October 31, 2010 at 1:00 am

Donna Terek: Donna's Detroit

Theatre Bizarre lives on

Theatre Bizarre moves to The Fillmore-2
Theatre Bizarre moves to The Fillmore-2: Theatre Bizarre moves to The Fillmore-2

Theatre Bizarre. For years the name was like a secret password for those in the know. For the cognoscenti of Detroit, the words evoked a fire-lit carnival fantasy world that, Brigadoon-like, appeared for one night a year the weekend before Halloween — and then went dark until its next conjuring.

It was an underground thing. The fantastical masquerade party wasn't advertised; you just had to know that tickets would be on sale at Detroit's Dally in the Alley street fair and a handful of retail stores. Each of the ten years it's been reappearing — technically eight, since there was a two-year hiatus and this is its fourth year back on track — it's gotten bigger, growing from 2,200 tickets sold last year to 2,700 this year that sold out in two days.

Sounds like a success story — except this was the year Theatre Bizarre almost didn't happen. The day before the event Detroit city officials shut the venue down.

History

Theatre Bizarre started out as a backyard party thrown by John Dunivant, 39, and Ken Poirier, 45, at Poirier's house on State Fair Rd. across from the now defunct Michigan State Fair grounds.

But, as Poirier says, "John is a dreamer." And each year the devotee of all things carnie envisioned more elaborate props and sets that required more space. As Poirier began buying up the houses and lots on his block, they began to have enough contiguous back yards to build structures that looked like a Hollywood back lot for a film about a haunted carnival midway. This year they added Frontier Town and a ferris wheel.

Ken Poirier, 44 now living in Hazel Park, is the property owner and jack-of-all-trades that supervised the build-out of Dunivant's elaborate vision.

As the years went on, Theatre Bizarre became more than an over-the-top Halloween party. It became a community of creative people who perform there, volunteer to build and decorate the sets, and in some cases, live there in houses surrounding the carnival grounds. What they all share is a love of fantasy, and especially Dunivant's fantasy of carnival attractions and sideshow freaks and the back story that Theatre Bizarre is a figment of the imagination of a fictional serial killer who "occupies" one of the houses on the grounds.

"I've always been amazed and humbled by the amount of people that have volunteered and helped out and the community that has grown around Theatre Bizarre," says Dunivant, who lives with his wife and daughter in Lathrup Village.

When Dunivanat and Poirier began throwing their party at Theatre Bizarre they didn't intend anything to be permanent. They thought they'd scrap whatever they'd built for one year's event and come up with a different theme the next year and start over with new temporary props and structures.

"But because of my love of sideshows and carnivals I wanted to continue the Theatre Bizarre theme," says Dunivant. "And I thought it would be more fun to build on something rather than to tear down and start over each time." So the three performance stages and the above-ground "tunnels" joining areas of the grounds remained intact from year to year.

The city gets involved

No city permits were ever pulled and no code inspections occurred.

But the week before the party they heard from Mayor Dave Bing's office. Someone had finally lodged a complaint and the city could no longer allow Theatre Bizarre to fly under the radar. The health department contacted Poirier and Dunivant about getting a temporary liquor license and they began "jumping through the hoops" with a mere four days to go.

"We knew some of the issues we were facing and one of those was the sale of beer" says Dunivant. "We were informed a long time ago that if you sell tickets and give away beer it would fall under the clause of a private membership or club situation. So we always gave away beer."

Their assumption was wrong; they needed the license. But to secure the license they also needed approval from the police and fire departments.

They didn't think getting approval from the police would be a problem because they've had a solid relationship with their precinct.

When Poirier first moved there the neighborhood was something of a war zone with abandoned homes turned crack houses.

"There was constant gunfire," says Dunivant, as drug dealers and gangs took over abandoned houses. Sometimes gun battles would break out in the alleys. "We were lying on the ground as bullets would ricochet over our heads."

