10/14/2016, Detroit’s Masonic Temple , Detroit, MI

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Theatre Bizarre has been the singular, must-see annual event since it launched (illegally) in the early days of the 21st century. Year after year, its creators return with a spectacular event unlike anything else on earth.

Since finding its permanent home at Detroit’s Masonic Temple (the largest in the ...

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Ben Michaels
812-339-1195 X 204

The Greatest Masquerade on Earth: Detroit’s Legendary Theatre Bizarre Summons the Mystery of its Notorious Underground Parties, Creating an Immersive Art Installation of Unprecedented Scale

Now two weekends October 14-15 and October 21-22

In the autumn of 2010, things were going great. An outlaw group of friends had built a towering theme park in a neglected corner of Detroit (complete with a roller coaster, ferris wheel, flame throwers, etc.) and were gearing up for the big event.  Then the governor of the state of Michigan checked Facebook one day and asked, “What is that?”

The “that” in question was Theatre Bizarre, the dream of painter John Dunivant and a crew of like-minded artists and performers, built from scraps and memories of sideshows long gone, spanning an entire derelict and deadly block on the city’s northern border. For one night each year, they threw open the gates to another world, where clowns torment demons, burlesque dancers twist in tornadoes of fire, and everyone sheds their drab, daily skin to revel in the fantastical.

It was, in a word, magic. It was also entirely illegal. As soon as Jennifer Granholm, Michigan’s governor at the time, stumbled on the event, she had little choice. Within hours, city and state officials (as well as a heavily-armed SWAT team) shuttered what many have called “The Greatest Masquerade on Earth.” The show hastily moved to another venue (as The New York Times noted) and continued to thrive in Detroit’s Masonic Temple (the largest in the world). It could easily contend for the title of world’s largest immersive art installation as they use over 250,000 square feet.

In 2016, for the first time in its storied history, Theatre Bizarre will open its dark portal for two weekends of immersive, intense performance experiences. Two consecutive Fridays in October (the 14th and 21st) will play host to an exclusive Gala Masquerade, where revelers will enjoy an open bar, strolling gourmet dinner, valet parking and a unique tour of highlights from the event including performances by David J of Bauhaus and the Theatre Bizarre Orchestra. Saturdays (the 15th and 22nd) will see a 9-hour marathon of nonstop debauchery spread out over 8 floors.

The Temple is transformed on a grand scale, complete with a Victorian ice cream parlor serving liquor-infused treats; a cinema offering vintage international erotica and horror; and a wild “Ghost Train” ride that takes place in the dark on the seventh floor. There are five stages with 20 bands, two dozen performance spaces, two grand ballrooms, dozens of strolling and aerial performers, burlesque stars from around the globe, carnival games, and countless other sensory delights combine to ensure that partygoers never, ever have a dull moment. Every hallway, every lobby can become an impromptu theatrical experience, this is truly a choose-your-own-adventure that has to be seen to be believed.

{full story below}

In the late 90s, painter John Dunivant was struggling to find his voice as an artist. He didn’t have any trouble, however, devoting himself to breathtaking, elaborate Halloween parties. One, the one that nearly got him kicked out of his loft, involved 500 trees, forest trails, and a full-sized cabin.

In search of a new venue, he joined forces with friends and fellow party-throwers , and began building on an abandoned lot in a very rough neighborhood. “I was interested in old sideshows. It was going to be a theme for the year, but it stuck,” recalls Dunivant. “I began to create stories and worlds based on that. I created my own visual laws, backstories, different elements that honed the whole thing.”

The whole thing--complete with theme-park rides and multi-story set pieces--thrived for ten years in the shadows, all on volunteer power. The blight that has plagued Detroit gave the collective the space to keep creating, even as bullets flew and firebombs hit nearby hulks of abandoned houses.

