre Ready to Do the Time Warp Again!
Feature image by Petr Maur. Remaining photos by Andre Gagne.
Sam Kellerman slips on some fishnet stockings, adjusts the corset and ensures the midnight black lipstick is applied just right. The mirror doesn’t lie. He looks stunning. He looks like a sweet transvestite from Transsexual, Transylvania and, tonight, he’s got a show to do!
It’s expected that most of us will transform into some costumed party-goer this time of year but Kellerman has been changing into the role of Dr. Frank N. Furter, the alien gender-bending mad scientist from the cult classic film The Rocky Horror Picture Show, monthly at the Mayfair Theatre for nearly eight years. He leads the Absent Friends Shadow Cast, a group of regular Rocky fans that dress up as the film’s colourful characters and act out the movie live in front of the screen. For a guy who’s now seen the film well over 400 times, his first viewing wasn’t exactly cinematic enlightenment.
“To be very honest with you I really didn’t like the movie at first. On its own the flick seemed a little confusing to me,” Kellerman tells Ottawa Life as he prepares for the traditional string of Halloween shows at the theatre. “I don’t think I fully understood the significance of what Rocky Horror was putting on the table. But all that changed when, at 15, I walked into the Mayfair and bore witness to the madness.”
The madness known first began as a musical tribute to science fiction and B horror films penned by an out-of-work actor in early 70’s London, England. Richard O’Brien has admitted to writing what would become known as The Rocky Horror Show to ward off boredom on the winter nights when he wasn’t performing. For awhile, there were a lot of those nights.
The resulting musical romp was a mix of random pop culture, aliens, cannibals, a haunted castle, Steve Reeves muscle films, hunchbacks, 50’s style rock and roll and open sexuality. Even for the excessive early 70’s, the show was exceptionally shocking and transgressive for its open depiction of bisexuality and transvestites. Premiering on July 20, 1973, the play attracted a crowd based on word-of-mouth and critical praise for its all-out camp craziness. The Rocky Horror Show would go on to a have a run of 2,960 performances in London and a nine-month stint of well-received shows on Broadway. Those productions earned the show a Tony nomination to go along with the 1973 Evening Standard Theatre Award for Best Musical it won over in England. The show’s original cast recording still remains a steady seller and the production ranked #8 of the Nation’s Most Popular Musicals by the BBC in 2005.
The inevitable film version didn’t fare so well…at first.
While being faithful to the live show’s source material and taking along a lot of its cast (notably O’Brien, Tim Curry, Nell Campbell and Patricia Quinn), Rocky’s move to the screen was largely panned by critics and didn’t attract the audience the play had. Something was missing, but what? It looked as though the film would be doomed to fade into cinematic obscurity until a theatre in New York City started playing the film at midnight attracting a much more eclectic theatre audience. The madness Sam Kellerman witnessed as a teen was about to begin.
As the 70’s moved towards the 80’s, The Rocky Horror Picture Show found an audience that accepted the film because, in many ways, it accepted them. Those labeled “freaks” and “weirdoes”, those in the closet and out, those struggling with their gender and those clear on who they wanted to be, those unaccepting of staunch conformity, the rebels, the curious and confused, they came. One of them was Louis Farese Jr., a rather mild-mannered school teacher, who one night decided to shout at the screen. A tradition was born and with it came the element of audience participation that was lacking in the initial run of the film.
The madness now had venues, one of them being the National Arts Centre. Our local hub of the arts played an intriguing roll in the film’s history. 20TH Century Fox had no idea what to do with the film once it was handed to them and so, at the urging of Rocky Horror fan Wayne Clarkson who needed to fill a slot in a festival he was working on, the film actually had its world premiere here in Ottawa. By the end of 1979, it was showing twice-weekly to packed housed in over 230 theatres.
It was no longer just a movie. It was an experience.
“The reason it caught on in the first place is entirely due to the fact that it is of its time,” says Kellerman. “Part of Rocky Horror and it’s aesthetic is the duel between the conservative society of the 1950’s and the sexually liberated and revolutionary society of the 1960’s and 70’s.”
“The shape that the message of Rocky Horror has taken in the modern age is one of release. To me, the sexuality of it, the controversy, so to speak, is old news. It’s unabashedly ridiculous, which is something we don’t get a lot of, and it encourages people from a much bigger variety of backgrounds that see it’s okay to be weird. You’ll be loved for it. No matter what your weird looks like.”
Those original Rocky fans and “virgins” (those seeing the film for the first time) would develop over time the chants and actions that have created the cult film’s participatory nature. Along with your tub of popcorn you now needed water pistols, playing cards, newspapers, noisemakers, rubber gloves and toast. Lots of toast! The audience didn’t need to be encouraged to dress up as their favourite characters; they just did it, following a line from the film that was, to them, a modern proverb: “Don’t dream it. Be it!”
“We’ve been doing it once a month for nearly eight years,” says Mayfair Theatre owner Lee Demarbre adding that, before he took over the place, Rocky Horror hadn’t played the city where it debuted for well over a decade.
“It’s cult popularity has to do with a lot of young, open-minded people,” he says. “Most of our crowd is young or people who are older now that remember seeing it when they were young. Rocky Horror Picture Show appeals to that kind of mentality, one of open-mindedness. For a lot of people in the homosexual community, I think, it’s really keen for them to go out and be in a dark space where it’s cool to be gay. It became legendary in that regard.”
Demarbre also says the Mayfair’s shadow cast is one of the best in the country which is quite the compliment to Kellerman who now fronts that experience for the theatre’s audience. It was there, after all, where his eyes were opened to Rocky Horror live. Engaging the crowd in all the silliness of the film is something Kellerman takes very seriously. His group Absent Friends started out as four buddies who faithfully attended every screening of the film the theatre would show. What started out with the foursome storming the stage to do the films classic “Time Warp” scene quickly evolved into re-enacting the entire film.
“We rehearse a few times a month,” Kellerman says. “We also take care of our own costume pieces. Some of us sew, some costumes are handmade, some costumes were made for us, and some were store bought. We do what we can to get all of the appropriate bits and pieces along with all of the actor’s bits and pieces ready for the show.”
For Demarbre and Kellerman, it’s been amazing to see how the film experience inside the theatre has evolved into a monthly environment of fun and hilarity. While management has now asked for bubbles instead of rice be tossed around (saves on cleaning) the toast is still welcome and, as once happened at the ByTowne Cinema, thankfully nobody has thrown a toaster through the screen.
“Go out there and be yourself. Do it because you love it. It’s wild, unpredictable and so ridiculously fun,” says Kellerman on the Mayfair Rocky screenings. “Roll with every punch, and just have a blast. A good performance lies in how much energy you exude, and if you’re having fun the audience will have fun too.”
So break out your fishnets, surgical masks, party hats and warm, preferably unbuttered, toast and get ready to do the “Time Warp” again…and again…and again. The Mayfair has four screenings to choose from including the legendary Halloween night show.
If you’ve been there you know what you’re getting yourself into and, if you haven’t, what are you waiting for? Don’t dream it! Be it! This Rocky fan and Kellerman both agree, the hardest part of dancing in heels is the floor.