Now many of those abandoned houses have burned down — or been incorporated into Theatre Bizarre and the drug trade has moved on.

"And we would watch the houses burn... and it was constant until there was pretty much nothing left, " Dunivant says. "It became neglected; it became a dump. And we've been cleaning up that dump." As properties came up for auction the partners purchased them amassing eleven in all and six houses, all occupied by members of their community.

"This precinct loves us," says Dunivant. "They've seen us grow over the years and they know how we've transformed this neighborhood. They've said that this district is the safest in all of Detroit directly as a result of us."

Even so, the day before the party as city officials were inspecting the grounds, Dunivant's van was stolen and that night one of Theatre Bizarre's residents was mugged on his way home from the party store a couple blocks away.

But, "it all comes down to the fire marshal," says Dunivant. "He walks onto the property and without even really looking at it he says 'there's no way.' I mean he was on the driveway."

"I hoped that he would realize this is no fly-by-night operation. There's an incredible amount of care and consideration put into this. And the direct result of that is we've never had a problem in the ten years we've been here."

According to Dunivant and Poirier no ticket holder has ever been injured at Theatre Bizarre.

But city officials took the conservative route and ruled the party couldn't happen on the premises. The news was devastating.

"We panicked. We were emotional. We were heartbroken. He came in and crushed us," says Dunivant.

"But we're carnies," he says, "and the show must go on."

This was Friday. They scrambled to find another venue so their ticket holders would still get their party. By midnight that night they had struck a deal with The Fillmore Detroit (formerly the State Theatre) in downtown Detroit.

By noon Saturday "everything that wasn't nailed down" was loaded onto trucks and caravanned to The Fillmore where a tenacious crew of volunteers transformed the concert venue into an indoor version of Theatre Bizarre.

Of course, it was a severely scaled-back version. Instead of three main music and performance stages featuring 15 bands the new venue offered only one main stage. So the roster was cut to five bands interspersed with burlesque and sideshows.

A small stage at the rear of the main floor accommodated smaller acts and the lobby hosted acrobats and suspension acts. Other acts like jugglers and illusionists, a stilt walker and the Detroit Party Marching Band wound their way through the crowd much as they would have worked the carnival midway on Theatre Bizarre's home turf.

The party was a bit shorter too, running from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m. making a short night for those used to stumbling wearily away from the magical midway at dawn.

The party

"If both parties had gone on, one at Theatre Bizarre and one at The Fillmore, the one at The Fillmore would have been the second best party of the year," said Mark "Pants" Leszczynski who has attended the party for the past few years . "But, was it as good as it would have been at Theatre Bizarre? No. But was it awesome? Yes, it was absolutely awesome."

In fact there were no long faces at The Fillmore that night. Revelers showed up in droves that made it almost impossible to move at times. And no one seemed to hold the organizers responsible for the venue change. If there was any grumbling at all it was directed toward the city officials that had tried to throw a wet blanket on the proceedings. But Theatre Bizarre's fire couldn't be stanched — in fact, it didn't even flicker.

Pegi Marshall teaches scenic design at Wayne State University's Hilberry Theatre and had brought her graduate students to see the grounds at Theatre Bizarre. "I think it's amazing for a last minute transition from an outside performance to an inside performance," she said at The Fillmore Saturday night. She pointed out the lack of the camaraderie of people grouped around a bonfire that couldn't be simulated in an indoor space. In fact, none of the usual fire juggling acts could perform.

"It's different — yeah," said performance artist Satori Circus who's played Theatre Bizarre for the past four years. "But the intensity is still there; the love is still there. Being a part of the creative Detroit is still there. It's just odd. Kind of like eating soup with a fork."

Certainly, for long-time participants nothing could match experiencing Theatre Bizarre in its original location; that said, the capacity crowd seemed to be having a very good time.

In spite of its success, Dunivant still refers to Saturday night's fete as the "wake we had at The Fillmore" because in his mind the true Theatre Bizarre resides on State Fair Rd. That's why the marquee at The Fillmore read "Theatre Bizarre presents Zombo on Ice" referring to Zombo the clown, the embodiment of the spirit of Theatre Bizarre.

