It began nine years ago in Ken Poirier’s backyard. John Dunivant, the mastermind behind Theatre Bizarre, approached Poirier about using his desolate West State Fair property, directly behind the Michigan State Fairgrounds, for a Halloween party the likes of which Detroit (or anywhere else) had never seen before.
“I have John’s nightmare in my backyard!” laughs Poirier, who has graciously hosted this annual Halloween party for an ever-growing number of adult revelers every year since 2000. And, let’s not forget the small fact this elaborate Coney-Island-as-imagined-by-Rob-Zombie carnival set up haunts the 'hood behind his house year round.
This annual fete, which has grown to a staggering 2,200 people, began as a simple bonfire. “We each had our own Halloween parties going on,” Poirier says of he and Dunivant. “We had about 100 people at each of our parties every year. Mine was just a bonfire in the backyard."
The same backyard that now features three stages where 250 performers from all over the state and region will entertain throughout the night. “Then John came to me with this idea to build a set. He showed me his drawings and we went for it. As soon as the stage was built and a few of the set pieces were up, I saw it was WAY bigger than I imagined.”
And it keeps getting bigger every year. For Saturday's event, advanced ticket sales (oh yes, it's sold out) have increased by 500, up from 1,700 in 2008. The organizers have expanded the property to accommodate the extra bodies and set pieces. “We own so many properties in this neighborhood now I’ve lost track,” Poirier says.
It's more than just a legendary party. Through the years, Theatre Bizarre has transformed the surrounding neighborhood. “When we started, there were literally wars going on behind the house,” explains Poirier. “The houses that were destroyed we purchased, and friends came over and helped clean up the neighborhood by getting rid of trash, tires, even abandoned cars.”
Poirier and co. were investing in this otherwise severely blighted neighborhood, and put in tremendous amounts of time, energy, and money to improve it. “The neighbors love us, even though we torture them every year!” he jokes. “They understand what we’re doing here and they love it. Some even come to the party.”
Their monumental efforts have helped rebuild a neighborhood and create a strong community, but even still they hold the safety of their guests in the highest regard. “We have 24 security guards surrounding the perimeter for the party. We take people’s safety very seriously.”
And no expense is spared on that or on anything else. Every year organizers spend massive amounts on entertainment alone, ensuring that the quality and amount of perfromances people enjoy is nothing short of top-notch. “People are getting a MINIMUM $100 show with the amount of entertainment we provide,” Poirier states, but people are willing to pay much more than that just to get through the gates -- tickets for this year’s sold-out show are selling on craigslist for up to $150 a piece. If that sounds like a lot, consider this: last year’s production took in about $70,000, but it cost $70,500 to put on…and that doesn’t even factor in other expenses like electricity bills and property taxes.
Dunivant, Poirier, and the many other people involved have succeeded in creating something legendary. Theatre Bizarre has become local lore, with those “in the know” talking about it excitedly all year long. With a theme best likened to a turn-of-the-century carnival -- complete with such sideshow acts as burlesque dancers, sword swallowers, fire breathers, suspension acts, a 30-piece marching band, and hundreds (HUNDREDS!) more, as well as elaborate construction sets including a demented marquis reminiscent of 1930’s era Coney Island, sideshow banners, and an endless array of eye-popping spookshow sights -- it is no small wonder that this party has gained such a fervent following.
But Theatre Bizarre also creates a community, both for all the costumed partiers on the night of the event (and NO ONE is admitted without a costume) as well as for the people who toil year-round to keep it going.
“The only thing that has kept me going is the people who come out every year to help,” Poirier explains (after being asked if he’s out of his mind?!?). “They come out in the cold and rain and stay until 2 a.m. every day, then they come back the next year to do it again. It just makes you realize that you’re doing something special and makes it all worth it. I wouldn’t be able to do it without them, no way.”
About 20-30 talented artists and skilled laborers (such as Poirier himself, who is a builder by trade) play integral roles in getting the show prepared every year. “Everyone finds their niche. Some people aren’t good at building but they maintain our web presence. Everyone can contribute.”
All of the set pieces are built and painted by the group, costing tens of thousands of dollars in materials. And they still have yet to turn a profit. This is a true labor of Detroit love…but seriously, are they out of their minds? “It’s an addiction,” Poirier says simply. “You hope that someday someone will notice and will think it is the greatest thing ever, that something good will eventually come from it. But ultimately it’s about the people who come out and help us and the people who come out and have fun. Halloween is the one day of the year adults get to be kids.”
The Theatre Bizarre grounds are surreal, like a nightmarish Disneyland. “It’s like Cirque du Soleil except everyone is in the act.”
This year’s headlining performers include Roxi Dlite, Child Bite, the Psychic Fetus, Crud, plus dozens more. The grounds have been expanded and new sets include new sideshow banners, a new and improved marquis, and the return of the Roaster Coaster.
Someone once said to me, “This could only happen in Detroit.” Thank Beelzebub for that.
For more, click http://www.myspace.com/theatrebizarre. Theatre Bizarre will be held on Saturday. Check craigslist or eBay for tickets; otherwise, better luck next year.