Relive the unique spectacle of Theatre Bizarre 2014 – starring Roxi D’Lite, Dirty Martini, Angie Pontani, Julie Atlas Muz and Russell Bruner – through the eyes of flamboyant burlesque photographer Neil Kendall…
When my burlesque pal Roxi D’Lite and I had an post-party chinwag last summer at the Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekend in Vegas, the subject of me going to Theatre Bizarre came up. “Neil, you would love it; it’s so up your street and it will give you a chance to meet my Theatre Bizarre family and see what a freaky kid I really am!” Hmm, Theatre Bizarre…
Like me you have probably seen the images of Theatre Bizarre posted online: dimly lit tobacco stained carnie banners, demonic clowns leering through showgirls’ legs, spectacle with a dark twist, and high above it all Roxi D’Lite herself, a satanic mistress preaching to her loyal subjects inside a hula hoop made to look like a spider! In short it looks irresistible. Being the producer of some of the UK’s biggest Halloween events over the last ten years and a complete Halloween freak myself, the answer was a no holds barred “Yes!”
One and a half years later on October 15th 2014 in downtown Detroit, amongst abandoned office blocks and burnt out homes, I am standing before the imposing Detroit Masonic Temple stretching majestically above me to a slate grey sky; a tribute to Detroit’s once booming economy. It feels so cinematic. A dead snake is left on the steps – is that an omen, I wonder? The Masonic Temple is an endless labyrinth of some 1500 mainly abandoned rooms. It is the world’s largest Masonic Temple and the layout, complete with hidden corridors, halls and anti chambers, would give Lara Croft asthma. It’s clearly the star of the show and has been ancestral home to the Theatre Bizarre team since the city closed down their former site on an old showground: a kind of carnie apocalypse of life-sized ghost trains, side shows, giant devil heads all housed inside a series of abandoned crack houses. A step up? Maybe not – the old place looked like a riot when they showed me pictures.
Clearing security, which is tight here, I enter through an ominous old metal door. It’s like entering a tomb. Within the deco lobby artist extraordinaire John Dunivant and his team are manically preparing for Theatre Bizarre; this year it’s The Illusionists’ Ball. Model maker and designer Dante, a latter day Ray Harryhausen who came as a 12-year-old child and never left, is adding finishing touches to the beautiful miniature models of the aforementioned showground which will form a glass encased display in the lobby. John Dunivant, the mastermind of the operations, is painting a giant clown head, and Roxi D’Lite comes running up amidst all the frenzied activity and she is like a child on Christmas morning beaming with pride. Today she is to be my tour guide. “See – I told you so” is written all over her face. It’s all rather impressive.
Burlesque is a vital ingredient in Theatre Bizarre and the performer guest list this year is a who’s who of Miss Exotic Worlds and the crème of rising burlesque talent. “It’s a big deal to be asked,” says Roxi, who is curator of the infamous Dirty Devils Peepshow. “We just want to put on the best show we can.” The peepshow is one of over twenty different events which take place within the Temple. Dead bell boys in 1920s costumes in green lit elevators speed us up to the Dirty Devils floor; it seems everyone is in character and committed to it here. Floor number five is the Fistatorium and Asylum; as we glide past, Roxi raises an eyebrow. “Anything can happen this weekend.” Though I am quite eager to see the Ghost Train on floor nine that Tigger! and everyone else has told me about in so much detail, we disembark at floor six.
Beneath the glare of a giant imposing art deco devil that looks like he has been flown in from a 1930s Busby Berkley musical, the Dirty Devils girls will do their stuff. The devil’s forked tongue forms a wooden runway which the girls will perform on. “We coated it in a special paint with sand so it grips,’’ Roxi tells Angie Pontani, Miss Exotic World 2008, who is the first to reahearse; I think there was a casualty last year. As the performers trundle in for tech runs there is excitement in their air; we are all fascinated and really excited to be here, and exploring ten floors of Halloween inspired mayhem is on everyone’s agenda.