Money?

For those who look at the $65 ticket price and do the math and conclude this is a huge money-making venture, think again. Most years the event lost money and some years broke even. "Last year was the first year we actually made some money," says Dunivant, "and we paid everyone in the core crew. It wasn't much and it wasn't what anybody deserved. But the overhead and expense of a one-night theme party like this is tremendous." Add up the build out, renting tents and toilets, buying 120 kegs of beer, printing tickets and flyers and paying bands and other acts to perform and the money goes pretty quickly.

Theatre Bizarre is an LLC (limited liability corporation) and last year, because they made money, they paid taxes. "I want to be legit," says Dunivant. This year they had hoped to do better, but they had to pay the staff and insurance at The Fillmore on top of their expected expenses. They don't yet know where they stand financially.

"It's not about making money," says Poirier, "It's about enjoying ourselves doing what we love to do and making enough money to be able to do that."

What's next

Monday after Zombo on Ice the city posted a "STOP WORK" order at the property and sent a letter demanding all tents and port-a-johns be removed and all non-permitted structures be removed — by Thursday. Since then Dunivant and Poirier have been working the phones and got a month's extension.

Poirier and Dunivant say the outpouring of support from fans and business owners they know has been overwhelming. One look at their Facebook page confirms it.

"I know I sound like such a buzz kill," says Kimberly James, Director of Buildings and Safety Engineering and Environmental Department that handles inspections and building permits. "It's not that the city doesn't want people to have fun, but it's pretty dangerous. We couldn't in good faith allow it to continue.

"It's completely illegal. It looks like an amusement park and you can't have an amusement park in a residential neighborhood. You can't put a ferris wheel in your backyard," she said.

"If it were just art and they weren't trying to throw a big party it would be different. But if they were able to get appropriate zoning and pulled permits for what they build they would be fine.

"The city is totally open to it," she said. "We just want the public to be safe." James has invited Poirier and Dunivant to meet with her next week.

Could the city create a special zoning category for artists who take over underutilized properties and redevelop them in unconventional ways? Dunivant is putting together a portfolio of materials to show the city the worth of what they are doing and hoping for the best.

Meanwhile, Ken Poirier is eyeing the former State Fair Grounds across the street, as he has for the past ten years, and thinking what an incredible year-round theme park could grow up there if the state would agree to team up with them and financial backing could be found.

"I hope that we would be able to do this for the rest of our lives, make these props, make the carnival John's always wanted," Poirier says.

He acknowledges that Dunivant is still emotionally attached to the home base, but he says, "I know that John could turn any environment into an amazing space. I have no doubt he could do this anywhere."

Now I know some of you are saying to yourselves, "Come on, it's only a party — okay, a really great party — but really now, why all this fuss?"

Truth be told, Theatre Bizarre is much more than the party itself to Dunivant and Poirier and their carnival family. It's the process, the collaboration among the members of this creative community. The party gives all this artistic energy a focus and a deadline — and it's the pay off, of course, for all the hard work.

"I love spectacle and I love this place," says Dunivant. "The party is a means to an end so we can build an environment unlike any other.

"The party is a goal and huge celebration," he says. "But the party is over in an instant, and to me it's about being able to build something beautiful — and build something that everyone else told us was impossible — with people that I love."

To see John Dunivant beam as he watches a couple thousand people reel with pleasure as they enter into his vision — and play right along — that's to know Theatre Bizarre.

Lianna Trimble of Hamtramck and Matt Surline of Detroit, take a spin around the floor of the Fillmore. / Donna Terek / The Detroit News
Andrew Stoicu swings poi in The Fillmore's lobby as entertainers ... (Donna Terek / The Detroit News)
John Dunivant, of Lathrup Village, is the artistic visionary behind ... (Donna Terek / The Detroit News)