English born Richard O’Brien moved with his family to New Zealand when he was 10 years old. As a young man, he worked as a barber on the ground floor of the Embassy cinema in Hamilton. This rather rundown venue specialized in “B” grade double feature horror movies. When Richard had time, he would watch these films and when he moved to London in search of some acting jobs, in the 1970s, he spent the long winter nights there writing a musical that was heavily influenced by the horror films he had seen in Hamilton. He set his play against the backdrop of the glam era of British popular culture of the period.

Richard took a few pages of his unfinished Rocky Horror Show to Australian director Jim Sharman who saw its potential and agreed to direct it at the small experimental space Upstairs at the Royal Court Theatre which was used as a project space for new work. Sharman had received considerable acclaim as the director of the original Australian productions of Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar and was in London at the time to direct the first British stage production of Superstar.


After two previews, the show was premièred at the Royal Court’s 63-seat Theatre Upstairs on the 19th of June 1973, and ran for a month. The cast included Tim Curry, who had decided that Dr Frank-N-Furter should not just be a queen, but he should speak extravagantly posh. Richard played the role of Riff Raff, a Transylvanian who came to Earth with his sister Magenta and his master, Frank-N-Furter. He greets Brad and Janet when they enter the castle and acts as a servant to Frank throughout the show. A reviewer at the premiere for The Guardian wrote “it achieves the rare feat of being witty and erotic at the same time”. Record producer Jonathan King saw it on the second night and signed the cast to make the original cast recording over a long weekend. The Rocky Horror Show Original London Cast was an instant hit.

After the success at the Royal Court Upstairs, the production transferred to the 230 seat Chelsea Classic Cinema on King’s Road from the 14th of August 1973 to the 20th of October that year. Rocky Horror then went onto enjoy a long run at the 500-seat King’s Road Theatre—another cinema, further down King’s Road—from the 3rd of November 1973. The show won the Evening Standard Award for Best Musical that year. I went to the show when it was at the King’s Road Theatre and was amazed at the excitement it generated with the audience who jumped around during some of the musical numbers, especially “Time Warp” andsang along loudly with the lyrics. The Rocky Horror Show has been staged in 30 countries and translated into 20 languages and remains the world’s most popular rock and roll musical and is still performed around the world. In 1975, 20th Century Fox made the show into a movie featuring many of the actors from the stage cast, which only added to the phenomenal success that the show became. In 2005, The Rocky Horror Picture Show was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.


In June 2010, Richard O’Brien was denied New Zealand citizenship owing to his being too old under the country’s immigration criteria. He commented, “They build a statue of me and celebrate me as a New Zealander, but I have to go on my knees and do all sorts of things, and I’m probably too old.”. The public got behind his application and the decision was later overturned. In August 2010, Richard was allowed residency and he was officially registered as a New Zealand citizen on the 14th of December 2011.


Although the Embassy Cinema in Hamilton has long been demolished, a life- sized statue of Riff Raff now stands in a small square on Victoria Street where the cinema once stood. In my opinion, it is one of the most attractive public statues in New Zealand. It is beautifully proportioned and captures the essence of the character with the high-heeled shoes and top knot on the head. As far as I know, Richard currently lives in Hamilton. It must bring a feeling of great satisfaction whenever he passes the statue of a character that he created and has become one of the best known and loved in modern entertainment history.

Riff Raff (foursquare)

Ceidrik Heward

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