By Laurence Lerman / New York City
I was 15 or 16 years old the first time I saw The Rocky Horror Picture Show in 1979 at the Strand Theater in New Brunswick, N.J. For midnight screenings of Rocky Horror, the management didn’t seem to have a problem with audiences going to town in the theater, throwing around toilet paper, shooting squirt guns, running and dancing up and down the aisles—all the things one quickly associated with the 1975 sci-fi-musical cult favorite.
It was a pretty wild experience—but apparently not as over-the-top as the screenings that took place at midnight in New York City’s famed 8th Street Playhouse.
“That’s where Sal Piro is the emcee and organizes the talk-backs and floor show,” my older friend who brought me to Rocky told me.
Not even four years after the film was released, Piro was already nationally known as the Rocky Horror superfan who had been a prime force behind the audience participation, role-playing (or “shadow-casting,” in Rocky-speak) and live performances that would elevate Rocky Horror’s costume-filled screenings into a decades-long international phenomenon.
I never attended any shows hosted by Sal Piro, but I heard a lot about them over the years from that point on.
Piro died on Jan. 21 at his home in New York City at the age of 72. The announcement came from The Rocky Horror Picture Show Fan Club, which Piro founded in 1977 and served as its president until his death. No cause was given.
A one-time teacher of theology and director of plays in Catholic high schools, Piro moved to New York City in the fall of 1976 and attended a midnight screening of Rocky Horror at the Waverly Theater in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. (From the beginning, the film attracted late-night audiences.) It was the first of nearly 100 times that Piro would attend the film with friends and shout out ad-lib lines and singalongs to accompany the on-screen action of the campy film, an interactivity that accompanying audiences enjoyed. Really enjoyed.
In 1978, Rocky Horror moved over to the Village’s 8th Street Playhouse and a Saturday midnight residence as the participation continued to thrive and grow. Attendees would regularly arrive to the sold-out shows in costumes inspired by the movie, with many taking part in a staged version of the movie mounted right in front of the screen as the film was projected.
Piro quickly took on the role of host of the evening, organizing the live show’s musical numbers, leading the responsive dialoguing, making sure attendees didn’t trash the theater, and essentially overseeing a good and safe “happening” for all.
It didn’t take too long for the interactivity to become a part of Rocky Horror midnight screenings around the country. And then across the globe. And so it continued for decades—and still does to this day, though at an admittedly smaller scale then its late-’70s-‘90s heyday.
Even as Piro engaged in other professional and leisure-time pursuits—he was active on the competitive chess and Scrabble tournament circuit—Rocky Horror continued to be a major part of his life for the next 40 years.
Piro wrote two books on Rocky and its cult following, Creatures of the Night (1990) and a 1990 follow-up, Creatures of the Night II. He appeared as himself in a popular scene in the 1980 film Fame that finds a pair of students of attending Rocky Horror at the 8th Street Playhouse, and he had an uncredited cameo in Rocky’s loosely related 1981 sequel, Shock Treatment. He also popped up in an uncredited bit in a 2016 television remake of the original film.
Award-winning composer Marc Shaiman, a friend of Piro’s and one of the group of original Rocky devotees who helped ignite the phenomenon, tweeted a warm statement about his longtime friend Piro, whose passion for Rocky Horror became a major part of his life’s work.
“Sal Piro was a great guy, a great entertainer, and it turns out a great leader,” Shaiman wrote. “He will be missed by many, many people whose life he helped change and I hope there really is a heaven so that one day, he and I can Do the Time Warp Again.”
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.