One of the most memorable moments from the 2010 theater season, according to a reviewer for the News Tribune, was when Alice Schroeder’s Dr. Frank N. Furter threw off a cape to reveal uncommon costumery to the tune of “Sweet Transvestite” during an October film screening-live theater hybrid of “Rocky Horror Picture Show" in Duluth.
The crowd “absolutely (took) the roof off” the Duluth Playhouse, Lawrance Bernabo wrote in his year-end theater wrap-up.
More than a decade later, Schroeder has taken the popularity of the near-annual local staging and built a troupe around it. Zenith City Horror makes queer performance art ranging from its upcoming sold-out “Rocky Horror” at The Underground to monthly variety shows at The Main Club.
“‘Rocky Horror’ was so successful every year — it was obvious there was a fan-following,” said Schroeder, who started the company and took over the production in 2017. “It gave us a bit more freedom.”
'Rocky Horror' history
“The Rocky Horror Show” was born for the stage in the early 1970s — a sci-fi musical comedy about young couple Brad and Janet, who are sidelined by car troubles when they stumble on a gothic castle containing a whole new colorful world of intrigue.
There is Dr. Frank N. Furter, a bustier and fishnet-wearing alien mad-scientist, Magenta the housekeeper and her brother, Riff Raff, a handyman. Columbia is a groupie. Dr. Everett Scott, a science teacher-turned-UFO chaser, drops by while looking for his missing nephew.
Then there is Rocky Horror, Dr. Frank N. Furter's science project.
The theatrical version first played in London’s old crumbling spaces, trended hard and drew well, according to a 1975 review in the New York Times tied to its opening on the east coast at New York City's Belasco Theater.
When the movie opened soon after, well-regarded Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert couldn’t make the leap from stage to screen. He described it as “very much a filmed play.”
“‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show,’” he wrote in a 1976 review, “would be more fun, I suspect, if it weren’t a picture show. It belongs on the stage with the performers and audience joining in a collective send-up.”
But by the end of the decade, the movie, too, had become like the London-based cult-classic. It was known for its midnight shows, sexy-goth costumes and crowd participation.
This is where it remains.
“It’s always been kind of associated with community and diversity,” Schroeder said. “It was always a safe space for people who just be where they were and feel comfortable in that space. That’s what I love about it.
“The movie is just nuts and a bit dated now, of course, but the original message holds true today.”
Zenith City horror roots
For a while, Schroeder hosted Ms. Cupcake’s Cosmo Night as private parties in her own home — guests sometimes packed shoulder-to-shoulder in a two-bedroom space.
“I’d dress in drag and people would go crazy,” she said.
She has since made the switch to Superior’s Main Club, where the variety shows features burlesque performances, singing and an aerialist. In upcoming months, there are plans to alternate Ms. Cupcake’s show and “Rocky Horror” at the venue.
Zenith City Horror’s production of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” which most recently played in September as part of Duluth Superior Pride, also sold out. Similarly a crowd favorite, "Hedwig" is the small-cast life story of a genderqueer East Berlin musician with a rival in the scene.
Schroeder has played the starring role in local productions since 2014.
On the horizon, Zenith City Horror has a piece of original theater described by Schroeder as a "horror genre theatrical tapestry woven from true stories of trans identifying people of past and present."
“(Zenith City Horror) attracts people who have felt rejected in the past,” said Robert Lee, who works alongside the company. “They create a loving atmosphere of acceptance.”
Recently Lee passed along a quote by writer Wes Angelozzi: “Go and love someone exactly as they are. And then watch how quickly they transform in the greatest truest version of themselves. When one feels seen and appreciated in their own essence, one is instantly empowered.”
“That’s Alice,” Lee wrote.
The show goes on
This go-round of “Rocky Horror Picture Show” sold out quickly — almost entirely through word-of-mouth. It’s the first show back at The Underground since stages went dark in 2020.
“Obviously people are ready for us to come back,” Schroeder said.
The movie starring Susan Surandon, Tim Curry and Meat Loaf will play in the background while the costumed performers lip sync along with it.
Schroeder returns as Frank N. Furter.
“Nobody can ever portray him the way Tim Curry plays that part,” she said. “I’ve made the character more my own. I view it as an homage to trans people.”
If you go
What: Zenith City Horror's production of "Rocky Horror Picture Show"
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday-Sunday
Where: The Underground, Depot, Duluth
Tickets: duluthplayhouse.org, though they are sold out
What: Mayhem at the Main
When: 9 p.m. Sunday
Where: Main Club, 1217 Tower Ave., Superior