Just across the street from the now-shuttered State Fair, the carnival spirit lives on at Theatre Bizarre.
What is Theatre Bizarre? It’s is a place, a community, a hallucination held in common by a group of people dedicated to its survival. They stage a few other events on the grounds, but most of the year is spent gearing up for the biggest, most imaginatively themed, “underground” Halloween party in southeastern Michigan — if you can call something that sold out at 2,200 tickets this year “underground.”
Technically it’s a Halloween party, not just any Halloween party, mind you, but the most creatively elaborate, macabre, over-the-top Halloween party you can imagine. It’s also a place, a half-a-city-block of houses where the contiguous alleys and vacant lots have been re-imagined as a replica of an abandoned amusement park.
But, beyond that, Theatre Bizarre is a community of people, some who live on the grounds, some who don’t, all of them absolutely in love with the idea of this — well, bizarre — adult Disneyland. They are steadfastly devoted to John Dunivant and Ken Poirier, the two puppeteers who control the complicated web of strings that make the magic happen.
Six-foot fence shields homes
Driving west on State Fair Street from John R to Woodward in Detroit, you pass house after burned-out house until you come to a block with solid homes shielded from the street by a 6-foot fence. About 12 people live in five of these six houses. They have jobs from software testing to marketing display. If you’re tall enough to peer over you can catch a glimpse of an elevated clown head that centers what appears to be a proscenium arch. Over one of the driveways is a fabric-draped pergola with a sign so faded you might miss it. This is Theatre Bizarre.
Theatre Bizarre is the externalization of the roadside attraction-fueled fantasies of John Dunivant, 38, a soft-spoken commercial illustrator, husband and father of a 2-year-old who lives in Lathrup Village. Based on a life-long fascination with circus history, Dunivant makes paintings of macabre sideshow freaks on canvas banners that flutter about the grounds and inspire costumes brought to life by many of the core group of volunteers at the party. He draws and designs the permanent structures and rigorously controls the color palette of everything in sight.
About 10 years ago Dunivant got the word from the management of Russell Industrial Center where he had his studio that his Halloween party had gotten too big and they weren’t going to tolerate it any longer. So he teamed up with his friend Ken Poirier, who lived on State Fair Avenue. and had his own outdoor Halloween bash, and together they dreamed up Theatre Bizarre. Well, Dunivant dreamed it up; Poirier had the construction know-how to make it a reality.
Theatre Bizarre was conceived as an abandoned circus carnival and every stage, marquee and banner is made to look slightly decayed. Volunteers spend the weeks leading up to Halloween dragging in scrub trees gleaned from neighborhood alleys to give the impression that nature has had years to overgrow the midway and sideshows. They black-wash every piece of lumber to look aged and burned. Anything painted gets a wash of patina. Costumes, elaborately detailed and appliqued, are just as painstakingly abraded and dirtied to look like their wearers have been recently dug from their graves.
Rehabber invested in area
It all happens on property owned by Ken Poirier, 44, whose job is rehabbing homes for out-of-town investors. He’s spent years buying properties of his own around the city of Detroit, but found their far-flung locations exhausting. So, on the advice of a mentor, Poirier began buying up properties on the block where he lived on State Fair as they became available, eventually amassing six homes and 10 lots.
Over the years, devotees of Theatre Bizarre have moved in, and a loosely organized collective has formed with the annual party project providing the glue that holds everyone together. Core members have spun off their own projects like Squared Circle Revue, Stolen Media Festival and Wonderland and the friends pitch in to make this work as well. Living at the “compound” is like being permanently at summer camp with impromptu parties growing up around bonfires at night.
The residents are the core of a volunteer force that ebbs and grows depending on the year but numbers around 30, give or take. They do everything from collecting trees to spreading wood chips to building structures and painting them to look decades old. Each year sees added acreage devoted to the compound with new structures needing to be built.
Volunteers are all ages — even Dunivant’s retired parents come up from Florida to pitch in — and from all walks of life. There’s Matt Pomroy the accountant for UAW-Chrysler, Nichole Davila the dental hygienist, and Chip Gillan the helicopter pilot. David Presnell, the makeup master, comes from Pittsburgh to help out. After seeing Theatre Bizarre one year he decided to go to school for makeup and special effects to secure his niche in the core “staff” of Theatre Bizarre.
Poirier and Dunivant each take a month off from their day jobs to work on Theatre Bizarre and other volunteers take days off without pay or simply show up after their workday and stay toiling and socializing till the wee hours. Dunivant often remains, painting his sideshow banners till 8 a.m.
“There’s no other city where you could do this,” says Poirier. “And no other neighbors would tolerate it for a millisecond.” In fact, the one family that still lives on the block is all in favor of their wacky neighbors’ project. “It’s awesome,” says Leslie Alexander, who usually attends the party at Poirier’s invitation. “I enjoy the crowd. They have nice music. It’s peaceful. They enjoy themselves. I don’t have a problem with it,” she said, then added, “I’ll be there around 1 a.m.” That would give her plenty of time to party, since revelers stay till 5 — or whenever the sun comes up.
If Dunivant is the artistic visionary of Theatre Bizarre, Poirier is the self-titled “Grounds Keeper” and “grumpy old man,” a pretty self-deprecating description from someone who fills the role of general contractor, director of operations and scout master to all the volunteers.
10th year was biggest party
This was the 10th year for Theatre Bizarre. There was a two-year hiatus when, as Dunivant says, “Ken was done; he was over it.” But then he went to Burning Man, the art festival held in Nevada’s Black Rock desert and “got all inspired and came back and was like ‘Let’s throw a big party,’ ” says Dunivant, so two years ago Theatre Bizarre was back on track.
First, the main stage went up with Zombo the Clown presiding over the proscenium. Successive additions brought satellite stages like the Scaredy Cat Club. Revelers enter the grounds on party night through one of the houses facing State Fair. It is, of course, a haunted house. It’s the home of Edgar J. Torrent, a fictitious serial killer, and it’s stuffed with more body parts and gore than a full season of CSI. Partiers are forced to go through the houseful of hanging bagged bodies and down into the dungeon-like cellar and through a seemingly subterranean tunnel before emerging through transformational light and fog onto the Midway.
According to the elaborate back-story concocted by Dunivant, the tunnel was built by Torrent as an escape route to evade the police. When visitors emerge from the tunnel they metaphorically enter the imagination of the killer who, like Dunivant himself, is fascinated with all things carnie.
The entertainment reinforces the illusion with lurid burlesques and a group known as Pend Suspension, whose work involves a lot of dangling from hooks pierced through their skin. Then there’s lots of fire: fire eating, fire juggling, fire hoop dancing and just plain fire shooting.
On the night of the party — always the Saturday before Halloween — Theatre Bizarre seems not so much a place, as an alternate reality. Costumes are de rigueur and their variety and elaborateness can be breathtaking. Siamese twins, Rubber Chicken Man and demented clowns cavort with beheaded brides and queens of the night. It’s as if the cast of a Fellini movie took up residence on the midway of a defunct Coney Island.
All in all it’s a bacchanal for kids who just don’t want to grow up. “Adults are weird,” says Dunivant. “I think, as a child, everything is so much more alive and magical. I don’t want to grow up. That would be horrible. I don’t plan on it.”