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Theatre Bizarre’s “dark carnival” a scary masquerade

John Dunivant has a specific goal for costumed, masked attendees entering Theatre Bizarre inside Detroit’s Masonic Temple this weekend.

“One of the biggest missions is to make Theatre Bizarre fully immersive,” the Oakland County resident says. “Once you enter, there’s nothing to pull you out of this world.”

Since January, Dunivant and his crew have been working diligently to convert eight floors of the Masonic Temple into a massive “dark carnival.” The venue will be unrecognizable, furnished with a “Ghost Train” ride, a Victorian ice cream parlor and a movie theater playing silent horror films. Illusionists, circus performers, acrobats, fire performers, extension artists and live music will spill from hallways and performance spaces.

It’s all meticulous.

“Every lightbulb and every chandelier and even every bathroom are detailed, so wherever you go, it’s this full immersion,” Dunivant says. “It’s like the building has come to life and developed its own personality and characters.”

Theatre Bizarre — which runs two weekends, Oct. 14-15 and Oct. 21-22 — started out small, with Dunivant throwing Halloween house parties for his friends and family in the 1990s. It became a way to express his art.

“I was always an artist, a painter mainly, doing figurative work, and then completely separate were these Halloween parties, because I always loved Halloween,” says Dunivant, who earned a Kresge Artist Fellowship in the visual arts. “I worked my art into my Halloween parties.”

As the parties grew, so did demand for space. First, Dunivant moved the parties to his private studio space. Then, in 2000, he moved them to a friend’s property in Detroit. The theme that first year was a rundown carnival.

“It was magical, so it stuck,” Dunivant says.

The parties — now dubbed Theatre Bizarre — started taking up more and more property, much of which was abandoned.

Then, 10 years into it, they got caught. It was heartbreaking.

“We got shut down 18 hours before our doors opened,” Dunivant says. “We were using half a city block of space, and we were trying to buy up property whenever things would go up for auction, but taking up abandoned land like we were doing was illegal.”

Theatre Bizarre quickly moved into The Fillmore. The next year, it opened in The Masonic Temple. Dunivant used his artistic skills to mold more than 250,000 square feet of the Masonic Temple into his dark fantasy.

“I was painting and trying to find my voice as an artist, and as Theatre Bizarre developed, I realized it was my voice,” he says. “I was creating worlds and storytelling in so many different mediums. I was doing sculpture, painting, creating models and large-scale things and working in graphic design doing vintage poster work. It was extremely fulfilling and fun.”

Entering its sixth year at the Masonic Temple, Theatre Bizarre will run for two weekends for the first time.

Fridays, Oct. 14 and 21, are the Masquerade Galas, exclusive, limited-ticket events with a formal masquerade, open bar, gourmet dinner and valet parking. Attendees must wear formal or semi-formal costumes; Oct. 14 is sold out.

Saturdays, Oct. 15 and 22 are the main Theatre Bizarre nights. Costumes are mandatory, but they don’t have to be formal. There’s also a cash bar and food, cash parking and a bigger crowd.

Dunivant hopes expanding Theatre Bizarre to two weekends will help increase the lifespan of the event.

“We talked last year that this could be the last year for Theatre Bizarre, because of the nature of the event,” Dunivant says. “This year, we needed to basically expand or die. So, this year is extremely scary. It’s a big fragile experiment.”

He’s inspired to keep it going.

“After experiencing Theatre Bizarre, so many people say, ‘This party changed my life,” he says. “The most common description I hear from people is, ‘It’s like a walking dream.’”