Rocky Nights in San Leandro What happens when three undercover cops show up at an unusually wild screening of the Rocky Horror Picture Show?

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Driving down East 14th Street in San Lenadro on a Friday at midnight is like plowing through liquid darkness; you pass block after block of vacant strip-mall parking lots, shuttered boutiques, modest homes full of sleeping families. You can go on like this for miles and miles. Then sudenly, just before you pass out of San Leandro altogether, your car is bathed in the glow from the Bal Theatre’s illuminated marquee; its pink and blue neon tubing points out into the night like the prow of a ship cutting its way through the darkened suburb. The marquee is candy-colored and bright and alive and so pretty that you want to touch it or put it in your mouth. Teenagers are drawn to it like moths.

On a cold night in January, the vintage theater’s cavernous, dimly red belly was full; over 140 people had shown up for the midnight screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the 1975 cult classic that combines sci-fi camp and elaborately bizarre costuming with the endearing earnestness of any movie that is, at root, a musical. Like any other subculture, Rocky Horror fandom has its own intricately involved in-jokes, a million signs and signals that tell you when you should, for example, throw toast at the screen, and when you should leap out of your seat to the do the Time Warp, a dance heavy on stomping and shouting. And then there's the informal Rocky Horror dress code, which hews to the short, the tight, the black, the shiny and the gender-bending. One of the rules is to push the rules.

Thanks to the Bal’s then-nonexistent carding policy, many of the attendees that night were well under seventeen years old, some of them closer to thirteen or fourteen, although Rocky Horror is an R-rated movie. Some of the kids were drinking alcohol, and some were encouraging teenage girls to take off their shirts, and some of the girls were blushingly complying. One girl was performing a striptease as the movie’s opening credits rolled; she had undressed down to a thong and neglected to cover her nipples with electrical tape as she usually did. One fourteen-year-old girl was lying unconscious on a couch in the lobby; her blood-alcohol level was five times the legal driving limit. There were a lot of people at the Bal that night, and three of them were undercover cops.

• • • •

The police were in the audience due to a tip from a local mom – a Rocky Horror veteran, in fact, with more than 200 shows under her belt – who had complained that while a little deviant fun was okay, what was going on inside the Bal crossed the line. The cops planned to watch the show and then, if circumstances warranted it, issue a warning to Brady Ferguson, the Bal’s 26-year-old operator. Instead, they shut the movie down not long after the opening theme song. Ferguson complied with the officers’ order to turn off the film projector and told his patrons to leave quietly through the front lobby doors, outside which the police had lined up a bank of squad cars and the department’s only paddy wagon, just in case anyone made a mad rush for the exits.

The precise details of the San Leandro PD’s excursion to Rocky Horror can be found in a report that is about as thick as your index finger; it’s probably the juiciest police report to come out of the quiet suburb in some time. “I guess it was like a banner night,” laughs Detective Tim DeGrano, one of the cops who mad the bust and who, as he points out in the report, had previously been to several Rocky Horror shows himself. There was, of course, the teenage drinking, the striptease, and descriptions of patrons who seem to have gone to the show clad only in their underwear. But the real brunt of the report is leveled at Ferguson and the maturity – or lack of it – he demonstrated that night as the theater’s operator, a position he shares with his girlfriend and business partner, 22-year-old Desiree Costa.

A few lowlights: during the “virgin sacrifices” – a Rocky Horror pre-movie tradition in which first-time viewers are called up onto the stage and given a public razzing – Ferguson in his role as emcee asked the assembled fourteen-and-fifteen-year-old patrons if they knew how to give blow jobs. When they demurred, according to the report, Ferguson held the mic next to his groin, and a teenage boy jumped up from the audience and pretended to do the honors. When the audience began calling for the girls onstage to take off their shirts, Ferguson, according to the cops, egged them on. Two of the girls eventually flashed the audience; one of them had previously written “lick me” above her right breast, and Ferguson took her at her word. He made an annoucement inviting people to stay in the theater after the show for a party during which he would lock the front doors and to which, it was insinuated, people should bring their own bottles. In what was probably the nail in the Bal Theatre’s coffin, once the undercover cops had discovered the unconscious girl and called for backup from uniformed officers in squad cars, they witnessed panicked fans trying to hide the intoxicated teenager by carrying her to the private offices upstairs.