“There is no other place in the world where we could have gotten away with what we were doing. You usually can hit a place up once with street art, but we had the opportunity to build on our creation for ten years. The area was so neglected. It was a war zone with drug deals gone wrong and gunfire every day, all day,” says Dunivant. “The only reason we could grow, as things intensified, was that houses around our lot burned down. We’d expand into where the empty houses once stood.”

Social media brought the peculiar art project crashing down, as the authorities came to call days before the party in 2010. The setback was devastating, but temporary, as the collective behind Theatre Bizarre regrouped.

The second life of Theatre Bizarre came with challenges--how to create the same kind of immersive environment in an old building with fire codes and historic covenants, installing and tearing down each year--but this spurred Dunivant and his collaborators to an even deeper, lusher exploration of the world they had made, an approach that won the collective support from both The Knight Foundation and Kresge Foundation

The guiding aesthetic remained the same: the color palette, the scale designed to overwhelm, the mix of charm and revolt, of decadence and decay. “I was originally inspired by 1930s penny arcade dioramas, but I wanted to blow these miniatures up to a grand scale. I’m a tall person so I wanted to make everything extra tall,” relates Dunivant. “I studied architecture, and as part of that, I documented some of Detroit’s crumbling churches. The psychological design of the cathedrals was meant to mess with your head, to make you look up and feel humbled. We’re harnessing the same effect: Everything looms, and you have to stand on your tiptoes.” To embody this feeling (and capture the collective’s past), Theatre Bizarre has crafted massive dioramas of the old grounds, several yards high, complete with quirky mechanisms. “It’s like walking around in a model,” explains Dunivant. “It’s bringing things full circle.”

This model is teeming with life, with a cast of characters--clowns, devils, and gods--that Theatre Bizarre continues to expand and elaborate. Dunivant has developed very specific rules to guide this creation: “Gods make creations out of clay, simple materials stuck together, and give them life. These characters evoke that,” says Dunivant. “Their outfits are crude and simple, with oversized stitching, tattered around the edges, and with a limited color palatte. They are meant to be like the figurines in this penny arcade.” The clowns and devils often duke it out, and control their own special territories over Theatre Bizarre’s eight floors.

Though Dunivant has been the creative driving force behind the project, Theatre Bizarre has taken on a life of its own. More and more regular performers inhabit characters, creating their own costumes, stories, and death-defying acts (like walking a flaming tightrope suspended by hooks in the flesh of two suspension artists). “It’s become more collaborative. They are using their strengths to create characters that amplify this world,” Dunivant says. “They are still pulled from these basic laws.”

One law that all abide by: A total commitment to the cause of creating this uncanny spectacle each year, and a rejection of corporate sponsorship. Theatre Bizarre’s dedicated crew camp out for weeks ahead of time at the Temple, sleeping on air mattresses and barely leaving the building. “The core group of people take off work, leave their families, and live in a musty, crazy old building. It’s amazing to see these things come together. In theory, none of what we’re doing should work,” remarks Dunivant.

Theatre Bizarre 2016 Performers include:

David J and The Theatre Bizarre Orchestra
Roxi D'Lite (2010 Miss Exotic World)
Ray Gunn (2013 King of Burlesque)
Mat Fraser (American Horror Story)
Violet Chachki (Winner of last year's RuPaul's Drag Race)
Russell Bruner (2012 King of Burlesque)
Jenn O. Cide
Squidling Brothers Circus Sideshow
Timmy's Organism
Pretty Ghouls
Pink Lightning
The Gabriel Brass Band

For tickets and additional information, see theatrebizarre.com.

Dispatch Details

Doors Open:
6:30 PM
Concert Start Time:
7:00 PM
Detroit’s Masonic Temple
Venue St. Address:
500 Temple St
Venue City, State:
Detroit, MI
Venue Zip:
Venue Link:
Ticket Price(s):
Friday Masquerades: $260.00 and Saturdays: $85.00 - $95.00
Ticket URL:
Event Notes:
Two weekends October 14-15 and October 21-22