When I told my friend Danny that my band had been invited to play Theatre Bizarre, his eyes bugged out of his head and he let out a very serious, “Duuuuuuuuuuude…”
He struggled to explain exactly what Theatre Bizarre was. Something about Halloween, and crazy costumes, and performance art… It was the party of the year in his hometown of Detroit, and he promised it would be unlike anything I had ever seen.
Over the course of the next year, every conversation I had with Danny was dedicated to him overselling the madness of Theatre Bizarre. I was worried that I’d show up and be let down.
My fears were unfounded.
I guess the history of the festival is something like this: Some local Detroit artists and performers started putting on an annual Halloween party, which gradually grew and took over multiple city blocks full of abandoned buildings. Thousands of people turned out every year to see the fire breathers and contortionists and to ride the rickety D.I.Y. ferris wheel, but eventually the city caught wind of the event and shut it down. The organizers bounced back, went legit, and Theatre Bizarre lives on to this day.
The event is hosted at the Detroit Masonic Temple, a massive, 16-story, neo-gothic behemoth which is worth a tour on its own. In a city like Detroit, which has seen so much of its gorgeous architecture fall victim to economic collapse, it was inspiring to see the polished wood, the immaculate floors, and the preserved stone and metal details standing defiantly against the surrounding urban decay.
But the building was simply the backdrop. Theatre Bizarre stretches through seven floors, each with multiple rooms and bars and balconies and performances. The idea is simply to wander from floor to floor and room to room and get lost in the insanity.
One ballroom was specifically for dancing, with tall candelabras and jack-o’-lanterns and jars full of free candy on the tables bordering the enormous dance floor. One ballroom was chiefly used for live bands, with a long catwalk protruding from the stage so various freak show acts could perform while the bands changed over. There was an ice cream parlor giving out cups of Absinthe-mint. Another smaller room named “The Sinema” was screening vintage pornography, complete with free popcorn and giddy uniformed ushers.
The “Peep Show” room delivered on its name’s promise with elaborate burlesque performances hosted by an emcee with one clouded-out white eye. The “Fistitorium” was a full-service S&M dungeon, with a girl being spun around on an upright wooden wheel, a bald dude confined to a cage offering foot worship to anyone willing to trust him with their extremities, professional dominatrices doling out whippings, and a set of thrones occupied by people in masquerade masks silently overseeing it all.
The “Asylum” was a tall cathedral with two 15-foot Satanic…you know what? I can’t possibly describe all of it. People suspended by hooks threaded through their skin. Women with flaming hula hoops. Contortionists and nudity and a weird marching band and a train ride through a pitch-black auditorium lit only by strobes. Pure sensory overload.
And the attendees did not take the “costumes mandatory” dress code lightly. So many intricate, homemade creations that had clearly taken days to plan and execute, mixed in with the professional creepy carnies roaming throughout the complex.
The night flew by in an instant. The entertainment in each room changed so frequently that I never knew whether to stick around or find out what I was missing elsewhere in the building. And when it was all over I couldn’t even wrap my brain around what I had just experienced.
It was indeed the party of the year. It was indeed unlike anything I’d ever seen. Danny: you couldn’t have been more right.