Although nobody was taken into custody the night of the raid, Ferguson would be arrested twice in February, once for outstanding warrants on unpaid speeding tickets, and once related to three misdemeanor charges stemming from the incidents the police observed during the raid – encouraging lewd behavior, allowing minors to drink, and “annoying or molesting” a child (licking the “lick me” girl.) He would be led, meek and cuffed and wearing his Rocky Horror jacket, out of the theater in front of a cluster of stunned teenagers. It would be said, loudly and often by his many defenders, that much of the “lewd behavior” for which Ferguson had been busted was simply standard Rocky Horror humor; charging Ferguson was just another example of outsiders not getting the show’s admittedly risque rituals. If the teenagers of San Leandro were already grateful to Ferguson for giving them such a cozy and laxly regulated place to hang out after hours, the arrests and the widely held perception that Ferguson was the victim of police harassment conflated to make him something of a hero. When a newspaper ran Ferguson’s police mugshot, students at Hayward High School taped the picture inside their lockers.

Brady Ferguson is very charming in a low-key way. He has dark, tousled hair and pale skin; he tends to dress in all black and is not physically striking (in the police report, witnesses describe him as “pudgy” or “big-boned”). He has all the cool of an elder sibling who will tolerate your adolescent angst with mellow good humor. His speech is liberally sprinkled with the words “like” and “whatever,” a dismissive he uses whenever a charge levied against him is too absurd or tedious to be seriously contemplated. It is not hard to believe that he has developed a cult of personality, although he underplays his patrons’ affection for him. (While the police claim that the heavy deployment of squad cars during the raid was necessary for officer safety, he says drily, "They thought that the audience would spring at them or something. I’m like, ‘No, they’re not that loyal.’”) Teenagers actually sit at his feet while he is talking. The waitresses at Pring’s, the coffeeshop down the street, used to reserve a special jar of peanut butter just for Ferguson because they knew he liked to eat it on waffles. His chattiness and willingness to talk to the press have made him a central feature of a still-in-the-works documentary titled Regular Frankie Fan, which proposes to do for Rocky Horror followers what Trekkies did for, well, Trekkies.

On a Thursday afternoon in March, Ferguson, Costa and a small halo of teenagers are camped out in the Bal’s lobby, waiting to turn away patrons who have arrived to see Sound and Fury, a documentary about cochlear implants, because the print did not arrive on time. Ferguson and Costa restored the lobby – which along with the rest of the theater was coated in dust after having remained vacant for two years – in a mere five weeks before they reopened the Bal last August under the business name B&D Productions. The lobby is now vibrantly painted in Crayola colors: green and yellow walls contrast with the purple ovoid ceiling and funky blue cylindrical lights that hang over the concession stand. Even better is the interior of the 808-seat theater itself, with its dusty red walls emblazoned with cream-colored horses drawing chariots bearing toga-wearing couples toward the stage. The ceiling is also intricately detailed, with birds, leafy scrolls, and a large central decorative feature that resembles nothing so much as a giant artichoke.

Here and there you can see evidence of Ferguson’s Rocky Horror obsession: hovering over the couch, there's a life-sized painting of the film’s main character, Dr. Frank-N-Furter, kicking up his heels in pearls and a Merry Widow corset. Behind a glass panel, Ferguson has assembled a display of collectors’ items, including a tenth-anniversary Rocky Horror poster that shows a black wedding cake into which Barbie dolls dressed as the film’s characters have been stuck feet first. (Mattel had threatened to sue, and the poster was pulled from distribution.) Ferguson even scored four of the dolls from the original shoot, and they're in the case, too, limbs jutting out robotically from beneath crazily glittered outfits.

Costa, who is tiny and has a cute little black pixie haircut, is curled up on the floor with an embroidery hoop, stitching what appears to be a sort of fawn-in-a-glen forest scene. The teenagers are lying on the floor, picking at their plastic beaded jewelry. Ferguson is getting ready to talk. He has lots and lots to say about the Kafka-esque bureaucratic nightmare that has befallen him since the night of the raid, but he cannot say it all, because although he was arraigned last week, he is still awaiting a plea offer from the District Attorney’s Office. The charges against him could have serious repercussions – each misdemeanor carries a maximum punishment of one year’s jail time and a $1,000 fine. But it is more likely that he’ll be offered a combination of probation and community service. Even if his sentencing is minimal, he still has to work through a sticky web of negotiations between B&D Productions and various city organizations that decide how local businesses are run.

