Growing pains at Theatre Bizarre, Detroit’s former underground Halloween party

The event has gotten bigger — but some longtime crew members have left amid allegations of a ‘cult’-like atmosphere

click to enlarge Zombo the Clown is the skeletal mascot of Detroit's Theatre Bizarre, an "immersive" theatrical event dubbed "The Greatest Masquerade on Earth." - Josh Justice
Josh Justice
Zombo the Clown is the skeletal mascot of Detroit's Theatre Bizarre, an "immersive" theatrical event dubbed "The Greatest Masquerade on Earth."

Earlier this month, Zombo the Clown made his triumphant return to Detroit’s Masonic Temple. The ghoulish character is the mascot for the long-standing Halloween festival Theatre Bizarre, which had been called off since 2019 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Dubbed “The Greatest Masquerade on Earth,” the event draws more than 2,000 attendees from near and far to two sold-out weekends. Tickets sold for $125 apiece this year for the general admission events on Saturday, with exclusive Friday night gala tickets fetching $300.

Theatre Bizarre’s devotees include its crew of some 1,500 workers and volunteers who help transform the already grand Masonic Temple into an even grander carnival, an “immersive” theatrical experience with multiple floors of entertainment including live performances from fire-breathing acrobats and musical acts like horrorcore rapper Esham, BDSM-themed rooms, and over-the-top costumes. In metro Detroit, it’s not uncommon to see cars with orange Zombo bumper stickers, and attendees and crew show their devotion by crying out “Hail Zombo!” in a call and response.

But some cracks appear to be forming among that crew. A number of longtime members have resigned or plan to resign after this year, Metro Times has learned, including the award-winning burlesque performer Roxi D’Lite.

One of the most visible faces of Theatre Bizarre, D’Lite announced her resignation from her role as the co-producer of its Dirty Devil’s Peepshow burlesque stage in a Facebook post just days before the event. The announcement accompanied a photo of D’Lite posing with Zombo, his arm around her neck.

“It is with a heavy heart that I have to make this announcement but after about 17 years of dedication to Theatre Bizarre I have resigned just 10 days from show,” D’Lite wrote. “This decision to leave was one not taken lightly and I am devastated.”

She didn’t offer many more details, but urged her fans to continue to attend the event and support the show that she helped produce. “I will miss you all, my favorite audience in the entire world and so many of my dear friends in this community,” she added.

click to enlarge Award-winning burlesque performer Roxi D'Lite announced she quit her role at Theatre Bizarre days before the event. - Screengrab, Facebook
Screengrab, Facebook
Award-winning burlesque performer Roxi D'Lite announced she quit her role at Theatre Bizarre days before the event.

D’Lite and at least one other stage manager resigned after complaints had been leveled against Theatre Bizarre’s stage director Casey Miller regarding what has been described as a “pattern of behavior,” including treating cast and crew disrespectfully and using his power in the production to give preferential treatment. Another burlesque performer, Kate Nickerson, wrote in a series of social media posts that she dated Miller starting in 2008 when she had just turned 18 and he was a decade older, a consensual relationship that she now sees as exploitative. D’Lite resigned after her husband Dante Wildern was fired from the production for criticizing Miller and Theatre Bizarre management in a now-deleted comment under one of Nickerson’s posts, writing, “they don’t give a fuck. They push out the people who speak up. Myself included. Never thought that would happen.”

D’Lite declined to comment on the record to Metro Times, other than to voice concerns about publishing a story before the event so as not to disrupt it. Wildern and Miller also declined to comment.

In an email, Theatre Bizarre creator John Dunivant acknowledged that Wildern was fired after criticizing Theatre Bizarre and Miller on social media, but denies that others were “pushed out.”

Wildern, who is also a singer who goes by Charlie Champagne, had been a fixture at Theatre Bizarre since he was a child, and Dunivant even officiated the marriage between Wildern and D’Lite. Dunivant tells Metro Times he is “deeply saddened at the loss of these two as friends,” adding that he found the situation “heartbreaking.”

