Sal Piro, who played a pivotal role in creating the audience participation routines that turned The Rocky Horror Picture Show into a multi-decade, world-wide phenomenon, died at his home in New York City Jan 21.
His death was announced by The Rocky Horror Picture Show Fan Club, which he founded in 1977 and served as its president until his death, becoming a major figure in creating the movie’s cult classic status.
“Sal was the defacto face of Rocky Horror fandom for decades,” the fan club said in a tweeted statement. “He will be sorely missed.”
Opening to terrible reviews in 1975, The Rocky Horror Picture Show soon became a staple of the midnight movie screenings at New York City’s Waverly Theater in Greenwich Village. Surprisingly, the film quickly drew the devotion of young fans, including Piro, who shouted humorous responses to much of the film’s dialogue. As the responses became more elaborate into a sort of viewing ritual, Piro helped shape a floor show of audience members playing out the movie beneath the screen.
“We all lived for Friday and Saturday nights,” Piro wrote in his 1990 memoir Creatures of the Night. “We met at 8 p.m. to make sure that we would be first in line and so get our regular seats. The atmosphere outside the theater was as electric as it was inside. We sang songs, we Time Warped (Once we stopped traffic on Sixth Avenue while we were dancing), we traded questions…All of us shared this devotion to the film as we gathered outside in eager anticipation of midnight.”
Piro’s memoir is in the early stages of development for a screen adaptation with producers Adam Schroeder (Clueless, First Wives Club), Lou Adler (the original Rocky Horror Picture Show) and Jill Mazursky (David Crosby: Remember My Name). Writing the screenplay, based on Piro’s book, is Mark Loughlin. The movie is expected to be set around 1976, with a focus on Piro and his friend Dori Hartley, who is credited with being the first person to dress up in costume (she role-played Frank N Furter).
“I was a former seminarian who spent three years teaching theology and directing school plays in Catholic high schools in New Jersey,” Piro, who had a small role in the 1981 Rocky Horror sequel Shock Treatment and played himself in the 1980 movie Fame, wrote in Creatures of the Night. “I was laid off from my teaching job in June of 1976 and spent that summer being a drama director in an all-girls camp in the Berkshire Mountains. When I returned, I decided I would move into New York City and try my hand as a ‘starving actor.’ I took a job waiting tables and got some roles in off-Broadway shows. Then I went to see Rocky Horror.
“It was a cold snowy night when four friends and I found ourselves outside the Waverly waiting for over an hour before we were allowed in to see the show. One of these friends was Marc Shaiman who went on to become musical director for Bette Midler, Billy Crystal and other stars. He sat next to me for the next seventy-five times I saw the RHPS. Both of us contributed ad-lib lines that became part of the whole spectacular ‘happening.'”
In a tribute posted on Instagram, the Hairspray and Some Like It Hot musical composer Shaiman wrote, “We didn’t know what we were giving birth to, we were just having a great time and being creative in the most freeing way. Writing the perfect lines to go in-between the film’s dialogue, creating props, just having FUN, it was a total joyfest.
“Over the next year or so,” he continued, “I went to probably 70 or so showings of the movie, but for Sal, it ended up being his life’s work and passion. He became President of the fan club and spent the next 40 plus years or so being the Guru of Rocky Horror to millions of fans.”
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