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Sex, art and carnies: Detroit's Theatre Bizarre

This past weekend, more than 2,000 people in Detroit attended the annual, one-night-only masquerade called Theatre Bizarre.

The event transforms the city’s Masonic Temple into a dream world of S&M, punk rock, grandmothers in leather and carnival sideshows.

For weeks in advance, an obsessive crew of volunteers and staff put their outside lives on hold, give up on regular sleep, and create a seven-story, sensory overload ode to dust bowl-era P.T. Barnum magic.

Credit Kate Wells / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Welcome to Theatre Bizarre.

There’s a campy dominatrix room where you can be chained, whipped, or spanked, though most visitors choose to just giggle and hoot at whichever brave friend is taking one for the team.

Still campy, but less giggly, are the massive glass cages where performers like Rick Rayne, of Saginaw, hang suspended from hooks in their flesh.

“It’s definitely painful,” says Rayne, in what may be the understatement of the evening. “It’s not for everybody. But you just breathe through it. It is what it is.”

Best of all is the stage dedicated to world-class burlesque performers of various races, genders, ages and body types.

There are strange, gothic strip teases, with intricate costumes, Bride of Frankenstein motifs, and professional polish  – it’s more Hitchcock than Hooters.

In all, Theatre Bizarre reportedly boasts some 350 performers, from a Devil emcee character to old-timey carnival barkers to the members of 17 different bands who play until the party wraps at 4 am.

Bringing one artist's twisted obsession to life

The end effect is feeling like walking into the twisted fantasy of some strange artist.

Credit Kate Wells / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Zombo the clown is a part of the internal Theatre Bizarre narrative.

Which is true. His name is John Dunivant, and every square inch of Theatre Bizarre is his work.  

From the dim red lighting to the limited color palette, to the signs he painted by hand, Dunivant’s signature is obvious, even if you’ve never met the guy.

For Theatre Bizarre-first timer Matt Taylor, the buzz around Dunivant is part of the reason he convinced five of his friends to come this year (they’re fast learners, though, fitting right in with costumes ranging from “undead Shriner” to one guy’s fastidiously detailed nun getup.)

And so far, Taylor’s impressed.

“We were here for like 10 minutes, and then we realized that we were going to come here every year after this,” he says.

“[Dunivant’s] drawings and his sketches sort of come to life. And what I see, it’s unusual because it’s an open party, anybody can get in with a costume. But you look around and there’s a lot of people with costumes that sort of mimic his own art. Which is incredible!”

Credit Kate Wells / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Party-goers pour months into their costumes, many of which pick up on the Theatre Bizarre theme.

You can tell people have poured months into these costumes, from Edwardian dresses to steam punk time-travelers to vampy lounge singers.

As for Dunivant himself, he says he’s still getting used to seeing total strangers pick up on his vision…and then build on it.

“To see people that I’ve never met, and I go, you look like you came from this world, but I didn’t design you! That’s like, surreal.”

As a shy artsy kid growing up in suburban Detroit, Dunivant’s family would take road trips to tourist ghost towns and see dioramas of old fashioned circus sideshows. 

For Dunivant it became an obsession, a way to escape the white bread world.

Let's put on a (illegal, underground, probably dangerous) show

So years ago, he got some buddies to help him build these massive carnival sets for Halloween parties.

That eventually become a full-blown, underground, illegal street carnival.

When the city eventually closed it down, Theatre Bizarre, as it’s now known, moved to the Masonic Temple.

Now, once every year, thousands of real people come to play in the once-imaginary world Dunivant dreamed up.

Which, he admits, took some getting used to.

“At first, I felt violated. It’s like, get out of my head! When I imagined this abandoned carnival, I didn’t picture thousands of real people walking around. I mean it’s an amazing thing to be some goofball, designing this weird thing and having people respond the way that they do. And people are grasping that and creating their own characters that feel like they came from this world. It’s world-building.”

Each year, Dunivant tries to build on the theme, advancing Theatre Bizarre’s internal narrative.

One of the many handmade signs that play on ritual and worship. Dunivant paints every sign himself - although this year, he is letting his mom help out with some of the base paint. But no one else.
Credit Kate Wells / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
One of the many handmade signs that play on ritual and worship. Dunivant paints every sign himself - although this year, he is letting his mom help out with some of the base paint. But no one else.

  This year, the Masonic Temple, with its creepy rituals, secret symbols, and cultish vibe serves as a commentary on religion, says Dunivant.

“The man made nature of it. It’s man trying to struggle with his own fears.”

When asked whether this might not be a rather heavy theme for a Halloween party, Dunivant shrugs it off.

“Yeah, I’m not really interested in Halloween parties. I just want to make stuff.”

Not everybody who goes to Theatre Bizarre is going to walk away reflecting on man’s relationship to religion – more likely what a weird party this is.   

And that’s ok with Dunivant.

This can be just a fun escapist night that pulls in everyone, from drag queens to suburban couples to a couple of 70-something grandmothers, one of whom was in a leather S&M one-piece, cuffs and all.

What matters is that she had the imagination (and, ok, the legs) to pull it off.

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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