Ferguson believes the theater already provides many services to the San Leandro community. The Bal screens open-captioned movies for the hearing-impaired on Sundays (it is the only Bay Area theater to do so regularly, and both Ferguson and Costa are fluent in sign language) and also as a matter of course donates ticket-sale proceedings to seven local charities, including the Davis Street Community Center, the Friends of the Fairmont Animal Shelter, the Save the Lorenzo Theater Foundation, and United Parents for San Leandro High. Ferguson has opened the theater for benefit concerts and community plays and offered movie tickets to other charity events as prizes. “Our tagline is ‘Your hometown movie theater.’ It’s kind of cheezy but it really comes across as what we want to be – something for everybody,” says the hometown boy – he’s lived in San Leandro his whole life. And as for Rocky? “I thoroughly feel Rocky Horror is a community-based event,” he says. “It’s just not for your mainstream community.”

Ferguson does not deny that some things went wrong the night of the police bust – the alcohol in the theater, for one thing, and the violation of local indecent-exposure laws – although he pleads ignorance in both cases. He didn’t know that the girl doing the striptease would take off as much as she did, and he didn’t know that kids had sneaked booze inside. “We didn’t check for outside food or drink at all for Rocky, just because you can bring stuff to throw,” he says. “I really didn’t care if people brought a Coke, you know, because I’m making good money at the door. .… Immediately following the raid, we instituted an alcohol-is-not-permitted-on-the-premises policy.”

And where do Ferguson’s responsibilities start and end? “That’s a hard call,” he says. “ I think if somebody’s snuck alcohol in the door and they're drinking, then that’s not my responsibility. People do that at other places, everywhere.” Although much has been made of the presence of the unconscious fourteen-year-old, Ferguson has not been charged with anything and her parents have not filed a civil suit, largely, he thinks, because she was already drunk when she arrived at the theater. “Us letting her in at that point that she was drunk, yeah, that was a bad call,” Ferguson says. “Actually, she wants to come back, and we won’t let her, because she caused so many problems.”

From now on, the Bal Theatre will card its patrons, although Ferguson still isn't entirely happy with the practice. Ratings – devised by the Motion Picture Association of America – are, after all, only suggestions directed at parents, and are not legally enforceable. “We didn’t card before because we felt it was up to the person to decide if it was appropriate for them to go to the show or not,” Ferguson says, and then reiterates a point that many Rocky Horror fans make: “In my honest opinion, Rocky should not be an R-rated film. It should be rated PG-13. In 1975, they didn’t have PG-13, so in 1975 it made more sense. They say the word ‘fuck’ once and there's exposed nipples for about ten seconds, and that’s about the extent of it.”

As for the aiding indecent exposure charges, he says he’s not to blame. “[The police are] saying I encouraged [the girls] by saying, ‘Hey, they want to see some boobies,’ which I may have said, I don’t remember, but then – and I have witnesses to this – I turned and said, ‘You don’t have to do anything you don’t want,’” he says. “So if the audience is yelling at them to show their tits and I’m like, ‘You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do,’ well, to me that means my responsibility is over.”

“They’re not charging the other hundred people in the audience who were yelling ‘Show your tits, show your tits’ with aiding indecent exposure.” He shrugs. “I thought that was pretty weak.”

He chalks the rest of it up to misunderstanding. After all, Rocky Horror is chock-full of traditions the uninitiated might find unsettling: the virgin sacrifices, of course, and the “attitude check” that every emcee administers at the start of each show (the audience responds by yelling “Fuck you!” and flipping him off), and callback lines which, although they vary from theater to theater, center around yelling “slut!” and “asshole!” at various charcters. Some of the antics police witnessed were the Bal cast’s own inventions, like the content of the virgin sacrifices as well as a feature the cast calls the “word of the day,” a convention familiar to anyone who ever watched Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. The emcee chooses a word, usually something like “uvula” or “mastication” that sounds a little raunchy but is really benign, and then whenever someone says it, the whole audience has to yell like banshees.

And it’s true that the culture gap got Ferguson in trouble a few times. For example, there's a callback line during the opening theme when the whole audience yells, “Fuck in the back row,” and when Ferguson made a reference to it from the stage, the police interpreted it as an actual invocation to have sex in the theater, bolstered by the fact that he also mentioned something about not wanting to have to clean up the seats afterwards. (It seems the cops didn’t know that the word of the day was “jiz-mopper.”)

“Reading the police report from the undercover police officers, they didn’t get it. It didn’t click at all,” Ferguson says. There is a frustrated, hand-waving pause before he finally blurts out, “NO! It’s just like, NO, I’m not telling people to fuck in the back row. I’m making fun of a line from the movie.”

