When Burlesque Bible was lucky enough to interview Reigning Queen of Burlesque 2010, Roxi D’Lite, she told us an intriguing story about an underground party that had emerged in a derelict neighbourhood in Detroit, which is described as ‘the greatest masquerade on earth.’ With Halloween approaching we could think of no better time to share that story with you.
Theatre Bizarre is my most special, magical, insanely-unbelievable place on earth and it helped shape me into the performer I am. Theatre Bizarre is an art installation on the outskirts of Detroit. It’s in a dangerous part of town in a dangerous city. It’s the grandest masquerade in the world. It’s also completely illegal. Theatre Bizarre was created by award-winning artist John Dunivant and Ken Poirer and constructed with the help of hundreds of loyal volunteers. A decrepit Detroit ghetto was reclaimed by residents and converted into a carnival complete with a Ferris wheel and roller coaster. There are two permanent stages, dozens of sideshow banners, lighting booths, a midway and it’s all outdoors. Crack houses were converted into haunted houses and the grounds now occupy an entire city block. Everything comes alive each Halloween for a costume party unlike anything you could ever imagine. And despite being in plain sight, Theatre Bizarre operated entirely outside of the law for more than a decade. You can’t just build a carnival in a residential neighborhood but it’s Detroit and the cops had worse things to worry about. People live on the grounds throughout the year like an artist’s commune and you can still hear gunshots going off in the surrounding area but nobody messes with Theatre Bizarre. I think there’s a respect for people willing to stand their ground and do something good in the name of art.
The entire aesthetic of Theatre Bizarre is the result of Dunivant’s fascination of circus history and sideshow attractions. Dunivant’s intention is to give people “the feeling of being in the presence of divinities and demons but presented with the shameless audacity of a carnival barker—gods as seen by the godless.” The New York Times called it, “part Ringling Bros., part Dawn of the Dead” and the Detroit News called it “a hallucination held in common by a group of people.” It’s so complex and there is so much to love about every aspect of the grounds. Nearly 3,000 people attend the party and everyone wears elaborate costumes, very few are store bought. The audience really takes their time when putting together their look for the evening. There are resident characters at Theatre Bizarre most of which are inspired by John’s artwork and come to life by a very talented seamstress Nichole Davila. Despite never taking a sewing course, she designs all of the characters’ costumes to match the aesthetic of Theatre Bizarre. Davila, Dunivant and I created my Queen of the Cooch act last year for Theatre Bizarre. Unfortunately, Detroit city officials shut Theatre Bizarre down last year just one day before the party.
Theatre Bizarre became a victim of its own success. It became too big for officials to continue turning a blind eye. After all, it is an amusement park in the middle of the hood. Once word got out the grounds were shuttered and hundreds of people showed up to help move marquees, banners and props to an alternate location. Theatre Bizarre is currently in exile but we are all trying to save it. The grounds are still there, but until Theatre Bizarre and the city officials work things out the annual party will be held in large venues. Even while in exile Theatre Bizarre will still be the best party of the year, but it’s just not the same. I think it’s important for the Theatre Bizarre fans to still support and attend so we can continue to fight to reclaim our home. You can learn more about Theatre Bizarre by going to their website and watching the trailer for the documentary which is near completion. Theatre Bizarre gave me a stage to grow on and a talented group of people to learn from. I love that place so much.
I am a HUGE fan of Halloween. Being from the Detroit area, Halloween is taken very seriously. Detroiters treat Halloween the same way most people treat New Year’s Eve. Every year, we celebrate Halloween the week prior at Theatre Bizarre but unfortunately this year there was a scheduling conflict and it kills me that I will be out of town. I’m still helping out at Theatre Bizarre by booking the burlesque talent and guiding the performers. I’ll even swing a hammer or two or black wash a banner wall if that’s what they need. Halloween night, I hope to celebrate in Detroit with the Theatre Bizarre family. Last year a few of us ran around Detroit dressed at Theatre Bizarre clowns and had a great time and ended it by going to the grounds for a private gathering by the fire and a ride on the Ferris wheel.
Find the full interview with Roxi in Burlesque Bible Volume Two
For more on Roxi click here
For more on Theatre Bizarre click here