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Michael Rennie was ill The Day The Earth Stood Still

There’s been a thread going on the Velvet Darkness list (my old Rocky Horror Picture Show cast) about the ABC theatre (the old movie theatre that we used to play at), and people wanting to save it (although with a little research, it turns out that information is stale — who knows what’s the deal now), but in particular the thread is about mentoring a new cast to take over the ABC. I think that none of us really fully healed/recovered from being booted from the ABC so abruptly. We were told in one night that it was our last show at the ABC, and we didn’t have any time for closure. Pack up your stuff, get out. It was a glorious show, and I was in the cast, so at least I had that, but still — there’s an unhealed wound there that we spent years trying to recover from. For those of you that have never been to the ABC theatre, it’s probably hard to understand why a simple movie theatre can evoke such strong emotions, but let me try to convey some of the magic to you.
The ABC theatre (back then, the Center Theatre) opened in 1946, claimed to be the first movie theatre in Fremont (other than a few claims of movie theatres in Niles, but with Charlie Chaplin basing his studio in that area, this doesn’t sound far fetched-and yet, I digress), located in the town of Centerville. The theatre seats 700, has a balcony (of sorts) and a stage. The theatre has gone through many incarnations (first run movies, second run movies, porn theatre, Spanish movies, Indian movies), but at the time of our stay in the late eighties, it ran first run films under the name ABC Center Theatre. The marquee ran around the front of the building, like most old movie theatres, and had the comedy/tragedy faces in the center. At one time you could tell they had a box office booth outside the main doors, but by the time we were there, it had been removed, leaving only a large entry. Behind the three main doors, the lobby opened up to a snack bar, bathrooms on either side, and doors on either side into the actual theatre. I can’t remember the exact decor, but I remember lots of yellows and browns — the bathroom in the women’s room had a red vinyl couch, I remember at least that much. In the main movie hall, there was blue carpeting, and entries curved around to a landing that separated the ‘balcony’ area from the main theatre area. The balcony was really nothing more than seats that inclined steeply upwards (very similar to the stadium seating we’ve all grown accustomed to in modern movie theatres). and the aisles went down on the left and the right around a large central set of seats. Now, the seats were old — not very comfortable, but in most cases the padding on the ass was still good. The screen was huge and in good condition. The screen had working curtains (what theatres do THAT anymore?) and above the screen were two painted naked nymphs. The real reason this place rocked, however — was the stage. When I say stage, I don’t mean a simple 2 or 3 foot extension off the front of the screen area, but an actual honest-to-god stage of a depth of about 15-20 feet, and a good 3 1/2 feet off the floor of the theatre. Under the stage to the right was a trap door down to ‘the dungeon’, our dressing room. There were exit doors down at the foot of the theatre, and in the back on that initial landing as you came in on the right. The place felt (and was) historic. But that is just the setting. What really captures the imagination was the magic that happened inside. First off, everyone would get to the theater up to a half-hour early, because you wanted to see and be seen. In a town like Fremont, there wasn’t a lot to do for the 15-20 crowd to do, so Rocky became the de facto scene. We’d all get dressed up in our most fantastic outfits we could cobble together, and do our make-up, and see all our friends that we haven’t seen since last week. Fremont was a pretty far-spread place, and we would pull crowds from all over town, so there were literally people there you only saw on saturday nights (not to mention some folk that lived as far flung as Gilroy, Santa Cruz, and Berkeley). Pretty soon, they’d open the doors, and we’d all rush in to find our seats — and when I say our seats, I mean OUR SEATS. Everyone knew where they sat, every week, without fail. My seat was in the fifth row, left-hand aisle. Later, of course, when I joined the cast, I let that seat go to some other lucky audience member, for for a good year or so — that spot was MINE. We’d all get ourselves situated, start the banter with our buddies, and wait for the lights to dim. Usually they’d play some sort of cartoon first, to get the crowd warmed up — my favorite was Chilly Willy. After a cartoon or two, which always got lines shouted over the top of it, they’d bring the house lights back up, and the MC would come out on stage to welcome everyone to the show. The cast would be introduced (Velvet Darkness), more witty banter would be exchanged with the audience, and of course, the VIRGINS would be identified in the audience. One lucky soul would be taken downstairs into the dungeon to don the white wedding dress, and the show would begin sometime afterwards. The lights would dim again, and right after the 20th Century Fox logo, big red lips would appear up on the screen, singing out those words that we all knew so well. The adrenaline was pumping, we were all engaged in our weekly ritual. We’d all sing the songs, we’d shout lines, we’d laugh at the same stupid jokes… we were a community, bound by our common rituals, and fully immersed in our religion. It’s no coincidence that about the same time I started going to RHPS religiously… I stopped going to church on Sundays (well yeah, that and afte being up and awake until 4:30am, who the hell was gonna wake up at 8am to go sit in a stuffy building with hard wooden pews?!). I had changed religious icons from Jesus Christ to Dr. Frankenfurter and Riff Raff. The couple of hours spent in that movie theatre, throwing toast and rice, dancing to The Time Warp in the aisles, joining in on the Orgy in the Aisles, singing sad refrains of Frank’s swan song together, were cathartic. They allowed us to purge ourselves of the frustrations of our weekly life — of not fitting in, of missing the mark, of dealing with broken homes, or whatever were our personal demons — and for one moment a week, we were whole. We were family. And, most often, we were hoarse and spent. After the show, the lights would come up, the cast would prance out on stage for their curtain call, and the crowd would applause with amazing fervor. We’d all seen it hundreds of times before, but it was still wonderful and fresh to us. Every show had it’s own particular nuance, it’s own uniqueness. And as we filed out the theatre, alone or with someone we met that evening, we vowed we’d be back again next week, to do it all over one more time.
