City of Permission?
Updated: Apr 15
The Rocky Horror Picture Show was too rich for Kalamazoo in 1979. Even though K-Zoo was one of Michigan’s “progressive” college towns, the conservative knitting needles that sweatered the place couldn’t quite handle the audacity of the movie’s trans-lingerie. The only small downtown theatre that even considered showing it quickly squelched and Rocky Horror was run out of town in weeks. The theatre showing in K-Zoo was decidedly different from what was described by friends who had seen the show in Chicago. They told enticing tales of a midnight movie where there were singing and dancing in the audience along with the tossing shit around. Toilet paper! Toast! Are you kidding me? A food fight at a movie theatre? I was in! Word of this kind of crazy spread fast as the shows quickly sold out.
The K-Zoo theatre was happy to sell the tickets, but after the first night of finding out it was no polite sit-down Disney movie (and complaints from the theatre janitors), they immediately tried to regulate it. They started by switching the showtime from the satanic witching hour of midnight to a wholesome 8:00 pm! Then the house lights stayed fully on for the entire show and the sound never got louder than a transistor radio. Uniformed deputies patrolled the aisles with their thumbs in their gun belts and signs were posted everywhere instructing everyone to stay seated and no throwing of any objects during the show. This wasn’t the crazy we had bargained for. K-Zoo was completely missing the point.
It wasn’t ten minutes into the flick that I was escorted out of the theatre by two Sheriff’s deputies for standing up and doing the Time Warp. I WAS EJECTED FROM ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW FOR DANCING! It was time for me to eject myself from the city of Kalamazoo. I was packing my bags that week.
California dreams had long been urging my young head to ride west on my tiny motorcycle until the west ran out of road. Getting kicked out of Rocky Horror sealed the deal. It was time to head to San Francisco.
Illinois was the first state I hit without a helmet law. To ride a motorcycle into the jaws of dangerous freedom was the permission I yearned for even though I really never needed it. I’d never been west of the Mississippi or even out of the tri-state area. I had my helmet unstrapped and pulled it off just as I passed the “Welcome to Illinois” sign. The moment changed me. I knew I was leaving for good. Call it silly, but the winds of change tangling through your hair as you ride into new beginnings will unlock you.
A week later I was motoring across the SF Bay Bridge with some camping gear, a saxophone, and ten bucks. The weeks that followed are a book in and of themselves but through all of it, I kept saying to myself, “Soon as I get settled, I gotta go see Rocky Horror Picture Show on Market Street! Pretty sure I can do the Time Warp there! And maybe toss some god damn toast around fer christ’s sake.”
Toast indeed. Little did I know.
I soon had a bartending job at a Tenderloin bar on Hyde St called The Tahitian Hut, and snagged a hotel room down the block at The Weller Hotel. Both places were affectionately referred to as “Blood Buckets” and lived up to their names regularly but I quickly learned how to stay out of trouble. It wasn’t long before I had fresh tips in my pocket and was ready to step out into the nerve wires of San Francisco and catch Rocky Horror at the Strand Theatre on Market St. just a few blocks away. The showtime was at midnight as it had been since its debut in ‘75 and just getting there was a step into downtown madness. The streets were loud and dark with the freaks of the night swooping by. The Strand Theatre up ahead was a beacon of decadence with its Vegas tracer lights strobing the cars and busses as the line of moviegoers stretched down the block. Almost all of them were in costume and armed with full satchels of props and such to fling into the foray when the shit got started; and yes, there was a bakery’s worth of toast. The party had already begun in the street. These kooks weren’t just coming to see the entertainment, they were the entertainment. Sound familiar?
I fumbled into the line, shy and embarrassed, and hopelessly normal but determined to forge ahead. Inside the theatre was blackout dark and smelled of hairspray, sweat, and weed. THEY WERE SMOKING WEED! Back home a puff off a cigarette would have bounced you out of the theatre and a joint would have landed you into a lengthy jail sentence! I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. The opening music started at ear-bleed volume and a full troupe of actors immediately hit the stage — actors actually performing the show right in front of the cinema screen! A curtain went up and the movie started as Kalamazoo Michigan instantly shrank to a fleck of dandruff to be flicked off my shoulder. I sat in frozen awe as the audience raged around me in every level of decadence. Shit was getting tossed around the entire time, with people climbing and jumping from seat to seat as flasks and drugs were being imbibed like Halloween candy. The place was a giant mosh pit of celebration in the dark! The black drag queen sitting next to me took notice of my astonished youth. She was the size of a pro-wrestler and her hair was stacked to the chandeliers. She knew that I had just been hooked by the zany crab traps of San Francisco as she leaned her head back and let out a Broadway singer’s laugh.
“Oh Honey! What? Did you just get to this town five minutes ago? You got small town stink all over you! Well, here ya go. You need some of this!”
With that, she handed me a huge joint. I knew then I was probably never going to leave this town. I was home.
Sitting in that dark theatre popped my brain open to possibilities undreamt. I had always had them, but a lifetime of disparagement left me clueless as to how to tap into them. Zany ideas aren’t sensible. You can’t pay the rent on whimsy. Such disparagement cultivates an assumption that one needs permission to think freely. At the time it seemed like The Rocky Horror Picture Show at the Strand Theatre in San Francisco in 1979 gave me such permission even though I really never needed it. Needing permission implies that there’s someone you need permission from. There isn’t one. No one ever needed to ask to be creative. No one ever needed permission to follow their dreams. They just needed to choose.
San Francisco didn’t give me permission, it showed me the possibilities.
I was always going to leave my home town and head west. It was hard-wired into my matrix from the start. But a leap of faith takes courage. As my mother said when she saw me packing, “Life decisions like this always have a pull and a push.”
My pull was the free thinkers of San Francisco. My push was The Rocky Horror Picture Show.