Theater of the Absurd
By far, attorney Kenneth S. Kramer was the best-dressed man inside Denver's small-claims court on May 12.
Wearing a finely tailored brown suit with crisp lines and sharp corners, the bespectacled Kramer sat high in his chair and waited patiently. Behind him sat a lanky cowboy in faded blue jeans and a denim jacket. A few seats to the left, a large woman bounced a baby in her lap. Cases on the 8:30 a.m. docket for courtroom No. 2 included a squabble over a rent increase and a dispute between a woman and the dry cleaner that allegedly damaged her blouse. Kramer, an attorney with Berenbaum, Weinshienk & Eason, was there on behalf of his high-profile client, the Best Western Landmark Inn.
The 280-room hotel, at 455 South Colorado Boulevard, is being sued for religious persecution.
On Thursday, April 8, around 2:30 a.m., Mark Tomaino and five friends checked into the Landmark after taking a red-eye flight from Los Angeles. The five characters flew into town for the biannual Rocky Horror Picture Show convention, being held in Denver for the first time. The two-day event, which drew about 150 costume-clad fans from across the country to enjoy live performances, trivia contests and guest speakers, was billed as "Rocky Rocks the Rockies." (Tomaino dressed as Eddie, the dead soul who appears in the film wheeling a motorcycle out of a freezer.)
The moment he checked into his room, Tomaino says he obeyed a tradition that is a part of Rocky Horror conventions.
Tradition: Check into room, throw Bible out of room.
In this case, Tomaino says he simply "plopped it" out in front of the door.
Minutes after the Bible hit the mat, a hotel security guard knocked on Tomaino's door. When Tomaino answered, he says the guard held up the book and asked, "Did this come from this room?"
"Yes," Tomaino replied.
"You can't remove anything from this room," the guard said.
Quite seriously, Tomaino responded, "I am under no obligation to be proselytized by this cult."
The two stared at one another in silence, Tomaino says, then he tried to shut the door. But the security guard used his foot as a wedge. Tomaino pushed, and the security guard pushed back, squeezing his hand inside the closing door. Tomaino pushed harder until finally, the security guard--still clinging to the best-selling book of all time--rolled backward into the hallway. Tomaino says he quickly locked the door and fell to the floor laughing with his friends.
Tomaino then called the front desk to ask for extra blankets and pillows. He made one additional request: "Don't let that security guard come back to my room!"
From that moment on, Tomaino claims, he and other Rocky Horror conventioneers were marked for harassment by Landmark employees who he claims are "religious zealots." "In every little thing that we asked for, the people who worked there were rude to us," Tomaino complains. "They all seemed so upset that they had to work. They were all nuts. It was like the hotel in The Shining."
Tomaino says the first whiff of religious persecution came when the morning bellboy skipped his room for newspaper delivery. When Tomaino asked why he was the only guest on his floor not to receive the complimentary paper, he was told the hotel had run short. Tomaino fumed in the lobby until the bellboy returned with a cart full of papers. "What a petty little prick," Tomaino huffs.
But a "dynamic tension"--to quote the movie--wasn't reached until the early hours of Friday morning when amped conventioneers took to partying and room-hopping. In one room, a drunken game of naked Twister took place, Tomaino says--and he's got the pictures to prove it. In another, fans in costume performed scenes from the movie. And in Blake Gabbard's and Scott LaBrackque's neighboring rooms, a mellow evening of easy beer-drinking and movie-watching was getting under way when someone thumped on the door.
This time, Tomaino's friend from security brought Denver police officers with him.
"They said they heard a girl scream," Tomaino explains, offering that a female partyer who tripped in the bathroom caused the loud noise.
Both rooms were evacuated, and both Gabbard and LaBrackque were booted from the hotel and temporarily banned from the convention. Tomaino helped his buddies relocate to an Aurora hotel and returned to the Landmark at 3 a.m. Incensed, he marched up to his room, drafted a five-page letter to hotel management outlining his outrage and filed a complaint in small-claims court early that morning. Since he was not evicted, Tomaino listed Gabbard and LaBrackque as the plaintiffs. "If we didn't have the Bible issue," Tomaino says, "we wouldn't have these people [hotel personnel] following us around like hawks."
