Rocky Horror Turns 40: Time Warp to 40 Facts About the Cult Classic

When The Rocky Horror Picture Show debuted in theaters on August 14, 1975, it bombed. Immediately. Big time. Huge time.

Yet, here we are, exactly forty years later, living in a world where Rocky Horror has dominated cult cinema and continues to profoundly influence rock, theater, fashion, and even human (and Transylvanian) sexuality. In fact, the one-time box office disaster still packs in crowds at midnight screenings in scores of theaters all over the planet.

How did this unstoppable, one-of-a-kind cultural phenomenon ultimately come to be? Find out by celebrating with 40 Rocky Horror Picture Show facts in honor of the movie’s 40th anniversary.

And remember: don’t dream it—be it.

1. During London’s early-1970s glam-rock era, actor, singer, and songwriter Richard O’Brien spent six months writing They Came From Denton High. He was broke and bored, and it seemed a good way to pass some long winter nights.

2. O’Brien crafted the plot and numerous songs to be a stage musical that combined his passion for ’50s rock-and-roll, B-movie sci-fi, cheapo fright flicks, Golden Age Hollywood glamour, juvenile delinquent hysteria, and contemporary gender-bending glitter theatrics.

3. Australian director Jim Sharman befriended O’Brien and worked with him to bring the show to the stage. One of Sharman’s first suggestions was to change the title They Came From Denton High to The Rock Horroar Show, named for a character who seems deceptively to be in the background, but is actually the centerpiece of all the action.

4. Rock Horroar eventually evolved into Rocky Horror, and thus the final title became The Rocky Horror Show.

5. The Rocky Horror Show opened in a small experimental space in London in 1973 and caught on fast. By the end of the year, Rocky took up residence at the Chelsea Classic Cinema Theater, playing to sold out crowds of 230 every night. The show ran uninterrupted at the Chelsea Classic until 1979.

6. The Rocky Horror Picture Show boasts the longest continual theatrical run of any film ever released. No other movie has come remotely close to 40 years!

7. The original theatrical cast of The Rocky Horror Show included Tim Curry as Dr. Frank N. Furter (a Scientist), Nell Campbell aka Little Nell as Columbia (a Groupie), Patricia Quinn as Magenta (a Domestic), and creator Richard O’Brien as Riff Raff (a Handyman). All would recreate their roles in the film version.

8. Rock impresario Lou Adler caught the London production, got blown away, and immediately secured the show’s American theatrical rights.

9. On March 24, 1974, The Rocky Horror Show opened in Los Angeles at the Roxy Theatre on the Sunset Strip, produced by Lou Adler. It became an immediate sensation.

10. One crucial pick-up for the L.A. cast was larger-and-louder-than-life performer Meat Loaf, who played both Eddie (Ex-Delivery Boy) and Dr. Jonathan Scott (a Rival Scientist). Meat also appears in the movie, although he only plays bad boy biker Eddie on screen.

11. Among the celebrities who took in Rocky at the Roxy was, according to Meat Loaf, none other than The King himself, Elvis Presley.

12. Rocky Horror moved to Broadway in a hurry, opening in January 1975. The New York production flopped, and closed after just 45 performances.

13. Even as Rocky was dying on Broadway, a movie adaptation commenced filming in England under the title, The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

14. The movie production added Gothic horror elements to the original stage show’s outrageous camp, borrowing heavily, almost to the point of parody, from the comedic 1932 Boris Karloff fright film, The Old Dark House.

15. A huge, spooky Victorian mansion called Oakley Court in Berkshire, England stands in for Frank N. Furter’s castle in the movie.

16. Among the other scare films shot at Oakley Court are The Brides of Dracula (1960), The Reptile (1966), The Plague of the Zombies (1966), And Now the Screaming Starts (1973), Vampyres (1974), and the Peter Cook-Dudley Moore spoof, The Hound of the Baskervilles (1978). In addition, spook-show gimmick master William Castle remade The Old Dark House there in 1963.

17. Filming of the big laboratory scene where Dr. Frank N. Furter brings to life his singing muscleman creation, Rocky Horror (Peter Hinwood), took place on Halloween Eve.

18. The lab tank and the prop body used for Rocky Horror’s coming out sequence had been used in the Hammer Films favorite, The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958)

19. Rocky’s opening number, “Science Fiction Double Feature” calls out numerous classic sci-fi and horror films, along with their stars. On stage, an usherette character named Trixie, performs the song. For the screen version, director Jim Sharman planned to score the song with actual images from the films that get named.

20. Securing photos and clips from King Kong, Flash Gordon, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Doctor X, When Worlds Collide, Day of the Triffids, and more proved cost prohibitive. O’Brien then came up with the idea of filling a black screen with just bright red lips, gleaming white teeth, and a salacious tongue to perform the theme song. An iconic moment in cinema was born.

21. Early Rocky Horror viewers reacted to the lips so strongly and positively that the image was used for the movie’s first official poster. The tagline made joking reference to 1975’s dominant blockbuster: “A Different Set of Jaws.”

