He’s thrown Theatre Bizarre there for six years now, but John Dunivant still hasn’t seen every room of Detroit’s 250,000 square-foot Masonic Temple. How could you, anyway, considering there are 1,037 of them?
“You’re still going to miss stuff,” said Dunivant, who is the creative force behind the immersive, theatrical, larger-than-life Halloween masquerade, which is less event and more of a constructed world that reflects the artistic vision in his head. “This building is not designed for this type of production.”
But Dunivant most certainly is putting on a production – a big one: likely the most-anticipated party of the year on the city's nightlife scene, Theatre Bizarre is an carnivalesque celebration that has drawn admiration (and astonishment) near and far, including Travel+ Leisure magazine recently calling it the "world's greatest masquerade party." This year's edition, which kicks off Friday, ups the ante by doubling the number of events.
More than 4,500 guests enjoyed eight floors of dark delights during the 2015 edition of Theatre Bizarre at the Masonic Temple on Saturday, October 17, 2015 in Detroit. Once an underground party the event has become the hottest ticket in town and sold out weeks in advance. Theatre Bizarre is known for hosting a lineup of the area's finest acrobats, dancers and performers - all of whom are made up into a character from the Halloween seasons of old. John Froelich, Special to the Free Press
On a recent late Tuesday night, Dunivant provided a behind-the-scenes look at how the event comes together, walking through the historic temple's twisty, neo-gothic setting. A tour reveals many signs of wear-and-tear, like gaping holes in parts of the ceiling, but that’s to be expected of a structure that’s nearly a century old. Because of recent renovations, Theatre Bizarre's build-out was entirely modified this year. Nothing can be tacked to the wall as in years past, so the event's installations and signage, some 19 feet tall, are pressure-fit into place with custom-built jack systems; only a few are left freestanding.
It hasn’t been the easiest job, since the event spans eight floors and is built to accommodate 4,500 guests. But the staff — about 750 total — make it work.
“No one else has tried to do (something like) this because it’s stupid,” said Dunivant, 45. About a week before the event, the Masonic was abuzz with the sounds of drills and hammers getting everything into place. The event’s fifth floor was the first to come together, and a crew was installing signage for the Dirty Devil’s Peep Show, the home of burlesque performances. On the floor in the hallway were the smirking pieces of what will soon be two giant devils, and Dunivant was tweaking the alignment.
“I have high expectations,” he said with a laugh. “There’s issues with every single thing.”
John Dunivant, the mastermind behind Theatre Bizarre
John Dunivant, the mastermind behind Theatre Bizarre now at the Masonic Temple in Detroit, is photographed on Monday, Oct.10, 2016. (Photo: Kimberly P. Mitchell DFP)
The signs are only the beginning, though. Every inch of every room of the costume-mandatory masquerade, the largest of its kind in the world, will be covered to make sure the experience is entirely immersive. “We create the thing we want to see exist,” explained Dunivant, who is also a multimedia artist and a recipient of the prestigious Kresge Arts in Detroit fellowship. “Once you enter, you’re someplace else.”
About a half-ton of candy corn from Rocky Peanut Company will cover the tables of Theatre Bizarre, although project manager and event partner Jason McCombs, 40, says people tend to eat the (inedible) pieces glued to installations. (Throw in other kinds of candy, and you’ve got more than a ton.) Joining the sweets are 1,000-plus pumpkins, which take two semi-trucks just to move. Each one is carved by hand by volunteers, who bring extras home for pumpkin pie.
No light on Theatre Bizarre’s eight floors is left unchanged, either. 1,800 bulbs are swapped to match an autumn palette with just a few greens, says event photographer and self-proclaimed “gorgifier” Brett Carson, 41. It actually happens twice, if you count teardown of the event, which takes two weeks and then a month to move everything out of the Masonic. December is the crew’s only time off, and then planning starts all over again in January.
Two weekends, more details
Theatre Bizarre is bigger than it’s ever been before. The 16-year event, which got a renegade start near the Michigan State Fairgrounds, began as a one-night only carnivalesque party for friends and family around Halloween. (“No one was going to tell us no,” joked Dunivant. But the city famously did in 2010, and that’s why Theatre Bizarre is now held in a legal venue.)