When convention organizer and longtime Rocky Horror fan Bev Gerrish arrived at the hotel Friday afternoon, she asked general manager Ann Weisenburger to remove the Bibles from all convention rooms, but Gerrish says Weisenburger became incredibly offended.
Gerrish doesn't know how many conventioneers tossed the Good Book, adding that she personally passes on the ritual. "Honestly," Gerrish confides, "maybe it's just because of my age , but I can't see the point of pitching something out of a hotel room. It's just stupid and childish." Gerrish spent the weekend as her self-created character, "Old Spice," a geriatric addition to the Spice Girls. She flaunted the Spice Girls' trademark low-cut Union Jack tube skirt to go with knee-high black leather boots.
But for Tomaino, 37, Bible-chucking symbolizes defiance to authority, not just religion. His voice lifts with excitement while recalling his actions: "We don't want to be told what to do. We came here to get away from authority, and we have the right not to respect it. And damn it, we are going to exercise that right."
Gerrish agrees with Tomaino that at least two employees of the hotel were burning with such religious fervor over the Bible-tossing incident that convention attendees ultimately suffered some sort of harassment.
"After I told them what we're all about, I can't believe they had them working," Gerrish says, then adds, "If you're religious, that's fine. That's your problem."
Tomaino asked for $4,900 on the grounds of "compensation of travel expenses, because we were unjustly evicted due to selective enforcement of rules due to religious persecution because I did not want a bible in my room and failure of hotel to block rooms properly."
Even Tomaino admits his claim is excessive and partly frivolous. "I mostly did it to make their lawyers go through the trouble. I can't justify more than $80."
But Tomaino's smarmy use of the court system may come back to haunt him. On April 23, Best Western lawyer Kramer was granted a motion to transfer the matter from small claims to county court to ensure professional representation for his client. In response to Tomaino's lawsuit--technically Gabbard and LaBrackque's--Kramer filed a counterclaim that states, "The plaintiff's complaint is substantially groundless, substantially frivolous, substantially vexatious and interposed for harassment entitling the Defendant to attorney fees."
In other words, what Tomaino thought was a little joke is now headed for a trial that will cost him cold, hard cash if he loses.
Kramer scoffs at the religious-persecution claim.
"They destroyed the hotel," Kramer says of the Rocky Horror conventioneers in general. "They were throwing everything out of their rooms, not just Bibles. Phone books, too. They ripped down the posters inside the elevator that advertise the restaurant. They were all running around, being disruptive. Guests were calling, complaining all night."
Kramer says a countersuit to reclaim costs on damaged property is also a possibility. "Oh, yeah," he says eagerly, nodding his head.
At the May 12 hearing--where Tomaino and posse purposely pulled a no-show--Kramer set the trial date for the last week in July.
Gerrish says she warned the Landmark what to expect with Rocky Horror fans; late-night partying, running around in costumes, anti-authoritarian personalities. When Gerrish booked the gig with sales manager Kevin Fulton, she says she handed him a copy of the movie for prep work. Fulton is no longer with the Landmark and could not be reached to confirm the claim.
According to Gerrish, however, Fulton's enthusiastic "customer first" response was, "I want your conventioneers to run around the hotel lobby in their costumes and makeup and enjoy themselves as much as they want."
What the hotel couldn't expect--and what its employees certainly didn't enjoy--was the surprise ending to a weekend of theatrics. On Sunday morning, while Gerrish was driving guest speaker and international Rocky Horror Picture Show fan club president Sal Piro to the airport, conventioneers checking out in the lobby were chanting, "Fuck the hotel, fuck the hotel."
Tomaino recalls the five-minute finale like a fantasy. "Thirty to forty goths all dressed up in their good Sunday go-home clothes, flipping off employees, the Best Western logo outside...
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