Theatre Bizarre is the artistic vision of Dunivant, a painter and sculptor who was designated a Kresge Artist Fellow in 2011. The event started as an underground party at Detroit’s former Michigan State Fairgrounds in 2000 and grew in popularity by word of mouth — eventually drawing increased scrutiny from city officials, who in 2010 shut it down a day before it was to start, citing code violations. Organizers made an 11th-hour arrangement to move Theatre Bizarre to the Fillmore that year, and the event has called the Masonic Temple home since 2011, where it has continued to grow, expanding to two weekends.

But current and former crew and volunteers who spoke with Metro Times allege that despite the higher profile, the event is still run in many ways like an underground party. While live entertainment company AEG Presents entered into an exclusive agreement with the sprawling Masonic Temple complex in 2019 to operate and book its two music venues, the Masonic Temple Theatre and the Cathedral Theatre, Theatre Bizarre is a private event not under its purview. The Masonic Temple, a secret organization run by the fraternal order of the Freemasons, did not respond to a request for comment.

Dunivant has eschewed corporate sponsorship in order to maintain his artistic vision for Theatre Bizarre, though at the cost of greater financial stability. He has long claimed the event does not turn a profit, and says all money brought in pays the team staff and provides a stipend to the volunteers, entertainers, artists, and operational costs.

For its many workers, it’s a labor of love.

“Theatre Bizarre is a high-stress, fast-paced environment with massively talented creative personalities to navigate,” Dunivant says. “With an event of this magnitude, vision is key. With creativity can come conflict, especially when over 1,000 people are involved.”

click to enlarge John Dunivant at the old Theatre Bizarre site in 2010. - Doug Coombe
Doug Coombe
John Dunivant at the old Theatre Bizarre site in 2010.

A gothic beacon

Kate Nickerson says she first became involved with Theatre Bizarre in 2008, when she was 17. An aspiring musician and burlesque performer, she says she was immediately enchanted by the production, which transformed six lots near Detroit’s old Fairgrounds into a veritable Halloween theme park for what was then a one-day event, with carnival-like signs and attractions that had been weathered to look old and decrepit. Dunivant and his crew even came up with an elaborate fictitious backstory that alleged Theatre Bizarre was the site of Detroit’s original State Fair, but like many other things in the city had been abandoned over the years.

The grounds also became a sort of bohemian artists colony where Theatre Bizarre crew lived year-round, including Miller. Months after she turned 18, Nickerson says she began a relationship with Miller and moved in with him. She says she had dreams of becoming part of the Theatre Bizarre crew, and got a role as a stagehand for D’Lite, as well as a gig performing as a character during a wrestling event held on the grounds. Her character was a doll.

“I was a human marionette, which, I don't know, what a fitting, unfortunate metaphor, eh?” she says by phone from Pennsylvania, where she now lives. “Casey is the one who came up with my tagline, ‘Detroit’s living doll.’ And it’s so ironic.”

She maintains that the relationship was consensual, though she now sees how the difference in their ages, as well as Miller’s power within Theatre Bizarre, created an asymmetrical and controlling dynamic. Miller referred to himself as her manager, she says, but would date other people and not allow her to do the same. “We were living in the same house, and sometimes I could hear him sleeping with other women through the floor because our rooms were right next to each other,” she says.

Nickerson says she went along with the arrangement for years, which she described in an Instagram post as being “emotionally and psychologically abused.”

“It was a lot,” she says. “I was 19 and I desperately wanted to be a part of that community. I wanted more than anything to be part of Theatre Bizarre. I mean, it’s beautiful,” she says, choking up with tears, adding, “It’s a beautiful party. It’s magnificent art.”

The grounds drew all sorts of other like minded young people, Nickerson says. “There’s a reason why people like me show up, because when you put out a call for volunteers, you get every goth teenager in Detroit who wants to be a part of Clown Town,” she says.

“It’s this constant, ‘Are you good enough for Zombo, are you good enough for Theater Bizarre?’ sort of mentality ... because it’s what makes people work hard for free.”

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“And honestly, I think that’s the thing that is so rewarding and beautiful about Theater Bizarre, is the way that the volunteers come together to make something bigger than themselves,” she says. “It makes you want to be a part of it. It makes you see it as a community. It’s a Theater Bizarre family, but the thing about family is that sometimes your family members do serious shit, and you have to come to terms with whether or not you want to be part of [that].”