Rocky Horror fans have worried that between the raid and the subsequent bad press, the show’s more positive points have been overlooked. Rocky Horror fandom is an in-crowd, yes, but it’s an in-crowd that anyone can join. “It’s a very accepting environment,” says Ferguson. “People who are heterosexual, homosexual, transgender, confused about their sexuality, unsure who they are, geeky, goths, ravers … all these different groups of people come to one place to have a good time and everybody is accepting of everybody else, for the most part.”

The teenagers sitting on the floor nod sagely. “There's just a lot of really positive energy that surrounds the entire Rocky atmosphere,” says nineteen-year-old Jason, who looks just like the Eagle Scout that he is.

And some of the Bal’s teenage patrons say it’s much better than other things they could be doing after dark. Sixteen-year-old Ryan, who is wearing floppy pants and a Pac-Man T-shirt, says the show has his mom’s seal of approval. “At least on Friday night between the hours of midnight and three in the morning, she knows that I’m doing something safe, whereas before I was going to raves and things and she had no clue where I was or what I was up to,” he says. “For her, it was reassuring to know that I’m here every Friday night doing safe things in a safe place.”

Try telling that to the mom who made the original complaint to the San Leandro PD, a woman who for this article would like to be identified as Sam McWhorten, who took her fifteen-year-old daughter, fourteen-year-old son, and a coterie of their friends to a showing in December. “It was really an eye-opener to how some people push fun a little too far,” she says. She didn’t much like a number of things – the striptease, the large number of young teenagers there without a parent, the fact that some of the stage acts seemed more explicit than usual. But what really made her blood boil was when a man in his twenties, who was wearing a pink velvet prom dress, hit on her son during the Time Warp. “As the dance was over, this man put his arm around my son and told him he was cute and that he was looking for some ‘teenies’” – teenagers, says McWhorten. “My son handled it so gracefully; he just slid out from under his arm and said, ‘Thank you, I’m not that way.’ I was furious, but I didn’t want to embarrass my kids because their friends from school were there.”

McWhorten says she hopes Ferguson will keep the show runnning but clean up the act. She’s even let her kids go back to the few showings Ferguson has put on since; she says her kids know better than to get involved with anything illegal. “I can trust my two, but I cannot trust the owner of this theater,” she says. “He chalks it up to being a new business owner and being young, and my feeling is that that is a crock of shit. If you were old enough to get that license and open a business, you should be old enough to know that you’re an adult now and have responsibilities and it’s not just a party.”

• • • •

Nate Havoc – not quite his real name – is one of the directors of the Barely Legal cast, which performs Rocky Horror on Saturday nights at Oakland’s Parkway Theatre. He is wearing an outfit that is largely an homage to sharks (a Jaws T-shirt, a plastic shark dangling from his sweatshirt’s hoodpull), but his most striking feature is his hair, which erupts vertically from his head and goes straight out for four or five inches until it’s finally gelled into quills thanks to a highly-congealed mixture of Ivory Soap and Aqua Net. (“My hair is nice and clean,” he says in a bit of an understatement.)

One of the side effects of the police raid has been that Rocky Horror aficionados have emerged from the woodwork to either defend the movie’s overall let-your-freak-flag-fly message or to differentiate their productions’ behavioral codes from the excesses discovered at the Bal. Havoc has taken the latter strategy ever since two detectives from the San Leandro PD contacted him to ask if what they saw at the Bal was going on elsewhere. Through letters to the editors of various papers, Havoc and other concerned fans have gone to great lengths to get out the word that the Bal’s show is not representative of Rocky Horror productions. “This is kind of big news,” he says. “If public opinion starts to become that Rocky Horror is not a safe and friendly environment and not a good place to be, that definitely has an effect on any cast trying to put on a good show.”

He offers up the example of the Parkway, which sells alcohol during other engagements but shuts off the taps during Rocky Horror, strictly enforces a seventeen-and-over policy, and presents a much tamer version of the show. “This is not necessarily a movie for a twelve-year-old. That’s why we enforce the rating,” says Havoc. “If you’re seventeen and older, it’s fine.” But the fact that the Parkway has such a by-the-books production is partially the reason that Ferguson’s cast at the Bal Theatre exists at all, and is the cause of a little bad blood between the East Bay’s two Rocky Horror casts.

