Sal Piro Went To See ‘Rocky Horror Picture Show’ and Never Left
Almost all of us become enchanted at some point with something in popular culture. Maybe it’s Taylor Swift, or the Beatles, or Black Panther, or Fortnite, or the Kardashians. Or whatever.
We want to know everything we can about this thing. And then usually, after a while, we downshift. We don’t forget it. We put it in a less urgent perspective.
And then there’s Sal Piro, who became transfixed by The Rocky Horror Picture Show in 1977, when he was 25, and by all indications remained transfixed until he died this week at the age of 71.
It’s the kind of story that sometimes makes the rest of us shake our heads — in some cases, with cause. But in cases like Rocky Horror, where everyone has fun and no one gets hurt (unless you count Meat Loaf), there’s charm in the ferocity of honest devotion. It’s an affirmation that what you first found and saw was genuine enough that it never diminished. It’s like saying the last movie you want to see is The Godfather or the last music you want to hear is “Rhapsody In Blue.” Good for you.
Sal Piro, who according to his younger brother Lillias died peacefully at home, spent the last 46 years of his life as the first and only president of the Rocky Horror Picture Show Fan Club.
Yes, it was done more for love than money. No, it wasn’t Piro’s full-time job. But it was much more than sending out membership cards or writing an occasional bulletin. It was a way of life, and the vehicle through which Piro helped turn a failed camp movie into one of the biggest cinema-cult stories of the late 20th century.
Piro was among a small group of movie fans who in late 1976 and early 1977 began showing up at the Waverly Theater in downtown New York to see midnight showings of RHPS, a campy musical horror spoof in which a cartoonishly straight couple find themselves spending the night in a surreal hotel where the cross-dressing owner and a bizarre crowd that seems to have escaped from a warped cabaret embraces everything from flashy costume production numbers to cannibalism.
You can see why it was an immediate flop when it was released to general audiences in June 1975, and also why it became a cult legend once it found the proper demographic.
That discovery began at the Waverly, which gradually turned RHPS from a lavish goof into a crowd-participation classic.
By Piro’s account, Staten Island kindergarten teacher Louis Farese was the first to engage in conversation with the characters. On Labor Day weekend 1976, when the Janet character played by Susan Sarandon was walking in the rain, Louis yelled, “Buy an umbrella, you cheap b — — !”
From that humble beginning, Farese, Piro and others gradually developed a whole audience script lovingly adapted by viewers around the world.
Some lines were R- or X-rated, but more were jokes, what Farese called “counter-dialogue” to the movie. Just before a giant pair of lips appears on the screen, for instance, the crowd says in unison, “And God said, let there be lips!”
Nor was this participation merely verbal. During the wedding scene, the audience throws rice. During musical numbers, audience members dressed as characters jump into the aisles to perform.
In 1983, a half dozen years after it started, Piro said what grabbed him was that the whole experience was “uplifting and fun.”
New York in the 1970s, it might be recalled, didn’t always bring those two words to mind. Like hip-hop and punk music, Rocky Horror provided a diversion — a reflection of the chaos, to some extent, but also a refuge from it.
“Going there was a party atmosphere,” Piro said. “When my friends and I started going, at first we’d just shout one or two lines, and sometimes we’d get shushed. But it caught on. After a few years I remember a theater on Long Island did one showing where they required silence, just so people could see the actual movie.”
Rocky Horror also arrived, Piro said, at a pivotal point in his own life. A few years earlier he had been a Roman Catholic seminary student, after which he taught for three years at Catholic schools in New Jersey. When he was laid off in the summer of 1976, he moved to New York to try his hand at acting. He’d duly waited tables and performed other aspiring actor rites when he found Rocky Horror, which was admittedly an unlikely flashpoint.
He founded the Rocky Horror Show Fan Club, and his promotion helped the original New York phenomenon spread around the world. He wrote two books on Rocky Horror, titled Creatures of the Night, and in the pre-Internet days he corresponded in writing with hordes of true believers. At one point the club had more than 10,000 members, reflecting the fact that theaters in places far more culturally conservative than downtown New York were firing up the projectors at midnight.
“When I go out of town, I see it in other places,” Piro said. “It’s great that a new generation seems to find it every year or two, and it’s fun to see the virgins [viewers seeing it for the first time]. They don’t want to be as hostile to the performers as the veterans. Some of them love it and some are so stunned they never come back. They’re a good mix with the veterans, the 100- and 150-timers.
“New York audiences tend to be more sophisticated with the lines. Sometimes in the suburbs, when the floor show comes on, you’ll hear some idiot yelling, ‘Hey, f — — — !’ But management takes care of it. They make a lot of money from the candy we buy.”
In 1983, Piro said he figured he’d seen Rocky Horror somewhere around 700 times. A few years later the number had grown to more than 1,100, making him a world record-holder for most times one person had seen the same movie in a theater.
Okay, that’s not an achievement to which everyone aspires. It’s still an impressive number.
“The movie holds up for me,” he said in 1983. “It’s got a mix of elements — music, sex, outrage, satire, renegade. I still see new things.”
And yes, he said, he watched other movies, too.
“I like John Waters,” he said, not surprisingly. “I liked Pink Flamingos. I also like George Romero — Dawn of the Dead, Night of the Living Dead. I’m into camp and B movies mostly. I’d see Texas Chainsaw Massacre any time.
“But Rocky Horror is such a thing that I don’t get too much chance to see others.”
He allowed in 1983 that he was the last of the original Waverly Theater crowd that was still all-in full-time on Rocky Horror and no, being the movie’s biggest fan did not, for better or worse, provide wildly lucrative lifetime employment. Piro eventually became the manager of the Grove Hotel and Ice Palace on Fire Island, where he was both a community fixture and the emcee of Ice Palace shows under his drag alter ego of Dame Edith.
A 2000 New York Times article on the Fire Island scene describes how “Mr. Piro changed from jeans and a shirt into a funky black and gold gown with oversized feathered cuffs, pulling a fluffy pink wig over his short dark hair to become Dame Edith, hostess of the evening’s performance. . . .To open the show, Dame Edith lip-synched ‘Ruby Red Dress’.”
He never scored the big acting career, though he had small roles in movies that included Fame. He was more successful in competitive Scrabble, where over a 30-year career he won 28 tournaments and finished with a lifetime mark of 2159–2070. (Side note: “Rocky” is worth 14 points and “Horror” is worth nine.)
As reports of Piro’s death emerged this week, tributes began appearing like the one on the Turkish entertainment website FSK: “O Divine force of the Living and the Dead, approve of Sal Piro, whom we trust has entered this day into your realm. Award harmony and light and everlasting youth to him who has been taken from us while still a kid.”
Maybe it’s not so far from the Roman Catholic seminary to there. That Rocky Horror Picture Show was one of the vehicles by which Sal Piro traveled gives a good indication how even the odd fringes of popular culture have a way of remaining with us.