Eventually, Nickerson made the decision to leave Miller and Theatre Bizarre, an experience she likens to leaving a cult. She says she feared being ostracized by her community.

“It’s scary as shit to come out against Zombo,” she says, describing a work hard, play hard culture in which the crew seemed to be in a perpetual contest to see who was the most dedicated. “It’s just like, well, ‘How many years have you been around? How many hours have you worked? Well, how old are you? How much do you smoke? How much can you drink? How hard can you party?’ It’s this constant, ‘Are you good enough for Zombo, are you good enough for Theater Bizarre?’ sort of mentality that is being pitched because it’s what makes people work hard for free.”

She adds, “It’s just a real boy’s club. And the boy at the top is John Dunivant.”

When Metro Times tried to contact other Theatre Bizarre crew and volunteers for comment, we encountered a cloud of paranoia. Word of our inquiries spread quickly, and a number of workers even accused Metro Times of being a spy sent on behalf of Dunivant to root out dissenters. Most would only speak off the record out of fear of retaliation, including litigation. (Dunivant says the only person who has been threatened with legal action was Wildern “in a heated moment” during his firing.)

“Let’s just say our priorities grew apart and I look forward to having more of my time back to pursue my own creative efforts,” said one longtime worker who was planning on leaving after this year. “Yeah, I know that’s super PC. I’m not here to stir up shit.”

Another longtime worker who requested anonymity out of fear of retribution said, “I quit this year and won’t be back. Not only do I not feel safe or protected I feel exploited by a crew I loyally served.”

Others insisted that only a very small number of people were leaving for various reasons, including doing the event for many years, and claimed that they had not heard of any major issues behind the scenes.

“I mean, it’s really intense,” admits Daniel Land, who has been working at Theatre Bizarre since the State Fairgrounds days and now runs its in-house movie theater, dubbed the Sinema. “Watching it grow into a much more, you know, thoroughly organized and meticulous organization is something that I have seen, and I gotta imagine that leads to a lot of headaches and could lead some to burnout.”

Another long-time worker who requested anonymity in exchange for candor says she plans on quitting because of the culture.

“The energy of it is very cultish,” she says, adding that she believes the environment is ripe for “grooming.”

“You got these young people that want to be a part of a group,” she says, adding, “These youngins, they’re so loyal to these older folks.”

click to enlarge Theatre Bizarre attendees and crew show their devotion to the event by saying, "Hail Zombo!" - Josh Justice
Josh Justice
Theatre Bizarre attendees and crew show their devotion to the event by saying, "Hail Zombo!"

From the underground to HR

Dunivant says that new this year, a human resources role was created within Theatre Bizarre to try to mediate internal conflicts, a position that was created by a dedicated volunteer.

Petra McAninch, a longtime friend of Nickerson who joined the production around the same time as her and rose through the ranks to become stage manager of the Crystal Ballroom, says she resigned this year after bringing concerns about Miller’s “pattern of behavior” to Theatre Bizarre leadership, including the HR person.

McAninch says Theatre Bizarre leaders have long preached a “see something, say something” culture and a “zero tolerance” policy for harassment, which emboldened her to speak up.

Aside from Miller using his position in Theater Bizarre to manipulate performers, other concerns McAninch voiced included accusations of misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia. McAninch, who came out as transgender during her time at Theatre Bizarre, says Miller continued to use her former name and pronouns, and laughed about it. When she asked Miller to stop, she says he responded with a shrug. McAninch also says she saw Miller speak to D’Lite disrespectfully, and says other women have complained about his behavior, with at least one performer requesting to not be left alone with him.

But McAninch says shortly after she brought up the concerns to Theatre Bizarre leadership, Miller texted and attempted to call her, indicating that the concerns had been brought directly to Miller. At that point, McAninch says she feared retaliation.

“At the time he was very much still my boss,” McAninch says. “He was my direct superior in the company. And there’s certainly, in my opinion, a conflict of interest and danger to letting the accused immediately know that something is accused, even before a formal HR complaint is even filed.”

McAninch says she then had a nearly three-hour phone call with Theatre Bizarre’s HR contact, detailing the pattern of behavior and asking for Miller to be removed from the show out of concern for the safety of performers. When it was clear Miller would not be removed from the production, McAninch says she decided to resign, just days before the event.