Both Havoc and Ferguson were once involved with the Bay Area’s original Rocky Horror show, which ran for 24 years at Berkeley’s UC Theatre. When its resident cast, Indecent Exposure, retired in 1995, Barely Legal sprang up to take its place. Ferguson, who played first Brad Majors and then the criminologist in the new cast, advanced from being the publicity manager to eventually becoming co-director.

In 1999, Landmark Theatres, which owned the UC, announced that it was canceling its showings of Rocky Horror because it was replacing the theater’s seats and screen and didn’t want the toast-flinging hordes causing unnecessary wear and tear on the new furnishings. The Barely Legal cast went searching for a new home and in the process found two: Oakland’s Parkway and San Francisco’s Kabuki. The show only ran for a little while at the Kabuki, but the Parkway’s cast just celebrated it’s 100th show last month.

In the process of looking for a new theater, Ferguson thought of the Bal, which had first opened in 1946. Although once a lavish and modern theater, its business had slowed in the ‘60s, and over the last thirty years various operators had showed Spanish-language and then Hindi films. Ferguson and Costa daydreamed about taking over the Bal, and this soon evolved into real plans to rent the theater. Ferguson worked as a systems manager for a software company, and when that employer was bought out, Ferguson was given what he calls a “fat retention bonus” which he sank into restoring the Bal after signing a five-year lease. The city of San Leandro pitched in $5,500 to restore the marquee and exterior paintwork, and the rest of the project was pure sweat.

That’s when the split with the Barely Legal cast began. Ferguson says he had not originally intended to stage Rocky Horror at the Bal, but the idea of doing a show on his own turf was so appealing that last Ocotober he invited the Barely Legal cast to do a one-time-only Halloween show in San Leandro. Barely Legal turned him down, so Ferguson decided to round up his own cast for the evening and do the show anyway. This riled tempers, feeding the perception that Ferguson was devoting his best efforts to his own business, and not the Oakland cast.

Barely Legal members signed a petition asking him to step down as a director; it was never delivered because Ferguson preempted them by quitting. “We just didn’t see eye-to-eye anymore,” he says. He says he thought the Oakland show had grown stale, that the audience was shrinking because they were failing to recruit new fans, and that the security at the Parkway was overbearing. “They have twenty people in the audience and they have like 25 security members,” sniffs Ferguson. “That’s why I left – it was not fun, there was nobody in the audience, nobody was coming back again, and security was like this brute force of militant people who searched you when you came in.” Besides, the idea of putting on a show in his own place was growing more and more appealing.

And if Ferguson wanted new blood, he found it in San Leandro. His new cast, which dubbed itself Denton Deliquents after the fictional town in which the movie is set, is both younger than the Barely Legal cast and newer to Rocky Horror fandom. About half of the players are under seventeen and therefore are not supposed to be watching R-rated movies without a parent present.

“I think he wanted more of an atmosphere where a thirteen-year-old could come and party at Rocky, and we don't really have that here,” says Havoc diplomatically. “Our show is very professional. We pretty much stick to doing a very screen-accurate performance, and I think he wanted more of an opportunity to let people improv and not necessarily do what is happening in the movie.”

• • • •

Half an hour before the show is scheduled to start, Rocky Horror patrons are already lined up outside Oakland’s Parkway Theatre. It’s true that security is tight; two extremely tall, muscular men, severely attired in black jeans and vests that would make them look like bounty hunters if it weren’t for the giant Mag Lites swinging from their belts, are conspicuously on duty. One of them appears to be wearing a shoulder hoster, although it’s empty. The crowd varies in age, with most in their mid-twenties to mid-thirties. “Let’s get this rodeo started,” one of the security guards barks.

Inside, someone says, “Cast, on your feet,” and the people in the lobby, who I had thought were just lounging before the show, quickly form themselves into two rows – three men, three women. After the audience member has shown his or her ID to one of the security guys at the front door, they buy a ticket at the front booth and then head to the gender-appropriate line for a quick pat-down. If the person is carrying a bag, a cast member checks to make sure they are not bringing in alcohol. A drag queen in heels and fishnets, tottering up the lobby’s sloped floor, veers first toward the women, then catches herself, rolls her eyes, and heads toward the men. Nobody seems to mind being frisked; it’s all part of the drill. Inside the audience is chanting “Give me lips!” as a very large, very red pair slowly materializes on the screen. This is how The Rocky Horror Picture Show begins.

