Queer community mourns loss of 'Rocky Horror' after church buys Tivoli Theatre
For decades each October, St. Louis fans of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” have dressed up and traveled to the Delmar Loop to see showings of the 1975 camp classic at the historic Tivoli Theatre.
The screenings usually were scheduled late at night and frequently featured a cast of characters in drag who acted out the scenes alongside the film.
This year, Rocky fans repeated the familiar trip. But instead of seeing the movie, demonstrators — many who identified as LGBTQ — came to protest its absence from its longtime home.
“The Tivoli itself as a historic structure, as a community space, has been there for us for decades in all kinds of ways, all kinds of movies,” said Angelo Ossessivo, co-founder of Tower Grove Pride and one of the month’s Rally for Rocky organizers. “This is a space that we felt welcoming and safe in, and then we find the doors closed to us and to who we are.”
The coronavirus shutdown was disastrous for many independent movie theaters, including the Tivoli.
About a year into the pandemic, the cinema chain that operated the theater moved out. Joe Edwards, who owned the Tivoli, sold it to One Family Church, a nondenominational congregation. One Family mostly uses the theater to hold services and community gatherings, and church leaders said they won’t screen "Rocky Horror" or any other movies that don’t align with their faith.
Ossessivo and other activists said the Tivoli’s pivot from a haven for artsy outcasts to a church that condemns gay unions and sex outside marriage feels like a betrayal.
“This space is operating under an agenda that excludes us and discriminates against us,” Ossessivo said. “And we need to stand up for ourselves, because we're going to keep losing spaces if we don't.”
An iconic queer legacy
"The Rocky Horror Picture Show" features Tim Curry as a pansexual Frankenstein like-scientist, wearing a lot of makeup and a lot of fishnets. The movie’s plot is hard to follow, but its energy — libertine and sexually outrageous — is clear from the first frame, which features a red-lacquered woman’s mouth lip-synching to a male voice.
Since its inception, the film has become a queer touchstone. For many young people, the raucous shows are their first chance to dress up in drag.
Felecia Kempen, who attended the Rally for Rocky with her girlfriend, said it’s one of the first movies that portrayed being gay as something joyful and not a hardship to be endured.
“I think it's important to have [Rocky] in the theater,” she said. “Coming together with a group of like-minded individuals who just want to live freely in their own skin and not feel judged for being different, or feel like there's something wrong with them … being in that kind of a sense with other people is very important to our community.”
In its previous life, the Tivoli hosted movies for QFest, the LGBTQ film festival. One of the last shows it screened before the coronavirus shutdown was "Portrait of a Lady on Fire" — the French movie about an affair between two women.
During the recent protests, demonstrators said that while they would be thrilled to see One Family screen "Rocky Horror," the protest is about more than a single movie. They were mourning the loss of a space where they felt accepted and speaking out against One Family’s views on gay people.
“We belong on your street! We belong on your screens!” demonstrators chanted before dozens of them lined up on the sidewalk outside the Tivoli’s old box office to perform the "Time Warp," the pelvic thrust-heavy dance associated with the movie.
“We have no intention of stopping [the church], Ossessivo said. “But we do have the ability — and we're going to use it — to ask people that care about us to not give them one dollar until they change their attitude and their policies towards our community.”
‘This is our home’
One Family Church members also have been at the Tivoli for more than a decade. The denomination has rented space in the theater and held services there since 2011.
According to co-founder and lead pastor Brent Roam, the church decided to hold its services at the Tivoli because of its location on the region’s so-called “Delmar Divide,” the street that separates historically Black and white neighborhoods. Being in the Loop would attract people of different races and backgrounds, he said.
“We'd been here for 12 years, and this is our home,” he said. “So given the opportunity to purchase it, we're happy to purchase it.”
One Family has begun showing one family-friendly movie on the first Friday of each month. October’s movie was “Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.” Ticket proceeds go to an organization that helps first-time Black homebuyers afford down payments on houses.
But church leaders stand firm about "Rocky Horror."
“A Grindhouse film is not exactly what we're going for here,” Roam said. “I'm sure there are plenty of people that would be happy to show it. But it's not. It's not at all aligned with what we do.”
Roam said One Family does not hold animosity against the protesters or gay people. But he said the church does uphold “the historic Christian sexual ethic that is marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness.”
One Family is putting money into repairing the theater, which Roam said needs a ton of work. The church is renovating the building and made one of the theaters into a cafe. Roam said the claim that the church pushed anyone out is false.
“An accurate framing of this story is the beautiful historic theater shut down and was in disrepair,” he said. “The audio system was deteriorating, the seats were falling apart, the roof was decaying, the HVAC units were 30 years old and were falling apart, the entire place was at risk.”
Roam said what many people are mourning — the theater — was already gone.
“To have a group of people that are willing to buy it, repair it, restore it, put a million dollars into it, and then invite the public back into it seems like a wise and thoughtful choice,” he said.
There are still showings of the film in the region. Flustered Mustard, a shadow cast that has performed in the region since 2017, has booked shows at the City Museum and Six Flags. After nearly five decades, it’s unlikely "Rocky" will die.
Ossessivo and other activists have channeled their energy into preservation efforts for other queer-centric spaces in the city. Now called the Tivoli Society for the Preservation of LGBTQ+ Spaces, the former Rally for Rocky group hopes to add a special historic designation to important sites and spaces that would give them “a layer of protection,” he said.
But for queer people, the departure of "Rocky Horror" from the Tivoli still stings.
“If the church is not going anywhere, and they're not planning to show 'Rocky Horror' anytime soon in the future, we can always have our 'Rocky Horror' tradition elsewhere,” said Erica Perlow, another protester. “I mean … that welcomes us.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the venues where Flustered Mustard has performed.