Preview: Theatre Bizarre: The Greatest Masquerade on Earth


Theatre Bizarre

Fanning the flames at Theatre Bizarre. Photos by Trever Long.

Theatre Bizarre, the "greatest masquerade on earth," returns to the Masonic Temple in Detroit this month for elaborate, extravagant, eerie debauchery. The annual event has grown in size enormously since its origin as essentially a backyard Halloween party 17 years ago and now takes place across eight floors of the Masonic. The brainchild of mastermind John Dunivant, Theatre Bizarre previously took place in an abandoned area near the Michigan State Fairgrounds before being unceremoniously shut down by city officials in 2010 (before that, they’d been kicked out of the Russell Industrial Complex). Now completely legal, the Masonic seems to be the perfect home for the event, and this year, for the first time, organizers have expanded it to take place across two weekends rather than just one.

Part circus, part carnival, part burlesque and fetish show, and part, yes, masquerade, Theatre Bizarre is unlike most parties taking place this time of year. Illusionists, carnival acts, dancers, musicians, and spontaneous theatrics greet attendees around every turn, along with mind-bendingly detailed scenery and exhibitions. Last year, a "Ghost Train," lit by a single strobe light and conducted by a silent masked man, took guests on a careening mini-roller coaster ride around the Masonic's foggy seventh floor, while several floors below, burlesque dancers emerged from the mouth of a giant devil and strutted down a long catwalk. Elsewhere, taxidermy animals held court over long buffet tables, mimes and jugglers moved among the crowd, and acrobats leaped over furniture. The Grand Ballroom is often the largest room at the Bizarre, and in previous years has been filled with an array of carnival games, treat stands and sideshow performances, including an ice cream shop serving Theatre Bizarre-inspired flavors.

Attendees are required to come in costume; in fact, you'll be turned away at the door with no refund if you show up in street clothes. Costumes run the gamut from homemade affairs, cobbled together from secondhand store finds to expensive, custom-ordered creations. You won't find Captain America or Minnie Mouse wandering around Theatre Bizarre either; the emphasis is on costumes that are weird, satanic, sexy, occult, eerie and/or decadent.

Theatre Bizarre firewalker

Fire walk with me.

There are four separate Theatre Bizarre events this year, two Gala Masquerades on Fridays and two Historic Theatre Bizarres on Saturdays. The more expensive Gala Masquerade is a formal masquerade ball with a maximum attendance of only 450 people. Dinner and drinks are included in the ticket price, and formal attire, along with masks that conceal one's identity are a must. Guests can enjoy a cocktail reception, strolling dinner, pockets of entertainment around the Masonic, and dancing. The main Theatre Bizarre event takes place on Saturdays, and is less formal, although many still include masks in their costumes. This event is much larger, with attendance pushing 2,000, 5 separate main stages, and 20 performance areas, all of which remain active until the event closes at 4 am.

Theatre Bizarre is particularly unique for its lack of corporate sponsors. Dunivant and those he works with to create the event are artists, and don’t want logos interrupting the world they create or jolting visitors back to reality. Putting the event on at the Masonic is no easy feat: not only do sets and architectural features need to be built elsewhere and reassembled on site, but the wiring in the building is so old that Dunivant and his co-creators run the risk of frying it if they used it to support the electrical demands of the show. Instead, cables and wiring—thousands of feet of them—have to be routed through back hallways, walls, and vents. But Dunivant keeps making it happen every year, and hundreds of devoted attendees are glad. Still, who knows how much longer they’ll be able to pull off this outrageous event, so if there’s ever a year to go experience the magic, this is surely it.

Elizabeth Pearce is a Library Technician at the Ann Arbor District Library. She is super excited to wear a giant horned headdress to Theatre Bizarre this year.

Theatre Bizarre takes place October 14-15 and October 21-22 at the Masonic Temple in Detroit. Tickets range from $95-$260 and can be purchased online, where you can also find out more information about the event.