The rest of it goes like this: It is a dark and stormy night. Newly engaged naifs Brad Majors (Barry Bostwick) and Janet Weiss (Susan Sarandon) are on their way to visit their former instructor Dr. Everett Scott when their car gets a flat. There is a castle nearby with a light burning, so they head over to see if they can use the phone. Inside they meet the flamboyant Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Tim Curry), a mad scientist who spends most of the movie in a black corset, heels, a green surgeon’s smock, and a pair of rubber gloves.

He is, of course, creating a monster, or rather a boy-toy; the blond muscled hunk he has dubbed Rocky Horror. With great fanfare, Rocky is brought to life before an audience that includes a freaked-out Brad and Janet and a contingent of tuxedoed spectators who turn out to be from Frank’s home planet, Transsexual, in the galaxy of Transylvania.

In due course, the monster runs amuck. Frank seduces Janet. Frank seduces Brad. Janet seduces Rocky. Riff Raff and Magenta, Frank’s creepy domestic staff, seduce each other. There are some pretty big song-and-dance numbers, featuring not only Meatloaf but also Little Nell as a tap-dancing groupie named Columbia. Dr. Scott shows up in the middle of everything, having figured out that Frank is really an alien. Frank turns everyone into statues, and then there’s a floor show in which everyone has to wear Merry Widows and face paint and ends up in a swimming pool. Then it just gets more complicated.

Eventually, we find out that Riff Raff and Magenta are really Transylvanians, and they’re about to put an end to Frank’s shenanigans. “Frank-N-Furter, it’s all over,” intones Riff Raff. “Your mission is a failure, your lifestyle’s too extreme.” They zap Frank with a laser (“Society must be protected,” says Dr. Scott approvingly), and the whole house blasts off for Transsexual. Brad and Janet are left crawling around in their drenched corsets, shaken by their sexual awakening. The movie makes very little sense, which doesn’t seem to matter. The people who love it really love it.

Richard O’Brien, who penned the script for both the original live stage show and the movie, in which he plays Riff Raff, intended it as both an homage to and a spoof of the B-movies of his youth; the calls the show “something any ten-year-old could enjoy.” Although some of its elements (homosexuality, cross-dressing) had more shock value in 1975 than they do now, its “Don’t dream it, be it” message has always been something any underdog could love.

Well, maybe not. The film bombed when it was originally released. It got a second life when a Fox executive managed to get it shown as a midnight movie. Rocky Horror’s poor qualities as a film turn out to be its best qualities as a cult phenomenon; bad editing and slack line pickup make for long pauses between lines, and audience members quickly figured out that if you yelled carefully timed witticims at the screen, the characters would seem to respond to you. Over time, a standard callback script evolved, but lines vary among theaters and can be updated to include topical humor. (“Describe George Bush,” the Parkway audience yells before Frank launches into a song that begins with the phrase “A weakling, weighing 98 pounds.”)

Audience participation grew to include dressing as characters from the film and throwing stuff at opportune points in the movie. In the past, this has included rice, confetti, toilet paper, newspaper, hot dogs and toast, as well as lighting candles and shooting water from squirt guns during the rainstorm scene. Much of this is now banned at both the Parkway and Bal theaters for reason to do with fire safety, the tendency of theater fixtures to mold after an indoor rainstorm, and the general reluctance of theater managers to pick up rotting meat products from the floor several days later.

It was not such a huge leap to go from having the audience shout things to creating a shadow cast – a group that would lip-sync the story on the stage as the movie rolled behind them. Barely Legal and Denton Delinquents are just two of hundreds of Rocky Horror casts around the world.

It turns out that I’ve arrived on a special night at the Parkway; tonight’s show has a “masquerade” theme. The woman playing Janet is wearing a white mask and a flouncy blue dress that would not look out of place wherever it is that pirate wenches hang out; the woman playing Rocky is wearing a catsuit, Riff Raff is disguised as the Joker from Batman, and Frank-N-Furter sports a bewildering array of headgear that includes a Mexican wrestler’s mask and a Darth Vader helmet. The masks have rendered much of the lip-syncing moot, but it’s really never the point, anyway.

“I warned you it would be an unusual night,” says Nate Havoc as he rushes by. His spiky hair is squashed beneath a rubber skull mask, and by the time he makes his way from the back row where I am sitting to the stage where he is filling in for the role of Dr. Scott, his costume has grown to include a tux with tails, a wheelchair with a lap blanket, and a pair of skeletal gloves.

