Bigger Than Ever

Former ‘underground party’ now fills the Masonic Temple.
Photograph courtesy Brett Carson

Behind the former Michigan State Fairgrounds, a tall wooden fence surrounds the original compound where a masquerade party known as Theatre Bizarre made a name for itself.

In 2000, the area was like the Wild West — with regular gunfights and houses being burnt to the ground. It also was, and continues to be, home for some of the performers and crew of Theatre Bizarre.

Despite the location, as many as 2,300 people would turn up for the annual event, originally held the Saturday before Halloween. But in 2010, the city of Detroit shut the party down, citing zoning violations and a lack of permits. Undaunted, organizers made sure the party lived on.

Photographs courtesy Brett Carson, Trever Long and Miss Shela Photography

“It was a sink or swim situation, and now we’re bigger than ever,” says project manager Jason McCombs. “I think we’ve survived because we’ve created a community of performers who would never let this event end.”

It has done more than survive. Last year’s event was at capacity — 4,000-plus tickets sold. According to Steve Genther, Masonic Temple general manager, Theatre Bizarre is now the building’s largest event.

This year, Theatre Bizarre is expanding to include a preview gala on Oct. 18, as well as the main event — called “The Procession” — on Oct. 19.

John Dunivant, the mastermind behind the event, designs an entirely new atmosphere each year that borders on sensory overload. As he walks through the Masonic Temple carrying his iPad with the building’s blueprints and hundreds of conceptual sketches, ideas seem to pour out of him about his plans to make the event a hit until the final hour — 4 a.m.

Think carnival funhouse gone wrong, with devils and clowns fighting each other, fire breathers, people dangling in the air with hooks through their backs, tightrope walkers, and musical acts ranging from barbershop quartets to hardcore punk.

Dunivant is part artist, part set designer, and part choreographer. He manages a core team of 10 people, plus many volunteers and hundreds of performers.

Performance director Eric Scott Baker lives on the original compound — complete with a rooster crowing in the distance and an old sign with the word “spooky” next to a bonfire pit.

As he walks through a cantaloupe garden, Baker shares stories about how the event has shaped many of the performers.

“There’s tons of people who put this together, but John (Dunivant) is the vision behind it all,” Baker says. “This all comes from one man’s mind. He is the one who’s manifested all these characters into reality, and we simply have the honor of playing some of those characters.”

Dunivant’s army of volunteers helps create that vision by spending weeks of 24-hour days building new props, hand-painting signs, and focusing on the smallest details.

“The grounds’ trees held all the colors of Theatre Bizarre — the autumnal color palette from reds, oranges, acidic green to black,” Dunivant explains. So at the Masonic, every light bulb is replaced with amber-colored bulbs to mimic the original venue.

Not to mention, all props must also be designed modularly to fit through the Masonic Temple’s narrow passageways.

The end result will be seven floors transformed into an immersive environment of imagination and twisted delights, with performers improvising and creating a unique experience for each guest.

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