Backstage, 24 hours later, following a sumptuous dinner at Julie Atlas Muz’ mum’s house, here we are. I am unpacking cameras, champagne and my mariachi suit in a dressing room with Dirty Martini (“Anyone else on their period?”), Julie Atlas Muz (“Me too, we are all synced!”), Roxi D’Lite (“Who’s got the walkie-talkie now, Darcy?”), and Angie Pontani (“I am thinking of doing this new step tonight which is kind of like a frog hop, but sexy!”). Everyone is on great form and the chatter is non-stop. Darlinda Just Darlinda and Russell Bruner join the mix and it’s like a school reunion.
Over the two nights that Theatre Bizarre will run, these gals will perform in front of over 5000 revellers. As Roxi dons her warpaint she fills me in on Theatre Bizarre. “We are a family – it is really like my family here. I have been doing this event for years and have grown with it. We spend all year working on this event and it’s a highlight for me to see it all come together, it really is. It’s like getting to play.” Like a demonic Disney cast member Roxi etches black mascara tears beneath her eyes before she unpacks a skeleton, and for a moment the tension of performing a new act with Zombo the Clown creeps into her mind… and she is still again. They haven’t had time to rehearse the tango moves and it is seriously worrying to her that she may get dropped “or flung into the crowd”. Zombo is the key to the mythology of Theatre Bizarre. He is an evil clown “with a dark soul” and everything we see and experience this weekend will be of his making, and, says Roxi with a smile that would ice a lake, “you are now in his mind, Neil.” I swig on the Grey Goose she carries in a Theatre Bizarre flask… this is going to be good.
Before this party gets started I head out to the darkening Detroit skies to see the guests arrive. They are greeted by a sheer fire curtain illuminated by gargoyles over the main door and a sea of masqueraded guests snake away into the distance, and clowns, fire acts, and the fire brigade – who someone has called saying the Temple is on fire – keep the crowds amused. Inside, a giant animatronics mermaid, a 1930s mentalist, a strong man, a knife juggler and an omnipresent Zombo who appears magically, looking through doorways, over balconies and under stairwells, are the unholy welcoming party, and like a rollercoaster ride it begins…
In the main room Dirty Martini performs her legendary Zorita spider number in which she is caught in a sequinned web and disrobed by spider hands, and Angie Pontani channels her inner Blaze Starr with a high octane bongo drums number and a 1960’s beehive wig which RuPaul would be proud of. “It’s all about Blaze, Neil. It’s an act I brought out for this event but it’s so… hokey.” There’s a set aesthetic which runs all the way through Theatre Bizarre and everyone has brought an act which captures the darker spirit of the event. It’s a liberal dash of Halloween kookiness, one part 1950s exotica, and a light garnish of zombie flapper. It’s as though a lurid 1950s B-movie has sprung into life in livid Technicolor and its plot is sheer lunacy.
Julie Atlas Muz is laughing: “I hardly do my drunk showgirl act, but Roxi loves it and really wanted it.” Angie agrees: “I never do the jungle number but they really wanted that too.” Back upstairs, web packed away, Dirty is sewing leopard fabric to her gusset in a spectacular Headhunter costume complete with glowing eyed skull and feather headdress. She has rushed back upstairs with me to get on in time for the second of three further numbers she will perform tonight. “Neil, hold this – I cant get purchase.” As I discreetly hold the fabric to her inner thigh with my lens cap she concurs, “This is so beautiful, it’s like being in a dream isn’t it…”
Experienced Theatre Bizarre guests head straight to Dirty Devils to get their fix of girls and guys. There are continuous shows from 9pm – 2am. Over twenty performers will slither down the devil’s tongue runway in rotation and the action doesn’t stop. We all get to watch from the balcony, and amongst the more eye-opening acts are the only boylesquer Russell Bruner in a cut away brief which confirms what Kitten Natividad once whispered to me (“He has a cock like a beer bottle!”) and Julie Atlas Muz’ Witches number – you’ll never see mice in the same way again. Somewhere between the burlesque, the champagne, the shows and Julie’s mice, I feel euphoric. It’s like being in, well, Zombo’s brain, and in an instant I get it: this is showmanship at its best. Enthused, I even slip inside the Fistatorium but can’t fit in; you have to be quick here I see.