Dunivant says Theatre Bizarre management investigated McAninch’s complaint but found no other crew members who could corroborate the claims. “We’re saddened by Petra’s departure; she was a key asset to the success of the stage she managed,” Dunivant says.

In her resignation letter, McAninch agreed to stay on in some capacity to help keep the production running. The dedication to the production is the thing that unites all Theatre Bizarre crew, she says — which she thinks is why so few others have voiced concerns.

“I think one of the factors in people not speaking up is the fact that there is, in my opinion, a culture of exclusivity and in many ways of elitism, that you get to be part of this show,” McAninch says. “There are many performers who’ve worked on the show below their usual rates. ... I will say, as a person working in theater as a stage manager, it is at a lower rate than I would usually be comfortable with or entertain, personally.”

She adds, “I haven’t done that show for the money for a very, very long time.”

Another factor that prevented McAninch from speaking up was the fear of losing her community, she says.

“I absolutely had fear that if I spoke out there were people who would never speak to me again,” she says.

“This has been my community for a decade and a half,” she says. “It is absolutely heartbreaking to have things end this way, and to see a very dear friend of mine [Nickerson] not have been able to feel safe or comfortable in this space for years. And it took a lot of processing for me to realize how safe I didn’t feel, and I think the transphobia I experienced articulated it to me in a way that made it so much clearer that I no longer felt safe.”

McAninch thinks there could be another reason other crew members aren’t speaking up, too.

“I think when the dynamic of your party is a fake cult, or a pretend cult, as it were,” she says, “I think it may have the side effect of sort of rubbing off into reality.”

click to enlarge A burlesque performer at Theatre Bizarre. - Josh Justice
Josh Justice
A burlesque performer at Theatre Bizarre.

Building a better Fistotorium

Metro Times also learned of issues with one of Theatre Bizarre’s BDSM-themed rooms, a dungeon called the Fistotorium that features a dominatrix. In past years, consenting attendees lined up to be spanked by the dominatrix, or even have hot candle wax dripped on them.

But the attraction was very popular, and consent can be hard to establish in a large crowd of people who might be intoxicated. There was some sort of incident during the 2018 event, with Theatre Bizarre parting ways with the previous dominatrix and her crew, bringing in a new performance troupe the next year. It’s not clear what happened; some rumors say the dominatrix was hurting guests even after they asked her to stop, or was using language that was beyond the pale, or was intoxicated. Dunivant acknowledged that Theatre Bizarre severed ties with the former troupe, but would not say why, only that it did not involve an intoxicated dominatrix.

This year, a new system was introduced in which attendees could only gain access to the Fistotorium if they had tokens, but some told Metro Times that it was not clear how to get the tokens. With tickets to the event costing a pretty penny, they said they felt cheated for not gaining full access to the event.

“We’re always looking to improve the guest experience,” Dunivant acknowledges. “The Fistitorium and the areas surrounding the space are key attractions, which leads to congested areas, as so many want to experience the space.”

To try to mitigate the crowd, Dunivant says a reservation system was created to disburse tokens with a time stamped on them so attendees could stagger their entry into the Fistotorium.

“The idea was to move people away from just lingering in the hallway waiting to get in and move them out into the rest of the building to enjoy other attractions,” Dunivant says. “We did fail in better communicating to our guests how that reservation system would work.”

Dunivant says he has seriously considered all criticisms that Theatre Bizarre has faced. Previously, he told Metro Times that this year’s Theatre Bizarre almost didn’t happen. A number of crew members were divided on whether to continue this year due to COVID-19.

In the end, it was decided that the show must go on.

“I take all of these accusations to heart as this isn’t just a production or a party,” he says, “it is my life’s work and I take the care and safety of this community very seriously.”

Portions of this story regarding D’Lite’s departure and concerns about COVID-19 were edited.

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About The Author

Lee DeVito

Leyland "Lee" DeVito grew up in the suburbs of Detroit, where he read Metro Times religiously due to teenaged-induced boredom. He became a contributing writer for Metro Times in 2009, and Editor in Chief in 2016. In addition to writing, he also supplies occasional illustrations. His writing has been published...
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