On a picturesque autumn evening nipped with a chill, the sky over Detroit is streaked with blood-red tinges of pollution. In a quiet neighborhood across from the Michigan State Fairgrounds, the whir of electric power tools and the crisp smell of a bonfire fill the brisk air.
Beyond a ramshackle green barricade, the din increases. Towering structures straight out of one of Tim Burton’s nightmares loom over a row of tame suburban-style houses. A city-issued recycling bin brims with rotting bones and skulls. Vladimir, a fat black-and-white tabby, gleefully sharpens his claws on a tombstone. A handful of men scurry back and forth, immersed in the construction of a living, breathing nightmare.
Welcome to the makings of Theatre Bizarre.
The morbid vision of a group of artists, educators and counterculturists, Theatre Bizarre is a one-night multimedia extravaganza of frighteningly over-the-top proportions. For months on end, a group of friends have toiled over this endeavor, investing large sums of out-of-pocket money into creating a twisted hybrid of a haunted house and the traveling circuses of yesteryear. The end result resembles the bastard lovechild of P.T. Barnum and Hieronymus Bosch.
Now in its third year, Theatre Bizarre has exploded from its once humble beginnings — a group of friends throwing extravagant Halloween parties in their homes. After putting their heads together, Specs Howard instructor Scott West, freelance illustrator John Dunivant and UAW facilitator Matthew Pomroy decided to combine their individual parties and create one enormous Halloween event. They hooked up with friend Ken Poirier, who owned a stretch of three houses on State Fair Road.
“After talking to Ken about using the space and what we could do with it, he just kind of told us to go crazy with it,” says Dunivant.
The group brainstormed for a concept theme, finally settling on the idea of a hellishly haunted Big Top.
“There’s something dark and mysterious about old traveling carnivals that we wanted to capture here,” says Dunivant.
They set forth by sketching satanic-eyed clowns and began construction of a rotting, decrepit midway.
“Everything looks old and like it’s about to fall down,” says West, “but it’s all new wood that’s been painted and aged. We weather everything to make it look like it’s been here forever and on the verge of collapsing.”
The guys also wanted to add live entertainment to the mix — plenty of it. In addition to booking local talent, Theatre Bizarre has imported unique and, well, bizarre performers from across the country. This year’s event will feature almost a dozen acts, including Detroit’s own Thrall and Fire Fabulon, a performance of Night of the Living Dead (The Musical), a fire-breathing diva by the name of Lucifire - imported from the U.K. - and the “house band,” the Gruesome Harvest Orchestra.
The event has gained such a buzz that organizers were forced to turn away bands this year. One of the acts even pleaded, “We’ll play for free — we just want to be on your stage,” according to West.
Scott Kodrik of Thrall, who played the event last year as well, describes it as “Probably the biggest and best Halloween fiasco that I have ever attended — a lot of great bands, circus freaks swallowing swords and fire, naked midgets running around everywhere. I’d have to say it was one of our all-time favorite shows we’ve played through our tour.”
Theatre Bizarre is now a permanent installation on Poirier’s plot of land; the haunted house is unoccupied, and remains coated with blood and body parts year-round. Although portions of the stage are torn down, many structures stay up for the entire year. And the guys report they’ve never received complaints from neighbors.
“They don’t seem to mind,” says West. “A lot of the neighborhood is either fascinated by it or a little intimidated by it. People who walk by will often walk on the other side of the street.”
The group then launches into a story about a young boy who came over to investigate with his mother; the boy became so frightened he threw up in the driveway. The guys laugh uproariously.
What distinguishes Theatre Bizarre from other haunted attractions?
“They suck,” the group heartily agrees in unison. “They don’t have any design sense — they have no attention to detail — they throw up some plastic tarps and a mask and it’s lame,” rants Dunivant.
The Theatre Bizarre crew firmly believes their macabre creation is a work of art.
“This is like one big installation piece to me,” says Dunivant, who uses terms like “palette” and “contrast” when discussing a room mired in pools of gore and severed limbs.
West says they’re all “artists in one form or another, and it’s more of an artistic endeavor than just making props for a party.”
“We want it to be a whole multimedia experience. It’s about the craft — it’s about dance, theater, music, lights, sound … this is just one big work of art.”
When asked if they are part of the Detroit art community, the guys speculate that they hover somewhere around the peripheral edges.
“I think we’re a little too lowbrow for them,” ventures Dunivant.
“Well, fuck ’em then!” West replies jovially.
And there are two other distinctions: First, costumes are mandatory for admittance. Second, make sure it’s a fairly warm costume, as the entire event takes place outdoors. There will be a heated tent and a bonfire to chase away the chill, but the guys advise everyone to dress appropriately for the weather.
Theatre Bizarre doesn’t come cheap; this year’s budget tops out at a staggering $50,000 — which mostly comes out of the organizers’ pockets. They’ve managed to scrape up a few sponsors, maxed out their credit cards, pushed advance ticket sales and now will cross their fingers and pray to break even.
In addition to the financial investment, the crew pours countless hours of backbreaking work into the project. Dunivant, the freelance illustrator, simply doesn’t work for three months while he devotes himself full time to the project. Others with full-time jobs still manage to put in plenty of hours, cramming in time on nights and weekends. The closer to production date, the longer the days and the higher the stress levels.
“That last week we just don’t sleep,” says Dunivant. “Then we all just hate each other.”
So why invest all the time, effort and money for a project that causes gray hairs and may not even break even?
The answers from a group of workers huddled by a space heater are varied: “It’s better than watching TV.” “It keeps me out of trouble.” “I’m in it for the chicks.”
“It totally kicks our ass while we’re working on it,” says Dunivant. “But it’s a reward in itself to see how it turns out,” West finishes. “We’re very proud of it.”
The group also hopes to one day expand their venture into even greater proportions, like creating a haunted theme park.
“This is a very small percentage of what the real Theatre Bizarre could be one day,” says Dunivant.
“Yeah, we want to buy Dollywood,” someone in the shadows says with a laugh.
Above all, the Theatre Bizarre crew simply wants to scare and delight the living hell out of every last person who attends.
“There’s nothing else like this in Detroit. It’s the most creative event you’ll ever go to,” says Dunivant.
“We can explain and describe it as much as we want, but until you actually come here and experience this, it’s hard to comprehend,” adds West. “We hope you’ll think this is the greatest Halloween party you’ve ever been to.”
Theatre Bizarre happens Saturday, Oct. 26 at 967 W. State Fair Road in Detroit. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit www.theatrebizarre.com.Sarah Klein is a Metro Times staff writer. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org