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‘It’s like church:’ Clinton Street Theater still hosting audience-less showings of “The Rock

There’s going to the movies, and then there’s a midnight showing of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”

For the uninitiated — or “virgins,” in Rocky Horror-speak, they involve outlandish costumes, live actors pantomiming along with the movie, screaming (aka ‘call-backs’), throwing things, and a whole lot of dancing.

This ritual has been happening, without fail, every Saturday night for a staggering 42 years at Portland’s Clinton Street Theater.

Nathan Williams works at the theater and often emcees the weekly showings. He says the cult film has been a beacon for generations of fans.

“Back in the day when Rocky started screening on a regular basis … people didn’t have the options that they do,” Williams said. “In order to find people who had a similar mindset to you and that weren’t subscribed to this normal lifestyle that was being pushed down your throat, you had to find these little enclaves of people that were being themselves.”

Like everything else in our lives, things shifted drastically for the Clinton Theater in March. The coronavirus pandemic forced theaters everywhere to close. But was Williams about to let a pandemic stand in the way of this long-standing tradition?

No way.

“The theater manager, Pierce Anderson, hit me up right after the pandemic dropped and said ‘Hey, it’s Saturday. I’m going to be at the theater screening the movie.’ And so I showed up and just kept showing up and just kept showing up," he said.

Movie theaters are still closed in Multnomah County, so it’s usually only Williams and a few close friends and colleagues in attendance each week. They maintain social distancing and wear masks. He say’s it’s much like a normal screening — without the audience.

“It’s kind of, at this point, like church service for us.” Williams said. “All the different theater groups have … litanies, would probably be a good word that they recite during the screenings.

“I was raised a Catholic, and it almost feels like being in church and saying the Lord’s Prayer.”

Williams said the Clinton Theater isn’t going to open until managers are sure it’s safe for everyone, but it is streaming videos from artists who have been involved with the theater over the years via its CoVideothon.

Theater managers are also putting the finishing touches on plans to begin offering private rentals for small groups of cinephiles in November.

But the most exciting thing for Williams? The theater is beginning to open his weekly Rocky Horror screenings for small-group donations during October.

“We’ll even make you some popcorn and teach you about all the call-backs,” he said.

Listen to Nathan Williams' full conversation with OPB Weekend Edition Host John Notarianni using the audio player above

Copyright 2020 Oregon Public Broadcasting