Theatre Bizzare Gets A Nod from the New York Times

Detroit Reins In an Annual Halloween Revelry
Mary M. Chapman
New York Times

The arts community here is abuzz over the potential dismantling of the site of Theatre Bizarre, an 11-year-old party and macabre neighborhood carnival that is part Ringling Brothers, part “Dawn of the Dead,” and features makeshift rides, punk rock bands, over-the-top costumes, a haunted house, burlesque sideshows and other performances, some of them involving fire.

Its success may have been its undoing.

Each year for the past decade on a Saturday just before Halloween, as many as 3,000 revelers have clogged an east side residential neighborhood — whose blight and desolation complement the leitmotif — all for a funereal fantasy festival. Advertised by word of mouth, the outre masquerade has always danced under the radar of official Detroit.

That is, until this year. On Oct. 22, the day before the party, its founders, Ken Poirier and John Dunivant, learned of possible ordinance violations, including the failure to obtain a temporary liquor license. The event was moved to the Fillmore Detroit, a mixed-use entertainment site downtown. Mr. Poirier, an out-of-work home renovator, said the place was packed.

“People appreciated the fact that we didn’t quit,” he said. “We didn’t give them the environment that we have at the Theatre, but we gave them a show.”

A few days later, citations for other code violations were issued, requiring quick compliance. Otherwise, the site will be razed.

“It’s a pretty unusual situation,” said Kimberly James, director of the city’s Buildings, Safety Engineering and Environmental Department. “There are electrical wires all over the place. Somebody could get hurt on a carnival ride.”

To some residents, Detroit’s move to shut down the popular underground bash signals a commitment to law and order. To others, it symbolizes a disconnect with a burgeoning creative class in a city battling to reinvent itself.

Mr. Poirier, 45, said that he had always tried to be lawful, but that he would not fight the orders. Instead, he plans to pull the all-night party above ground, moving it across the street to the State Fairgrounds, which lost its fair last year because of state budget problems.

A permanent location could help the venture become profitable, Mr. Poirier added. As it is, the proceeds from ticket sales pay about 300 entertainers and 100 other workers.

“It’s sad that it had to happen this way, but it was inevitable,” Mr. Poirier said. “We pushed it as far as we could, the way we were growing.”

Some 700 people attended the first Theatre Bizarre, which was financed mostly with credit cards. Now, the site comprises nearly a block of the backyards of houses owned by Mr. Poirer, and mostly occupied by Theatre participants. One of those residents is Flec S. Mindscape, who juggles fire and also eats it.

“I have rolling-fireball scars,” he said with a chuckle, “But this is a great crew of people who appreciate circus art, juggling and magic. I’m very upset by what’s going on now.”

Mr. Dunivant, a freelance illustrator who conceived the Theatre and designs many of its stages and props, is “heartbroken” but philosophical. “We couldn’t have gotten away with this anywhere else in the world except Detroit, the city we love, because they just weren’t paying attention,” he said of city officials. “Now, they are paying attention.”

Some say unduly so. Ed Gardiner, a television producer and events promoter, had planned to host a Halloween party in his Detroit studio. That is, before a visit by the fire marshal. Unable to afford permit fees, he moved the event to a suburban hotel.

“They keep saying they want to attract a creative class to the city, but they squash everything that comes up,” Mr. Gardiner said. “There’s no understanding of the arts community here, and artists are the only ones doing anything.”

After the scandal-plagued administration of Kwame Kilpatrick, Mayor Dave Bing vowed to restore order and stability. That includes an uptick in ordinance enforcement, said Dan Lijana, a spokesman for Mr. Bing.

“We were supportive of them having their event, and we are going forward,” he said of the Theatre. “You just have to follow procedures and zoning requirements.”

At the site of the Theatre Bizarre this week, Mr. Poirier and a handful of others were surveying the work ahead. A Ferris wheel stretched above a six-foot wooden fence.

“You know, I’ve watched all the houses in my neighborhood burn down. I saw a school stripped right next door,” he said wistfully. “In the meantime, we were just trying to do something here a little fun and exciting.”


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