“He was a brilliant person,” testifies his younger sister Lillias Piro, who grew up with him on Brunswick Street in Jersey City’s Downtown. “He was going to be a priest. He had a scholarship to enter the seminary, but the thing that made him happiest was always the movies. He loved musicals, he loved theater, and he shared that love with everyone. He certainly shared that love with me.”
Sal Piro wasn’t the first viewer to shout a witticism back to the screen during a showing of the 1975 satirical musical and midnight movie. But he was the one who encouraged, organized, and sometimes choreographed the growing crowd response. He was the master of ceremonies with kind words for the growing community of obsessive Rocky Horror repeat viewers — the leader on the floor whose elaborate routines before and after the lights went down swiftly took on the character a parallel event.
He also provided a welcoming environment for offbeat individuals who hadn’t always been encouraged to express themselves. Dressing up and attending a midnight movie was great fun, of course. But it was also an act of courage.
“People may not remember: the Village wasn’t too friendly in 1977,” recalls Lillias Piro. “My brother’s life was threatened. There were known gangs of thugs attacking and killing gay people.”
Sal Piro’s search for a safe home for the Rocky Horror experience prompted him to shepherd the community from the embattled Waverly Theatre on 6th Avenue in Manhattan to the Orion Theater in Queens, and finally back to Manhattan and the 8th Street Playhouse in 1979. There it would stay for decades and become a cornerstone of New York City entertainment — as entrenched as The Fantastiks, or the Bronx Bombers, or carriage rides in Central Park.
Lillias Piro was part of the experience. Her big brother first took her to see Rocky Horror at the Waverly Theater when she was thirteen. She became a founding member of the Fan Club, and eventually a member of the 8th Street Players, the group of talented performers who put on Rocky Horror-themed shows of their own at the theater. It wasn’t exclusively a LGBTQ+ scene: luminaries, weirdos, and zany characters of all kinds were drawn to that lipsticked leer. But the importance of Rocky Horror to the growing gay community in the Village is tough to overstate. It wasn’t merely a matter of visibility. It was about finding a safe place to play.
“So many of the people who came to Rocky Horror credited Sal with saving their lives,” says Lilias. “Sal was always so accepting, so funny, and kind to everyone. There were transgender kids who were prostituting themselves and didn’t know where to go. They found a home with Rocky Horror.”
From 8th Street, Rocky Horror bloomed. MTV and VH1 sent cameras to chronicle the party. The fandom grew, and so did the international reach of Rocky Horror: there were conventions, parodies, revivals, eventual enshrinement in the Library of Congress for its historical significance. Many of the customary components of 21st century fandom, including cosplay, fanfiction, direct interaction with stars and creators, and meticulous attention to minor storytelling detail, were anticipated by Rocky Horror obsessors. The Rocky Horror Picture Show is now recognized as one of the most successful standalone films in cinema history, grossing hundreds of millions of dollars. Not bad for a lighthearted spoof of ‘50s monster movies — and not something that would’ve happened without Sal Piro.
“The crowd participation was never mockery,” says Lillas Piro. “For Sal, Rocky Horror was love at first sight. The music from the film is superb. That’s what really turned Sal on — Sal and countless others. Tim Curry’s performance is great. Over the years we’ve tried to watch out for the integrity of it because what we created in the ‘70s is so important for so many people.”
“Rocky Horror is a satire, but the filmmakers didn’t write it for people to scream back at it. If you watch Rocky Horror without the audience, it can lag. When I saw it on television, I realized that there were a lot of pauses in it. It’s almost like it was waiting to be yelled at.”
It was waiting for Sal Piro.