At midnight the day before the curtain rises on Theater Bizarre, Detroit’s premiere Halloween-themed immersive theater experience, a crowd gathers outside the rear door at the Masonic Temple. Smoke drifts towards the building’s pitched roof, and John Dunivant, a slight man with an intriguing collection of facial piercings and tattoos, talks about the bad old days when performers had a long way to go to and from the dressing rooms.
“They used to be all the way up,” he said, gesturing with his cigarette to a green-lit room at least four stories up. He shakes his head, and talk drifts back to performers and plans and a seemingly endless list of tasks to complete with just 18 hours remaining till the gala on October 14th. Volunteers come and go at all hours, and Jason McCombs encouraged me to come “whenever.”
Dunivant, a Detroit painter, gained a following in the 1990s for the elaborate Halloween parties he liked to throw. One of the events nearly got him evicted, owing somewhat to the fact that he had 500 trees and a life-size cabin in the woods in his apartment. After nearly 10 years of guerrilla theater, including a 2010 endeavor resulting in the construction by Dunivant and friends of an actual working theme park, complete with a roller-coaster (and without trifles like permits or owning the land it was on), the production moved indoors, and today the spectacle makes its permanent annual home in Detroit’s Masonic Temple.
Theatre Bizarre, described by organizers as “The Greatest Masquerade on Earth,” begins its setup in early September. The building is packed at all hours of the day and night, setting tableaux and dioramas (not just of hell -- there’s a truly startling one of a mermaid roughly 7ft long made of monkey and fish parts). Taxidermy plays a small but critical roll. We saw a wild pig, a fox, and the production’s infamous (and fully anatomically intact) white billy goat, among many other formerly living things at the Masonic.
“People will be there,” he told me when we spoke by phone, "all day and all night 'til we open." Volunteers stage the show. While there’s a little compensation -- they receive reimbursement for purchased materials and sometimes a little bit of money after the production closes its two-weekend run -- the hundreds of hours that go into making Theatre Bizarre the lavish, dark spectacle Detroiters have come to rely on for Halloween excess remain largely a labor of love.
Dante Wildern and Eric Olechowski, longtime volunteers, work on a large tableaux complete with lights and animatronics. This scene shows the carnival in full swing, meant to capture the event’s history. Dante seems like the perfect name for a man in charge of a fictive hell created in Detroit for the entertainment of people willing and able to shell out $100 for a ticket (the opening gala cost $260, but this includes valet service, dinner, and an open bar). While the name recalls the inferno, the man himself is welcoming and clearly proud of the part he plays in putting Theatre Bizarre together.
“I’ve been working with these people since I was eight,” the 20-something Wildern says. “This piece alone took nearly four years of work.” He gestures at the diorama. Olechowski nods. He’s been volunteering for years, too, and says he cannot even begin to account for the hours spent painting tiny figures -- many in the diorama are modeled on volunteers and performers -- or setting up lights, or constructing stages. I ask him to estimate the time, and he just smiles and says, “Too long.” Wildern holds out a figure from the diorama. It’s clearly Olechowski, down to the long ponytail. The figures, each about 4in tall, are roughly dollhouse scale.
“Volunteers do everything,” Wildern says. “On gala night, there are actually more performers here than audience members.” This is the “immersive” part of immersive theater. While you see bands and stage acts at Theatre Bizarre, including RuPaul's Drag Race winner Violet Chachki, who joins the lineup for closing weekend, strolling performers make up a huge part of the event. The costumes range from elaborate to incredible to indescribable, though the night before opening, the theater feels solemnly hollow, like a cathedral on December 23rd.
As other volunteers climb ladders to festoon the cloak room in red velvet, one tells me that the flowers for the gala started arriving that day... and arriving, and arriving. I see roses and sunflowers. Curly willow and scarlet mums. Everywhere, on tables and the floor, an ocean of ruby velvet.
“There were so many last year, we gave a few away,” one of the volunteers tells me as she adjusts the drape of velvet over a tall doorway. Another woman holds the ladder. I ask her when they’ll finish the prep for tomorrow, and she grins and then hedges. “Just in time,” she says, taking a long drink of Red Bull. Red Bull and Monster cans are everywhere; dozens of people will work late into the night. The Masonic’s long, dark halls, lit softly by blood-red bulbs in ceiling fixtures that date to the 1920s, lead from one beautifully staged scene to another. The elevators have incongruously hideous '70s fake-wood paneling and play muzak. We hear “Girl from Ipanema” on our ride to the upper level of the building, where we take in the sweeping view of the Crystal Ballroom from one of the many tables set up in the balcony above. A band takes the stage, the lead singer’s face totally hidden by the jack-o-lantern on his head. He plays alt-country guitar -- an original tune that's incongruously chipper, given the settings.
Old carnival posters cover the ballroom’s walls, making claims of thrills and chills and wonders of nature. One says “The Masks Hide their Pain.” This seems apt, although the level of care and genuine affection the volunteers have for the production lead me to think that the masks hide a fair amount of joy, too. My companion touches the wallpaper in our little aerie high above the stage. I try the wallpaper. The flocking is real velvet and soft against my fingertips. We retreat to the antechamber and admire one of the many exquisitely preserved animal mounts that play a part in the show.
The white goat appeared prominently in last year’s publicity photos, and remains an impressive specimen, quite literally. Dozens of jack-o-lanterns, too many to count, surround the goat. Their black eyes glitter, absent candles, and the expressions range from surprised O’s to menacing grimaces. Volunteers came on Wednesday to carve pumpkins, and we see them everywhere, especially in the Crystal Ballroom. I notice that the white goat went to the taxidermist with an impressive set of testes, and these, too, have been lovingly preserved for the ages. He stands proudly atop a mount of candy corn, and his muzzle feels as soft as the velvet when I stroke his face. I can’t help myself.
Everything here has a tactile quality. The velvet drapes, the wallpaper. We find another room, this one full of tall tables draped in black. Each one holds a tall glass jar of wrapped saltwater taffy. I may or may not have stolen three taffies. If I did, and I’m not admitting anything, they tasted like caramel corn.
The gala hosts 450 revelers a year, and the organizers strictly enforce the costume requirement. All guests must dress up, and the rules for costumes require a little more effort than you might put into attending your neighbor’s backyard party. While Theatre Bizarre exists for an all-too-brief two weeks in fall around Halloween, the event has steadily become one of Detroit’s best new traditions. And none of it exists without the very real people who haunt the Masonic for six weeks beforehand, or who dedicate months and years to making an event with a very well-deserved reputation for opulent spectacle.
Last year, over 4,500 attended, and this year’s numbers should only increase, given the added second weekend. Artistic director Dunivant told Metro Times last year that the show might not go on. “[It’s] putting me in debt,” he said. The event has no corporate sponsors, which Dunivant said allows it to remain a purely expressive event. And the Masonic, while beautiful and dramatic, has old wiring and innumerable rules that make staging Theatre Bizarre challenging. We're hoping the show goes on for years to come.