We’d all go out to breakfast afterwards, invading some local all-night diner for a few months until they kicked us out (and believe me, at one point or another they ALL did). We’d hang out with the cast, trying to rub up against the greatness we saw on stage (both figuratively and literally), and sit and drink coffee and eat food and hope we weren’t the last ones at the table, because they always got the ass-end of picking up the remainder on the tab.
Of course, once I joined cast, it became a totally new experience to me, and deepened my love for the film. Now I got to act out the parts that I watch with such intensity. Now I got to be the center of attention. Now I got to really enter into that fantasy world. I never did theater in high school (I was kind of a geeky kid), but this was as close to live performance that I got involved in until I started doing the Renaissance Faire (my life’s next long addiction). For a while there, I even had MY OWN fans! Guys who wanted to be me, girls who wanted to do me. I was a small-time celebrity. And man, that felt great. For a kid that got teased in school for being a nerd, I had my revenge on saturday nights. In fact, on more than one occassion those same snobs that would laugh at me in school would see me up on stage and have to take a double-take. But fandom aside, I really did it all for a love of the performance, and for the goal of getting it ‘perfect’. I would study the film, try to get down every single nuance — it wasn’t enough to just play the part — I had to play it EXACTLY how the actor on screen played it, with the same gesticulation, at the same time. Timing was king, and to get a perfect score you had to hit your mark every single time. On a few occasions, I actually did this, and it made me feel powerful. I’d also be doing things on stage that I would NEVER get a chance to do in my normal life, like toss a girl feet-first into the air in pseudo-swing dance moves, or stand on stage in fishnets and panties. This doesn’t even include the ‘Tacky Horror’ nights in which we’d mix up the gender of the cast and put men in women’s roles, women in men’s roles, and screw with the costumes. We also had our theme nights, for Valentine’s or Halloween… I was pinochio for Rocky once, and a cupid Eddie, complete with wings and pink diaper. Sometimes we’d even do special shows, like the time we did the Grease pre-show, a complete rendition of Grease via the soundtrack, and us up on stage doing song and dance numbers. So, it was more like theater than you might think — it was performance art. Those times were really important to me, for me to get out of my shell, and to really explore putting it out there. It shaped who I am today, and sometimes I think I may have forgotten some of the lessons I learned back then.
I also met some of the most important people of my life back then, in that audience, in that cast — lovers and life-long friends that I can never repay the universe for bringing to me. I discovered in that time that I was not only not a loser, but I was an attractive, funny, sexy man with desireable qualities. I discovered that I was a leader, and had real talent. I discovered that I didn’t have to take shit from anyone in this world, because I was in control and I had a community and I… belonged.
I left the show when I was 21 — I felt it was time for me to move on to a new chapter in my life, or I might be doomed to stay there indefinitely as I had seen others do, stunted in their development as people, and staying with the party one weekend too long. It was the right choice, but there are still days that I miss the crowd, the music, the attention. I will always hold that time with fondness in my heart, and it saddens me that so many casts have lost their homes, so many theatres have closed their doors to the saturday midnight show. As of now, I only know of one bay area theater that runs RHPS — the Parkside in Berkeley. I’m tempted to go again, just to check it out, but with a baby ready to come out any second, that’s gonna have to wait for a while.
So, yeah — just thinking about the ABC theater sends chills down my spine, and if I close my eyes, I can transport myself back to a time of innocence, when the world was new and I was just emerging from my shell. I get a little teary-eyed just thinking of it. Excuse me now, as I go get the RHPS DVD off the shelf and pop it in to listen to the music and watch one more time.
…It’s just a jump to the left…

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