The movie ends, as it always does, with the demise of the mad doctor. (“We’re about to beam the whole house back to Transsexual in the galaxy of Transylvania,” Riff Raff thunders. “You mean we can’t use your phone?” the audience yells.) The credits roll. It’s 3:00 a.m. and I am exhausted, but I have gotten the point. People can celebrate the freakiness of Rocky Horror while staying clothed and sober. Is it too much to claim that a movie about a transsexual mad scientist from outer space can be good, clean fun?

• • • •

Because of its regular audience, Rocky Horror is a cash cow for many theaters, and the Bal has been without its cash cow now for four weeks running. Athough Ferguson estimates that the take from Rocky Horror represents about 35 to 40 percent of his revenues, the show is on hiatus while he tries to work out a production acceptable to the powers that be. In the meantime, his expenses add up; the building’s gas bill alone was $2,000, which is why Ferguson yells “PG&E!” every time someone leaves the lobby doors open. “For $2,000, I could hand out blankets at the door,” he grumbles good-naturedly.

Ferguson has depleted most of the funds he made as a systems administrator; now he picks up additional cash by dealing craps for a company that entertains at corporate parties. (I will leave it to your imagination what the police reaction was when they found a practice craps table in the theater’s upstairs office.) “Yeah, I used to have money,” sighs Ferguson. “Not anymore.”

No one is likely to ever again see a Denton Delinquents show like the one the San Leandro cops caught in January, so substantially have the Bal’s policies been altered. Shorly after the raid, Tim Hansen, the city’s finance director, threatened to revoke B&D Productions’ business license, an event that Hansen can only remember happening in San Leandro once before. There was a public hearing during which many – including advocates for the hearing-impaired – testified to the theater’s community value. Ferguson hosted a free 8:00 pm Rocky Horror show so that concerned community members could come check things out.

Ultimately B&D Productions was allowed to retain its license by agreeing to a set of strict rules: They would card and enforce MPAA ratings, not allow alcohol or nudity or pornography, and finally, the theater would close by midnight, meaning that all future shows would have to begin at the un-Rocky-like hour of 9:45 pm. Through a weird twist of fate, this makes the Bal the only theater in the country to have its adherence to MPAA ratings required by a government agency.

The aftermath of the raid also brought attention to some persnickety details, like the fact that, technically, Ferguson is not licensed to have dancing in his establishment. That rules out the Time Warp. Ferguson’s not sure how he can enforce this: “It’s only a minute and a half of dancing,” he says. “I might say, ‘You’re not supposed to dance the Time Warp,’ but by the time I get them to sit down, it’s over.”

Two weeks ago, Ferguson attempted to circumvent dealing with MPAA restrictions by staging an all-live show – the cast would perform without the movie behind it. Perhaps he had tempted fate by hanging “WE’RE BACK” in giant letters on the marquee, but just hours before showtime, a fax rolled in from the city’s chief building official and the fire department, saying that he would have to consult with those two agencies before putting on a live show. That night’s show was cancelled. Although Ferguson later met with city officials and came to an amicable agreement about how to safely stage a live show, he’s frustrated. “We want to follow the rules, but it’s like there are new rules every time,” he sighs.

The fact that he keeps having to jump through new hoops makes him wonder if the ultimate goal is to drive Rocky Horror out of town. “Of course, they’re not going to say, ‘You can’t do Rocky,’ because that’s really bad,” he muses. Or maybe, he says, they're just leary of any nightlife at all. “I don’t think San Leandro was ready to have something to do. The police have nothing to do at midnight on a Friday night, obviously.”

The fact that the second arrest took place in front of his patrons remains a very sore point – he and many of his cast think it was engineered to scare them into shape. It’s become its own mini-drama, especially since someone made a videotape of the arrest, which has been replayed at the beginning of subsequent Rocky Horror screenings, accompanied by a booming version of the COPS theme song and swirling red lights.

The tape shows the lobby of the Bal about forty minutes to showtime. People have already gathered, including someone with a vendor-style tray who is selling things to throw and a man who appears to be wearing a helmet. They watch, horrified, as Ferguson is cuffed and sedately led out to a squad car. “Bye, Brady!” they yell.

Back inside, the owner of the videocamera pans the room as someone grabs a megaphone and makes an announcement. “Come over and give the man in the hard-hat a dollar so we can give it to Brady and bail him out,” he says. Then as an afterthought he adds, “Again.”

The collection netted a grand total of $77. Ferguson’s actual bail was $5,000, plus he had posted $2,100 for his first arrest and an additional ten percent for the bondsman.

The word of the day had been “felony.”

The SLPD’s DeGrano, however, says that the police did their best to be discreet. “We tried going to his home, we left numerous messages for him, notes, my business card,” he says. “That’s the only time we could find him – we go down to the theater and that’s where he is.”

