If you want to blame somebody for the 10, 15 or sometimes even 20 ladies who invade your downtown drinking hole, wild with costume, thick with makeup, loud in demeanor, hungry for shots of Jameson's or chilled vodka and itching to take over the karaoke stage, you really have to start with an east side Catholic church. Once a month on Friday nights, a group of bodacious, thirsty melodramatic partiers band together to dress up and wig out on the streets of the Cass Corridor. St. Jude's may be less than thrilled with being credited for it, but there it all began, with a mother directing a church choir group named the "Judelaires" and her teenage daughter, who had a feverish theatrical streak running up her skinny back.
Bridget Michael, an ex-Detroiter now in New York City, remembers Mom choreographing shows for St. Jude's in the early '90s, assembling an impressive collection of wigs and props. Though the church's productions were tame, they inspired young Bridget to the heights of play-acting for her friends. With a little help from Boone's Farm wine and a lot of free time, Bridget and some preteen friends would engage in what she describes as "just dressing up and fucking around." If the Catholics failed in producing a churchgoing do-gooder, they can at least take credit for the night of holy hell and boozy good times that rolls over the Cass Corridor once a month, when several twenty- and thirtysomething Detroit girls doll up and traipse about town.
Michael found women to don cheap and coarse headpieces at Cass Cafe when she was working there, before she moved to New York. The café is a place of employment for more than a few starving artist and student types, who eagerly took up an off-the-wall request to kill boredom one night nine months ago, donning wigs as they worked. The details of how and why this transformed into a monthly bar-crawl are sketchy, but wig girl Lori Kraemer, for one, was looking to escape the rigors of her button-down daily life.
Past Wig Nights, with costumes as a weapon, have riffed on businesswomen, ladies of espionage, cowgirls, pregnant women, zombies and 1980s workout girls. Once they all dressed up as wig girl Sandy Mush, a local redhead who's an extravagantly fingernail-painted fashion plate. Wig Night fell near her birthday. Following the girls around for the April installment of Wig Night, dedicated to pop star Madonna's public personas, you realize this is definitely not the Red Hat Society. This group of 15 or more, many of whom work at Cass Cafe, was born of the Cass Corridor and they act accordingly gritty, dirty and loud, with an appetite for the all-nighter. Juxtaposed against the less-than-pristine landscape of the Corridor, this street theater becomes a brightly lit freak show, a creation that transcends "Let's get all dressed up and go out, girlfriend!" and becomes something much weirder, much more experimental and therapeutic than a monthly euchre club or trip to the mall.
April 7, 8 p.m. The girls stream in to the home of clothing designer Beth Breidenstein. The place is full of art, with pictures hanging crooked on walls, every inch of space a testimony to her bright and chaotic spirit. They enter bearing social lubricants to get the night rolling 12-packs of Pabst Blue Ribbon and Miller High Life and a bottle of Jameson's. The girls pop the brews, do shots and wriggle space for themselves in bedroom and bathroom to change and primp. Photography student Bridget Volpe is going for American Life Madonna.
"You know, the 2003 Madonna. Where she's pissed at Bush," she explains.
Artist and teacher Faina Lerman dons the Like a Virgin costume, a big, white, slutty wedding dress-type thing. Upon seeing other girls in similar getups, she is heard saying, "I don't like seeing all these other virgins around here." Sandy Mush, day manager at Cass Cafe, prepares to simulate Madonna's "Express Yourself" era with two enormous Styrofoam cones she picked up at a Michael's craft shop. She walks carefully through the house, lest someone lose an eye on one of her ersatz tits.
Some of Mush's downriver buddies are helping each other with makeup and other fashion particulars. Lori Pawlik, a civil engineer, is preparing to be the sole Desperately Seeking Susan star with a very good re-creation of the famed jacket Madonna wore in that movie. Account executive Traci Steffy is one of the other virgins Lerman was jokingly grumbling about. Hair stylist Wendy Webster plans to perform the Music phase of Madonna's storied evolution. Bridget Michael, the girl with all the wigs, is a "Material Girl" and Lori Kraemer, in black slip and stigmata, poses and preens for "Like a Prayer." Before they leave, each girl paints a space between her two front teeth. After a few more shots of Jameson's and some picture-taking, they're ready to hit the town. First stop: Cass Cafe, of course.
9:30 p.m. It's a dinner crowd at the Cass as the girls pour in, and people pause from sipping soup and munching salads to smile. The girls congregate at the bar for the first round of drinks. Sandy's tits are really pissing off one of the waiters, poking him in the face as she tries to squeeze by him for a photo-op in the kitchen. "For Chrissakes! For fuck's sake!" he angrily grumbles as the Styrofoam tit scrapes along his cheek. Bartender Dave Roberts has seen it all before because it's usually his shift when the girls go out. He'll see them at the end of the night as well, when they return for their traditional last-call dance party.
10:15 p.m. The girls pay a visit to Motor City Brewing Works on Second and Canfield, two blocks from the Cass Cafe. Bartender Graem Whyte, Lerman's husband, poses for a picture with Sandy, biting one of the fake mammaries, his bald head reflecting the flash. Bridget Volpe plugs her iPod to the bar's sound system. The girls dance and flirt with the placid micro-beer drinkers. One dude at the bar keeps yelling, "I like it! I like it!"
11 p.m. They avoid paying cover at legendary Cass Corridor dive the Old Miami by signaling Julie, the bartender. Her favorite Wig Night was when the girls all wore wedding dresses. She might be a future participant.
11:30 p.m. Comet Bar on Henry is a real Wig Night destination because tonight's karaoke night is hosted by Terri-oke, who's also dressed up in Madonna garb. Terri-oke calls out when customers' cheese stick orders are done and holds court in this crowded and colorful slice of barfly heaven. She announces the arrival of the wig girls, and soon they each take the stage for solos and group numbers. The old men at the bar, grizzled and smiling, are speechless. Songs like "Islands in the Stream," "School's Out" and "Ballroom Blitz" compete with the Madonna catalog for ear space. The girls scatter about, mixing with the locals. They're all pretty hammered now, sweaty in their costumes, singing with a slurring ferocity. Beth Breidenstein arrives from her waitressing job, and is seen dancing to every song mastered or butchered by the crowd. Jim Mush, Sandy's husband, does a punk version of Madonna's "Borderline," ending the song with the threatening and funny admonishment: "I told you this shit was gonna be fucking dope!" Cass Cafe regular Heather White shows up to join the girls in their takeover of the Comet. The night gets loud, blurry and tired.
1:45 p.m. The Madonnas make it back for last call. The costumes are a bit ratty, the makeup not so perfect. They hook up an iPod, dance and drink some more. The commedia dell'arte is ending, but they're thinking ahead for next month. "Maybe first ladies. How about first ladies?"
May's Wig Night is yet to be announced, but anyone interested in more info or getting involved with the group can e-mail Sandy Mush at firstname.lastname@example.org.Dan DeMaggio is a freelance writer. Send comments to email@example.com.