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My Look Inside Theatre Bizarre's "The Initiation"

by Rob St. Mary

I just wanted to share a few thoughts and photos from my experience at last night’s Theatre Bizarre “The Initiation”.

My evening started around 7:30pm when I arrived at the Masonic Temple with my girlfriend, Mary.

When we arrived, most of the rooms and floors were not yet open to the revelers. But within about a half hour the stages, lobbies and hallways came alive.

On each of the seven floors – the sub-basement through the third floor which included a mezzanine on several levels – had a minimum of at least one stage. Most had two. The stages and rooms were designed for a particular performance or theme.

The Asylum

For example, the Dirty Devil's Peepshow was burlesque, the Asylum was for bands and the Odditorium was for suspension and other physical acts. The Grand Hall in the sub-basement also featured bands and fire performers. Attendees commented to me that even as late as 2am they were still discovering new rooms, hidden places and little treats throughout the seven floors taken over by Theatre Bizarre.

Walking around the Masonic Temple, I was stuck with the beauty of the building itself. The design, the symbols and the environment of this architectural marvel and how it was conducive to feeling like you were in another place and time.

Layering in dramatic lighting and John Dunivant’s sideshow inspired art took the Masonic Temple one step further, setting up a feeling of being in another world. From my conversations with Dunivant and others, this wasn’t an easy thing to pull off. Theatre Bizarre’s co-creator and his crew of volunteers had about two months to design and create most of the stages, pieces and artwork for “The Initiation”. Miles of red satin banners featuring a "star and eye" logo of some made up "secret society" streamed down most of the balconies.

Hundreds of red lights replaced the usual bright whites in the fixtures on each floor bathing the walls and floors in crimson. The handiwork of the artist was evident everywhere. In fact, I even saw Dunivant's hands in action early on. When I arrived to find a seat before the dancers started at the Dirty Devil's Peepshow, I caught a glimpse of two well-dressed men on the stage looking up to someone near the top of the proscenium. They were talking and handing pieces of gaffers tape to someone just barely out of sight to most of the audience.

From the right angle, you could see John Dunivant hanging upside down in the mouth of the Devil stage opening he designed. He was rigging up a string of lights. While everyone else in the Masonic Temple was dressed for Dunivant's “greatest masquerade on earth”, he was dressed in workman’s clothes and carrying a walkie-talkie to communicate with the folks pulling the strings behind the scenes.

While bands provided a broad range of music – from folk to punk to jazz to techno – there were various performers offering circus sideshow fare. From suspension – people hung by various hooks dug into their skin – to fire eaters/performances and burlesque. The multiple stages moved smoothly all night and offered attendees a chance to see a broad range of high and low-brow entertainment.

Beyond the stages, "people watching" was a spectacle unto itself. Metro Detroiters came dressed in all manner of costuming. Some took the ideas of presented on the invite card to heart – a late 1800s/early 1900s masquerade – and dressed accordingly.

Others found contemporary disguise more to their liking. I ran into about five different versions of Hunter S. Thompson, several iterations of “The Dude” from “The Big Lebowski” and one of the most unique group efforts was a complete Viking ship in which each member of the team had a section of the cardboard boat attached to their hips.

But zombies of all stripe ruled the night. Recent and long dead cultural figures like a zombie Steve Jobs, a zombie Muammar Gaddafi and even a zombie Laura Ingalls Wilder pranced and danced. The elevator operator who shuffled celebrants between floors was also an impeccably dressed zombie wearing work garb of someone who would have held that position, quite possibly at the Masonic Temple, in the 1930s.

Several conversations swirled among the attendees last night. Some waxed nostalgic for “the grounds” – the place where Theatre Bizarre sprang to life a decade ago. The grounds are in the middle of a neighborhood of vacant, blighted houses across from the Michigan State Fairgrounds, and in a way, Theatre Bizarre is kind of a funhouse mirror on the family fun and wholesome good times of that now defunct institution. The grounds are where co-creators John Dunivant and Ken Poirier built their dark carnival featuring stages, a midway, a roller coaster and a Ferris Wheel over the past decade before being shut down by the City of Detroit about a day before last year’s event for various code violations. The attendees talked of great times at the grounds and how this event, although grander in scale and, maybe even, ideas could never match the past experiences at the annual outdoor party.

The people I talked to had a broad mix of experiences with Detroit's annual Halloween event. Some had been attending Theatre Bizarre for years when it was an illegal, underground party and continued to support the vision. Others had only heard stories of the past events from friends or through the media and last night finally had the opportunity to experience it in the flesh. But regardless, the smiles and cheers from the crowd showed a singularity of positive feelings for the new vision of Theatre Bizarre in “The Initiation”.

Meanwhile, the future of Theatre Bizarre’s disputed homeland – "the grounds" – seems uncertain. Will the City of Detroit tear it down? Will the creators ever be able to host another party at the environment they created on State Fair near Woodward? Will Theatre Bizarre continue to stand as a piece of inspired art to be visited and repurposed in some way; for example, possible TV or film productions? These questions have yet to be answered. But one can guess the discussions inside the event's creative team over the next few weeks will more than likely center on how last night went from an entertainment and financial standpoint, and if Dunivant and Poirier can and will stage another Theatre Bizarre party at the Masonic Temple next year. Some attendees said a rumor was going around that evening, before “The Initiation” had even ended, that a 2012 edition might not be in the cards. If that is the case, it wouldn't be the first time “Zombo”, the Pagliacci-like mascot of Theatre Bizarre, has returned to his crypt to contemplate the future and plan his next moves. Theatre Bizarre took a few years off in the mid-2000s. But, I think no one who was there last night can dispute that the Masonic Temple is the premier indoor location in Detroit for the kind of total immersion of art, music and performance that John Dunivant and Ken Poirier seek to create.

Leaving last night’s party around 3:30am, I continued to be impressed with the great halls and beautiful architecture of "the largest Masonic Temple in the world" and thought to myself, why haven’t I been to more events inside this magnificent jewel of Detroit? Maybe last night’s celebrations by costumed revelers created in honor of the spirit of the zombie clown, Zombo, will help to breathe renewed life into one of the Detroit’s greatest architectural achievements. Even if Theatre Bizarre never returns to where the city’s Freemasons have called home for almost 100 years, the echos of last night's party may ring through those marble halls for years to come.