22. The lips that sing “Science Fiction Double Feature” belong to Patricia Quinn. The voice is Richard O’Brien’s.

23. The Rocky Horror Picture Show opened in England on August 14, 1975. Business was disastrous. The movie next opened, with a proper premiere, at the UA Westwood in L.A. It took a divethere, too. Critics hated the film and audiences stayed away.

24. A splashy New York premiere, scheduled for Halloween, was canceled, leaving 20th Century Fox puzzled over what to do with what now seemed like a toxic turkey. Even an attempt to Rocky release to college area theaters as a double feature with the cult musical Phantom of the Paradise (1974) didn’t work.

25. New York’s Waverly Theater regularly ran midnight movies such as Pink Flamingos (1972), Night of the Living Dead</em> (1968), Freaks (1932), Equinox (1970), and Reefer Madness (1936). Fox booked Rocky Horror at the Waverly on April Fool’s Day 1976.

26. The midnight ploy worked. Rocky business started well and grew consistently stronger. Waverly employees noticed that the same customers were coming back to watch the movie again and again. Cinema’s hugest and most enduring cult took root.

27. Audience participation in The Rocky Horror Picture Show is traced to a normally quiet New York City teacher named Louis Farese Jr. After continually returning to the film for five months, Farese piped a when Janet (Susan Sarandon) steps out in a rainstorm and covers her head with a newspaper. That’s when Farese blurted out: “Buy an umbrella, you cheap bitch!” From there, anything and everything was fair game.

28. Rocky’s call-and-response audience shout-outs took hold fast, and a live “shadow cast” developed under the tutelage of super-fan Sal Piro, who became the movie’s living spokesman.

29. By the end of the ’70s, Rocky Horror played midnights every Friday and Saturday at more than 230 theaters across America. Fans always showed up in costume. Virtually every screening included audience participation and an overwhelming majority of venues featured a live cast.

30. Director Alan Parker caught Rocky while prepping his musical drama Fame (1980). He thought, correctly, that the Rocky live experience would naturally attract and empower the characters in Fame, who were students at New York’s High School of the Performing Arts. Parker worked with screenwriter Christopher Gore to work Rocky Horror into the final script, creating a scene where shy singer Doris Finsecker (Maureen Teefy) strips to her bra and jumps on stage to join the live cast in doing “The Time Warp.”

31. The weekly syndicated Dr. Demento radio show also proved crucial to spreading Rocky Horror fever. The program ran on popular rock stations and showcased novelty records, including a “Funny Five” based on listeners’ votes at the end of each episode. Rocky fans made sure, for years, that the countdown always at least included the film’s two most famous numbers: “The Time Warp” and “Sweet Transvestite.”

32. With Meat Loaf becoming one of the world’s (literally) hugest music stars Rocky having crossed over to being a mainstream phenomenon by the late ’70s, Tim Curry scored a cult album hit with Fearless. The 1979 LP leaned toward new wave and generated the (pretty freakin’ awesome) rock radio hit, “I Do the Rock.”

33. Tim Curry also hosted Saturday Night Live on December 5, 1981, with musical guest… Meat Loaf! The episode contained numerous Rocky Horror references, including a hilarious (and decidedly not politically correct) monologue with Eddie Murphy as the Studio 8H janitor.

34. Shock Treatment (1981) is the far lesser known semi-sequel to Rocky Horror, made by the same team of O’Brien, Sharman, and Adler and featuring returning Rocky stars O’Brien, Patricia Quinn, and Little Nell. It’s a new wave mind-ripper about media obsession that rather brilliantly forecasts the coming of reality TV.

35. Rocky Horror made a huge impact on the look, sound, and feel of the punk rock movement.

36. Richard O’Brien and Little Nell co-star in British filmmaker Derek Jarman’s
punk fantasia, Jubilee (1978). Another character also pointedly quotes one of Rocky Horror’s signature lines: “Don’t dream it—be it.”

37. “Don’t dream it, be it,” was the advertising slogan of lingerie company Frederick’s of Hollywood while Richard O’Brien was coming of age.

38. The Rocky Horror Punk Show is a 2003 compilation album featuring various punk bands performing song-by-song covers of the entire RHPS soundtrack.
Among the groups are Alkaline Trio, Swinging Utters, Apocalypse Hoboken, Pansy Division, and the Ataris.

39. RHPS has exerted a massive influence on heavy metal, as well. Twisted Sister guitarist Jay Jay French, for one, is quick to point out the impact. “When Twisted Sister first started,” French said, “we were a transvestite rock band. When Dee Snider joined the group three years later, we morphed into a shock rock type of thing. It was all influenced by The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”

40. In 2009, Versailles Records announced the impending release of Time Warp: A Metal Tribute to Rocky Horror. Slated to perform RHPS songs on the album were Black Sabbath, Kiss, Ozzy Osbourne, Alice Cooper, Megadeth, L.A. Guns, Cro-Mags, Mountain, and Macabre. We’re all still waiting for that record to drop!

Mike McPadden is the author of the book "HEAVY METAL MOVIES: Guitar Barbarians, Mutant Bimbos, and Cult Zombies Amok in the 666 Most Ear- and Eye-Ripping Big Scream Films Ever!" (Bazillion Points, 2014).