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Pledge Allegiance to the Lips

The Rocky Horror Picture Show premiered 35 years ago, and it's still playing — as the ads say — at a theater near you.

Rocky Horror remains the biggest cult film of all time, even if 20th Century Fox calls its presence in theaters a "limited release" — a speck of modesty squarely at odds with the film's unlimited powers of inspiration.

Rocky Horror prefigured everything from the midnight movie phenomenon to the explosion of interest in alternative lifestyles — all the more impressive when you consider that it's essentially a movie about an alien transvestite who creates a man to have sex with.

At the Million Dollar Theater on Broadway, a recent 35th-anniversary screening was hosted by Sins o' the Flesh, the repertory group that has for more than 15 years ruled Friday midnights at the Nuart with showings of the film. They're Rocky Horror's "shadow" cast, dressed like the actors in it, breaking fourth walls left and right with a running commentary on the film — caustic and insouciant and screamed gleefully at the screen.

Before the show starts at the Million Dollar, original cast member Barry Bostwick, in character as Brad Majors — tan, wig and all — appears onstage, telling the crowd, "You're all going to hell! Do you have nothing better to do with your lives?"

Applause comes hot and fast and a wall of devoted shrieks rises up at every quip.

The insult that audiences have screamed out forever to Bostwick's character has been "Asshole" (his fiancée, Janet, played by Susan Sarandon, is likewise dubbed "Slut").

"For all of you who have called me an asshole for 35 years," Bostwick says, bending over and exposing his butt in a thong, "this is an asshole!"

Exhausted, he exits in a wheelchair.

Sins emcee Jason Satterfield then leads the audience in the Sins o' the Flesh Pledge: "I pledge allegiance to the lips ..."

There is a hierarchy for Sins when it comes to watching The Rocky Horror Picture Show. If you've seen it once, that's not enough. If you've seen it on video, it doesn't count. Seeing it is considered worthwhile only if in a theater and with a live cast — hence Rocky Horror has become a rite of passage, like a first beer, or tampon.

The lights dim and the curtain rises and everyone howls headlong into the muggy night.

Rocky Horror has totems, much like tarot's sword, cup, wand and disk. At appropriate times during the film, the shadow cast wields its totems: newspapers, umbrellas, rice, toilet paper and so on. The dialogue is learned by heart and spoken as if the incantations of a magician. These 35 years of screenings are perhaps the first public alchemic ritual of the modern age.

Rocky Horror was for years the most accessible way for people, mostly adolescents, to begin to understand concepts like bondage, transsexuality and deviance. Diluting the stark discomfiture of human sexuality with pop songs, the film becomes a delivery device of all things forbidden.

The new rebellion offered in Rocky Horror calls for an awareness of self that has more to do with sexual identity than the sexual act. The old rebellion — Meat Loaf, here standing in for rock and/or roll — is dispatched by ax. And what else is meat loaf if not the lamest, most misguided kind of alchemy?

As the film winds through its final scenes, the character of Brad shouts "Great Scott!" on-screen as a man barrels along in a wheelchair. Rolls of toilet paper erupt from the crowd, careening through the sweltering air like fat stars, mixing with the sound of flesh rippling off the ancient, red-leather theater seats.

As the doors open, the scent of barbecued meat wafts in from the street, as the faithful pose for photos in front of the temple of cinema.

Later, I ask Bostwick what he thinks is the great power of the film.

"Its ability to bring people together and to create a community," he replies without hesitation. It's also that "they can express a part of themselves. Maybe it's the part they hide from everybody else."