The Ballroom, located on the Floor 1, was the home
The Ballroom, located on the Floor 1, was the home of many performances and carnival games during the 2015 Theatre Bizarre at the Masonic Temple. (Photo: John Froelich, Special to the Free Press)
This year, for the first time, it’ll take place on two Saturdays instead of one -- this weekend and next. The downtime in-between will be used for a massive reset for fresh pumpkins and flowers. Each party will be preceded by an exclusive, 450-guest Friday night gala that’s black-tie and masked (the first Friday is sold-out). One of the gala highlights — aside from a strolling dinner and early access to the floors — is a performance by David J of post-punk band Bauhaus, who will perform selections from an album inspired by the event with the 13-piece Theatre Bizarre Orchestra.
Between both weekends are 500-some performers, including actors and ushers (who have no shame in angrily shushing you if you speak in the silent rooms). Burlesque, one of the biggest entertainment attractions, is programmed by burlesque performer Roxi D’Lite; otherwise, stage manager Casey Miller curates talent from all around the country. You’re sure to encounter fire-breathers as well, and don’t be alarmed if a little clown doll runs up to you: that’s just Aimee.
“This whole world we’ve created is to exorcize the idea of clowns,” explained Dunivant, who looks sarcastic in an army-green jacket over a red Detroit Ford GT t-shirt, with a matching yet tattered army-green hat that’s decorated in space monkey and wolf man pins. “I hate clowns.”
The Congress of Freaks diorama was made by Dante WildermanBuy Photo
The Congress of Freaks diorama was made by Dante Wilderman and other artists, it depicts some of the performers at the Theatre Bizarre. (Photo: Kimberly P. Mitchell DFP)
He hates them, but Theatre Bizarre’s chief mascot Zombo is a clown, and Dunivant has spent the last 10 months staring at clowns because this year’s theme is “Hail Zombo.” All the production — including performances — is catered to match. Expect a giant Zombo shrine, a key installation highlight along with a 213-figure, motion-controlled diorama that’s been three long years in the works, a collaboration with Dante Wildern. Dunivant says it’s their most extravagant piece yet, a visual history of Theatre Bizarre that matches the naive, crude aesthetic of 1930s penny arcade.
While there are eight floors full of rooms, the first-floor Crystal Ballroom (where the gala stroll takes place) is one of the main gathering points. That Tuesday night, it still looked like any old ballroom, but by this weekend it’ll be entirely transformed, decked out in carnival games like Poison Darts and Down-A-Clown.
“The ballroom has a funeral setting juxtaposed with a dirty carnival being sucked through the wall,” Dunivant described, fixing a crooked cabinet out of habit. A true perfectionist with a highly overactive imagination (the result of being an only child, he said), his ideas are shaped by years spent touring roadside attractions and oddities with his parents. But the thing is, he really just wanted something where he could have “a barbershop and human suspension and ice cream.”
So he made it happen. Theatre Bizarre hosts a barbershop, human suspension and Zombo’s Ice Cream Parlor, where guests can enjoy “The Zombo,” a pumpkin-spiced and gingersnap ice cream with dark chocolate and bourbon. Also up for grabs is the “Green Fairy,” a mint chocolate chip absinthe creation, and the “Bloody Valentine,” a blood orange Valentine Vodka sorbet. It’s all made by local ice cream company Treat Dreams. But beware of the innocence — one in 100 cups hides a razor blade. (Don’t worry, though, no one’s ever swallowed one.)
Like the razor blade, every element is compulsively precise.“Theatre Bizarre is a constant work in progress,” said McCombs, calling it’ the equivalent of throwing seven weddings, a rock show and a festival all in one night. “We’re changing the flow each year.”
The Dirty Devils Peep Show stage is being prepared
The Dirty Devils Peep Show stage is being prepared for the Theatre Bizarre at the Masonic Temple in Detroit.
Walk around the Masonic and you’ll stumble upon a three-hour loop of vintage, silent horror and erotica films spliced together in the Cinema, a nonlinear storyline that’s meant to disorient. You’ll also find a brand new Ghost Train, which speedily shoots you through the pitch-black of Theatre Bizarre’s seventh floor, a maniacally-laughing driver behind the wheel. And just one floor up is a special photo booth that prints real figurines of you and your friends.
But this is as much of a guide as you’ll get. No maps and no showtimes are available for guests, because the whole idea is to lose yourself within the abstract, demented world. The only map in existence is the jam-packed Zombo Bible, a three-inch binder outlining Dunivant’s grand vision. Lying open on the table, it’s Theatre Bizarre’s perfectionism entirely deconstructed.
“This is bigger than a party,” Dunivant said, flipping through the pages. “It’s a labor of love.”