Downstairs, I promised Roxi I would catch her ‘Zombo Reborn’ act and catch her if she falls. We get to go down a secret passageway in the darkness to avoid the crowds which now occupy all floors, and for a minute it’s like being in Hogwarts but for grownups. Moments later, straddled over a wooden coffin, Roxi is paraded above the heads of partygoers in couture widow’s weeds, mourning the loss of her husband Zombo. It’s a spectacle: wailing mourners and a somber band follow her in the bizarre funereal procession, and audience members continually weep and call out. Everyone is enrolled and I wonder if I, too, am about to join the cult of Theatre Bizarre. By this point there is no turning back. Whirling around on stage, Roxi’s devilish dance culminates in a striptease on top of the coffin, and the fast paced gyrations inevitably bring Zombo back from the dead with gusto – man, that Zombo can move fast for a Zombie Clown. The two of them fly into an insanely fast paced acrobatic act, which sees Roxi spun, rotated, flipped and flung upside down by the maniacal clown. Darcy, Roxi’s significant other, is screaming “All hail Zombo!” as Roxi is flung so perilously close to my camera that I smell her perfume and her hair whips my cheek leaving three tiny scars. It’s a highlight of the show, the energy that she packs on stage carries such heat even I need a cold drink. A suggestive stare to Darcy and she leaves the stage flung over Zombo’s shoulder, leaving us all in no doubt that she is indeed queen of the night. The crowd is wild.
Hours pass like minutes here, and as the 2am show shoots by it’s time to play for the entire Dirty Devils team! No sooner are we packing and slugging back booze backstage, Roxi comes running in with an announcement that the ghost train has been opened specially for us. Ahead of Dirty, Julie, Darlinda and Angie, there’s an incredibly well-hung nude midget and a girl dressed as an octopus. I share my car on the train with London’s Miss Miranda, the statuesque fetish model who has been making a huge splash over in America. An abandoned gymnasium is our surroundings and it’s flooded with fog juice and strobe lights as our train lurches violently forward into the gloom and we all scream like kids. In the distance I see a solitary figure whirling around the floor shrouded in mist and in a huge black ball gown. As we hurtle by I see it’s Roxi dancing on her own and just taking it all in, having the time of her life. It’s one of many visual snapshots that occur at Theatre Bizarre which confirm that it is indeed the greatest masquerade on earth.
By 5am, having found and held a séance on the stage off the main lobby in an abandoned theatre and with the general public leaving, Angie Pontani and I enroll everyone into a game of ‘Demons’ in the now abandoned ballroom. It is lit by hundreds of pumpkins, giving off an eerie glow from their freshly carved eyes. Attention to detail is critical to organisers Jason and John who oversee the carving of over 800 lanterns for the event. ‘Demons’, by the way, is a kind of zombie hide and seek in which, once caught, you become infected and join in the hunt for living survivors. It’s pretty intense and before long we are all shuffling and groaning in the dark pierced by the screams of the newly found burlesque victims! In the darkness I get caught by a security guard, but much to Angie’s amusement (she is the only survivor by the end) my security lanyard saves the day. Like kids we continue to play until the dawn light filters in through cracked windows and the candles burn to stumps; we scream and laugh until we are all caught. “Well, if anyone’s going to turn me into a zombie it’s Julie!” cackles Dirty. “She can bite me anywhere she wants!” We stumble out blindly to get some sleep, armed with fifty carved pumpkins for a photo shoot. It’s 8am and the long 48 hour party that is Theatre Bizarre is finally laid to rest.
There are few events I have been to which I can genuinely say have been so magical and wild as Theatre Bizarre. It’s a unique experience because you can’t help but join in the mirth in the end. This weekend we all found our inner children and played – that, my friends, is why many of us are in burlesque after all.
Quoted in major international newspapers and held in high esteem and affection by the international burlesque community, 21st Century Burlesque Magazine has documented the contemporary burlesque scene since 2007. Founded and edited by Holli-Mae Johnson.