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It has become the ultimate midnight movie, the most successful cult film ever made, although it bombed in its initial release. Every Friday and Saturday evening, theaters are packed with people dressed as the film's characters. Talking back to the screen is not only allowed, it is encouraged. Audiences wear newspaper hats, squirt water pistols at each other and throw rice, toast and confetti at the screen. Obscured by such classics as Milos Forman's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon and Sidney Lumet's Dog Day Afternoon when this film was released in 1975, it has outgrossed them all. Still playing in more than 175 theaters across the country, it has brought in $150-million _ with ticket prices scaled $2 to $3 below regular admission _ and boasts more than 20,000 members in its fan club.

"It has become something that's an institution," said its producer Lou Adler. "It's its own person, its own corporation _ its own everything.

"It" is The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the wacky, weird musical starring Tim Curry as Dr. Frank-N-Furter, a transvestite alien with a penchant for sexy underwear, spike heels and young men. Susan Sarandon and Barry Bostwick are the nerdish couple, Janet and Brad, who happen upon Dr. Frank's castle during a rainstorm the very night the annual convention of visitors from the planet Transsexual is being held.

The movie also was a smash internationally in such countries as England, Australia and Germany. There's even talk that Rocky Horror is going to be shown in Budapest, Hungary.

Rocky Horror celebrated its 15th anniversary at a big midnight bash at the 20th Century Fox studio last week. And on Nov. 8, CBS-Fox Video will finally release the video of Rocky Horror.

"It's taken on a kind of surreal quality," said Curry. "It won't go away."

What makes the success of Rocky Horror even more amazing is the fact that the movie tested so poorly as a mainstream film that Fox was going to shelve it. Had it not been for Adler, a savvy young publicist at Fox named Tim Deegan, and the word of mouth of the early fans, Rocky Horror probably would be playing on cable in the wee hours of the morning _ if at all.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show began its life rather inauspiciously 17 years ago as a rock opera written by English actor Richard O'Brien, who also plays Riff Raff, Dr. Frank's bizarre butler. Originally titled They Came From Denton High, O'Brien changed the name to The Rocky Horror Show when it opened at London's Royal Court 60-seat Theatre Upstairs for a five-week engagement.

"It wasn't like writing a play," said O'Brien, who is now a game show host and is overseeing the current revival of the musical on the London stage. "It was like working with a collage and putting pieces together, putting sections of life together that I liked and had fun with. I always enjoyed and laughed at rock 'n' roll, B movies, horror films, camp '40s and '50s entertainment."

Curry thought the play was "pretty terrific" when he read it, he said. "At the audition I sang Tutti Frutti, the Little Richard song, which was prophetic," he said, laughing. "I read Frank-N-Furter with a German accent."

The Rocky Horror Show proved so popular it moved to the 500-seat King's Road Theatre, where it played for seven years. "I think it struck a nerve," said O'Brien, "but nobody realized it when it first started."

Film producer Adler was in London to visit his son by actress Britt Ekland, and _ at her urging _ went to see the show. Adler and his partner, Michael White, were looking for something other than music acts to book into the Roxy, the Sunset Strip rock club they owned in Los Angeles. "I hadn't seen a rock musical since Hair," Adler said, "and that was the determining factor in bringing it over."

Rocky Horror was a smash hit at the Roxy and ran for 10 months. A film version was inevitable. "It was just sort of a natural extension of (the play)," Adler said. "I wanted to do it from the first moment I saw it. I thought it would be an unusual film. How unusual, I had no idea."

Adler invited a few executives from Fox to see the show one evening. The next day, Adler signed a deal with the studio to make The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Filmed in England for less than $1-million, Rocky Horror featured several cast members from the stage productions _ including Curry, O'Brien and rock starMeatloaf. Also cast were Sarandon, who had done several films since launching her career in the 1970 Joe, and Bostwick, who had originated the role of Danny in the Broadway production of Grease.

The film was made in the dead of winter at a studio outside of London. "It was cold, and there were no toilets," Bostwick said. "I remember walking in mesh stockings and 5-inch spike heels through the snow trying to find a bathroom."

"We were strapped into our high heels," Curry said. "I was running up ladders! They used industrial arch supports."

Rocky Horror did open in regular release at the UA in Los Angles on Sept. 26, 1975. "It did fairly well because it had a reputation and somewhat of a following," Adler said. "I don't recall reading many reviews, but there weren't many raves, I can tell you that."

Rocky Horror had its midnight unveiling at the Waverly Theater in New York on April Fool's Day 1976; Deegan was across the country in Palm Springs, Calif. "I didn't want to be around the house if someone called," he said. Curiosity got the best of him, and he called the manager of the Waverly at 1 a.m. and learned the first screening had been sold out.

Soon, Deegan booked the film in Austin, Texas, and St. Louis.

It was at the Waverly Theater that the audiences started talking back to the screen, acting out scenes, bringing props and dressing like the characters.