Theatre Bizarre Looks Forward with Film

The creators of the underground Halloween party known as Theatre Bizarre have spent the better part of the past decade transforming a section of a blighted, burned out neighborhood in the City of Detroit into a one night carnival. With stages, a roller coaster and even a Ferris wheel, Theatre Bizarre is a circus sideshow come alive. That was until city officials shut it down last fall. WDET’s Rob St. Mary recently caught up with the creators, who call their concept “the greatest masquerade on earth”, to talk about the future of their creation.

(click the audio link above to hear the story)

Much like the tale of Doctor Frankenstein stitching together and animating his monster from various spare parts…

“I created it. I made it with my own hands from bodies I took from graves… from the gallows… anywhere.”

Theatre Bizarre’s creators John Dunivant and Ken Poirier did much the same thing. But instead of body parts, their raw materials were blighted houses and vacant lots near the State Fairgrounds.

“(thunder) and “it’s alive!!”

And in turn, the duo brought something unique to Detroit: an annual underground party that took months to plan, thousands of dollars to stage, hundreds of hands to create, one night to hold and would give the 3,000 or so attendees something to talk about for years to come.

And again, like Doctor Frankenstein’s Monster as Theatre Bizarre grew its creators’ got in trouble.

"(sound of villagers and the Monster grunting)"

John Dunivant says the roots of Theatre Bizarre came from two different parties he and co-founder Ken Poirier hosted. Eventually, the pair merged their parties and ideas around 2000 and started to bring their visions to life around a house Poirier owned near the State Fairgrounds.

“Then it went for about five years, to a point where we kept pushing it… and it was too big… too hard… we were taking months off work… and just for a one-night Halloween party. So, it kind of blew up on us… and we stopped for a couple years. We didn’t know whether or not… what we were doing… if it was for good or what… and then… we came back started again four years ago… and then we got caught. (laughs).”

Co-organizer Ken Poirier says the pair got caught when the City of Detroit’s buildings and safety engineering department learned about their little theme park… which was built without proper permits and OK of city government.

“That’s because the city of Detroit employees feel that they are headed in the right direction… they are trying to make a difference and unfortunately, we are paying the price for that. They didn’t understand what they were shutting down… a lot of them regret it now. They would have liked to have seen this just go on. But unfortunately the cats… it’s out in the open.”

Last year’s party at the grounds was cancelled about 24 hours before the event. But a smaller version of the masquerade took place in-exile at the Fillmore Theatre. And during this time of upheaval there was someone filming it all. Gary Bredow is a Detroit area documentary filmmaker. He says while the history of Theatre Bizarre will be in the film… it’s the human story that’s fascinating to him.

“Just how close and tight knit a group of adults can really be. Me and friends… my close friends are kind of spread out kind of doing their own things… families. These guys do everything together and it’s not like… some of them are actual family, but “the family” itself… the family environment is incredible to me. We’re talking upwards of a hundred people that get together and do all these things together all year long... and they do camping trips, and they do Thanksgiving and Christmas and people live on the grounds. It’s just amazing to see that kind of unity around something that there’s so many different opinions about.”

While the debate continues at city hall around whether or not Theatre Bizarre can return the party to their hallowed, Halloween grounds… Poirier says the issue with code enforcement is just another hurdle.

“We’ve had lots of hurdles in past… big, big hurdles. Freezing cold weather, downpours of rain, gun fights in the backyard – nothing has stopped us, so far. So, I don’t… I don’t foresee that we are going to quit.”

Poirier says one way to keep Theatre Bizarre alive is through the new documentary. On Thursday evening, fans can get a look at a trailer for the new film… and ticket sales will help fund its creation in an event at the Crofoot in Pontiac. Dunivant says he hopes fans, friends and supporters will come out.

“Celebrate with us… what we have been doing… and hopefully, support them on the documentary. They’ve got a huge hurdle ahead of them editing this monster... and there’s tons and tons of hours of footage and piles of photos and so much stuff to sort through that it’s going to be a long road for them.”

The producers say that road could lead to a premiere for the Theatre Bizarre documentary late next year. As for this year’s Halloween party… Poirier says he and Dunivant could announce something soon. But at the same time… the pair is working on a long term solution to keeping Theatre Bizarre in Detroit for years to come.

“We’re talking to quite a few different people and this not a lot the city can do for us, it’s more on our side and it is a huge undertaking in order to make this completely legit, but there’s more and more people who are believing in us every day… and the whole thing behind this movie is that it would show what we do… it’s our portfolio on the big screen and I think that that will definitely get some attention and hopefully the right person will come knocking on the door.”

Looking forward, Dunivant and Poirier say they realize the creativity, money and sweat that makes the “greatest masquerade on earth” possible is too big for just one night once a year in Detroit.

I’m Rob St. Mary – WDET News.

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