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‘Rocky Horror’ midnight madness ends in Harvard Square

The familiar line of men and women flaunting black fishnets, stilettos, lace corsets, gold spandex shorts, and red lipstick V’s on their foreheads every Saturday night in Harvard Square will soon disappear.

When the AMC Loews Harvard Square 5 theater closes its doors for good July 8, it will bring to an end a 28-year tradition of the FullBodyCast performing “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” at midnight at the Church Street multiplex.

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“I thought we would get kicked out for something strange,” said Ariell Jones, a 21-year-old Montserrat College of Art student, who plays the characters Eddie and Dr. Scott and helps with costumes.

Instead, they’ve lost their home for the most pedestrian of reasons: AMC announced last week it had sold the building, leaving “Rocky Horror” regulars shocked and scrambling to find a new theater.

The film, starring Susan Sarandon as Janet and Barry Bostwick as Brad, premiered in 1975, an adaptation of a British musical about a lost couple who encounter an array of outrageous characters on a dark and stormy night. The film was at first considered a flop but gained a cult following when midnight showings began. Decades later, fans — including those in Harvard Square — dress up in costumes and in drag and participate alongside the movie: singing, dancing, and acting out scenes.

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Each Saturday at the Harvard Square AMC, 50 to 100 newcomers, or “virgins” as they are called, check out the show, while many regulars — dubbed “sluts” — return week after week. Some longtime fans credit “Rocky Horror” with helping them meet their spouse or launching their acting career.

The thought of losing the theater that cast and crew members have been escaping to each Saturday night (before some were old enough to drive) is difficult for them to swallow.

“It’s hard to separate the theater itself from our cast because they’ve always been one and the same,” said Alex Savitzky, the show’s director, who joined the cast in 1994 when he got his driver’s license.

“Convincing mom to pick you up at three in the morning isn’t the easiest thing to do,” he recalled.

Meredith Wish, who has played Janet the past six years, had the same problem at age 16. Her solution to get to the show? Steal her father’s car.

When Wish arrived at the theater, she accidently locked the keys in the vehicle. She approached the church steps across from the AMC where the cast typically gathers before the show and asked lighting director Tim DeYoung if he could break into her car. He got in with an ice scraper and hanger.

“It was love at first sight,” said Wish, 22, who is now engaged to DeYoung, 34.

On Saturday, the personalities behind Brad, Janet, Eddie, and Dr. Scott sat on those same church steps. They’re the steps where “Rocky Horror” performers have gathered for the past 28 years as they waited for the director to shout, “We’re in!” — the signal they can set up the stage.

The motley group laughed at inside jokes and mocked Arthur Laurie’s age (at 50, he’s the oldest cast member) as they guzzled Dunkin’ Donuts coffee and Cokes. But on Saturday, a hint of sadness colored their banter. Only three days before, they’d received an e-mail from Savitzky, informing them the theater was sold, and they would have to find a new home.

Laurie — who has played Brad since 1979 — looked back at the years and recalled how the “Rocky Horror” performances evolved into a Harvard Square tradition. In the ’80s, people hung out at the Tasty diner and Out of Town News, he said. Those who didn’t fit in, he said, went to go see “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”

“This just became woven into the fabric of Harvard Square,” Laurie said. “It’s just where the weirdos and the freaks and the malcontents came.”

But this “Rocky Horror” show actually predates its home at the Harvard Square theater, which opened in 1926. The show bounced around various venues in Boston and settled at the Exeter Street Theater in Back Bay until 1984. When the Harvard Square theater was converted from a one-stage to three-stage cinema, the show moved once again, opening in April 1984. It was Friday the 13th.

Over the past 28 years, the FullBodyCast has led more than 2,100 performances at the Harvard Square location. Until 1997, they performed Friday and Saturday night. After hearing there would be only three more shows at the Harvard Square AMC, friends and families flocked to the theater in drag Saturday. The 180 available tickets sold by 9 p.m.

Colleen Bolger saw “Rocky Horror” when it premiered at the Orson Welles Cinema. Last weekend, she stood in line before midnight with her 14-year-old daughter, who was dressed in high-waisted black shorts, a skin-tight red top, and long pearl necklace.

“When we heard [the theater] was closing I wanted to bring my youngest daughter and experience it together,” Bolger said.

“ ‘Rocky’ has a timeless appeal,” said Diane Porter, who played the roles of Magenta, Janet, and Rocky from 2000 to 2010 before starring in local independent films. Parents who saw the show in college, and teens who watched “Rocky” numbers for the first time on the second season of “Glee,” all have some connection with the show, she said.

Cam Vilain, 17, of Concord, said she had never seen “Rocky” at a “cult-classic-type theater,” but has watched the movie about 20 times on video. Wearing a sparkly black tank top, black shorts, fishnets, and bowtie, she said the message in the film helped her when she came out during her freshman year in high school.

“The movie really encourages being who you are . . . and accepting that [you can be] attracted to men and women really helped me as a person,” Vilain said.

For a cast and crew of students, software developers, lawyers, plumbers, and even an astrophysicist, the show is a weekly escape from the pressures of daily life.

“Nobody cares how many children you save, or how many buildings you painted, or how many heart surgeries you did. You throw that all out the window,” said Laurie, a police officer. “When you’re on stage and you’re in fishnets, the only thing [that matters] is hit your marks, get on time.”

The theater holds decades of memories for the “Rocky” family of about 50 cast members and hundreds of alumni who have experienced everything from weddings to funerals together. This Saturday, there will be an “all-star” performance when alums return to lead “The Time Warp.” For the final performance on July 7, the AMC will hold an early bird showing at 9:30 p.m. and another at midnight. The shows will be held in a 480-seat theater to accommodate the crowds.

Savitzky said he’s working to find a new theater and assured a visitor that the cast will be back on stage as soon as possible.

“It’s easy to get upset and sink into a pit of depression about losing your home after 28 years,” he said. “The trick is to accept that, move past it, and look forward to the future, and we’re all trying to do that now.”

“The Rocky Horror Picture Show” also screens once a month at the Orpheum Theatre in Foxborough with the RKO Army cast and the first Saturday of every month at the Tower Theaters in South Hadley with the Come Again Players.

Stephanie Steinberg can be reached at stephanie.steinberg
@globe.com. Follow her on
Twitter @steph_steinberg.
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