And city officials insist that they don’t object to the movie itself, but rather to what happens inside the theater while the movie is shown. “The Rocky Horror Show isn’t the issue; what was going on with The Rocky Horror Show was,” says Hansen. “Quite frankly, I’ve never seen it, and I couldn’t care less if it’s shown. It’s an R-rated movie and there are hundreds of them out there.”

It’s hard to tell if the city is really being extra tough on Feguson or if it’s simply enforcing citywide business laws, because the Bal is currently the only theater operating in San Leandro. Right now, behind the Bayfair Mall, construction crews are hard at work building a new Century Theaters multiplex, but right now the building is still empty, surrounded by dirt and cyclone fencing. When the Century opens, says Ferguson, it will be treated with a whole different set of rules – big theaters don’t have stages like the Bal, so they don’t need live show permits, and big theaters get tax breaks and other city perks. Of course, big theaters don't show the kind of movies during which audience members get up to dance in the aisles.

• • • •

It’s late on a Friday, the night the all-live show was canceled. Nevertheless, the theater is full of teenagers; Ferguson and Costa have provided snacks and invited them to stay and socialize.

Ferguson is still interested in the idea of having his cast perform Rocky Horror as a play; one is running on Broadway right now. The hitch is that currently his cast only has to vamp and lip-sync. Staging a real show is much more demanding. “It’s singing and dancing and tech crew, and it's two steps above our performing level,” he says. Plus, he’s not sure that it would bring in a return audience. “We’d be doing something so different form what anybody else is doing in the country, so we’re just trying to figure out if it will actually work,” he says. “The only [live] Rocky Horror Shows that have been done are professional shows at fifteen bucks a head plus, or on Broadway like 75, so you don’t get that repeat crowd. You don’t get that social aspect. We’re trying to figure out if you can keep it at five dollars, and if we can get the performers to want to do it, and if the audience wants to come.”

It won’t be easy. Denton Delinquents were chose based on enthusiasm and availability, not talent. Tonight, forbidden from watching the movie or acting out the show , the teenagers in the theater have resorted to karaoke. Some cast members sing beautifully; some can’t sing a note. And a few are just here for kicks. They chase each other through the theater, flying out one set of doors, winging past the concession stand, and back in through another. They sit on one another, they ride around on each other’s shoulders, they giggle, they shout, they flirt, they shriek.

Robb Scott, whose fourteen-year-old daughter is in the cast, pulls up a seat beside me. “Brady is no saint,” he observes, but “these kids wouldn’t have come here if it was Lawrence Welk.” Doesn’t he worry that some of what goes on here is too explicit for a fourteen-year-old? Not really. “What the police have said about the things they’re worried about reflects a disconnection from what goes on in the world,” he says wryly. “They haven’t watched MTV? They haven’t been to a dance? They haven’t been around high school kids? In the context of the way kids live, this is a wholesome environment.”

Up in the control booth, Costa is taking requests, and the selections veer wildly between Rocky Horror standards and pop hits by Queen, Thomas Dolby, Toni Basil and Billy Joel. The teenagers onstage sway with their arms around each other, they hold the mic in one hand and make sweeping gestures toward the audience with the other, they make little leaps and pirouettes across the stage. It would be easy to dismiss Rocky Horror fans as people who never quite got over the glory days of the high school drama club, but these kids are the high school drama club. They still want to pretend. They want to be stars. They want to wear Merry Widows while the rest of the world wears identical Gap khakis.

“These kids all made their own costumes. It took them months,” says Scott. “It’s not like some casual little thing. They watched the movie over and over and over to learn the lines. Instead of one school play a year where they get a little role, they get to come out onstage every time.”

By this point, all the people in the theater have migrated to the stage, where they are gleefully shouting the lyrics to “Sweet Transvestite.” It’s the song Frank-N-Furter belts out when he makes his first lingerie-clad entrance, and it seves as a kind of capsule version of Rocky Horror’s I’m-not-what-you-think-I-am aesthetic. It goes:

Don't get strung out by the way I look
Don’t judge a book by its cover
I’m not much of a man by the light of day
But by night I’m one hell of a lover.

Out in the house, the theater seats are completely empty. But the people onstage, caught up in the rush of being young and strange and loud and together, don’t seem to notice.


Originally Published: April 6, 2001, East Bay Express

All content copyright Kara Platoni. Please contact for permission before reproducing.