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Photos: Step inside the grand, 'bizarre' world of one Detroit masquerade party

People dance during a musical performance at the Theatre Bizarre at Masonic Temple in Detroit.
Emily Elconin for NPR
People dance during a musical performance at the Theatre Bizarre at Masonic Temple in Detroit.

The event description sells itself: "the greatest masquerade on earth, hosted at the largest Masonic Temple in the world."

Theatre Bizarre has not always called the Detroit Masonic Temple home, but it's hard to imagine it happening anywhere else. As one of the most storied buildings in Detroit, featuring a seemingly endless collection of rooms, hallways, and hiding places, the setting seems perfect for hosting an evening of unexpected delights and terrors.

Since the year 2000, Theatre Bizarre has built a grassroots effort of epic proportions, all thanks to the help of over 1,500 staff and volunteers. The event featured 6 main stages and 19 performance spaces. Every year, the group invites the public to join in their parade of masked menaces to hail the almighty Zombo, a god-like character whose lore is only rivaled by his occasional physical presence.

With 19 performance spaces, people were able to enjoy the music in many spaces.
/ Emily Elconin for NPR
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Emily Elconin for NPR
With 19 performance spaces, people were able to enjoy the music in many spaces.
Hundreds of attendees can be seen from the balcony of one of the eight floors at Theatre Bizarre.
/ Emily Elconin for NPR
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Emily Elconin for NPR
Hundreds of attendees can be seen from the balcony of one of the eight floors at Theatre Bizarre.
A performer dances with fire.
/ Emily Elconin for NPR
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Emily Elconin for NPR
A performer dances with fire.

If this all is a little difficult to understand, that seems to be intentional: the allure of the event largely lies in its mystery.

This was my first time attending the event despite it being recommended to me for years. After 2 years off due to Covid, I had an urge to be a part of the grand return of Theatre Bizarre. When my pass got confirmed, I immediately solicited advice from long-time attendees and enthusiasts. I felt like a traveler exploring a new world, and I wanted to be sure that I didn't miss anything important (which is impossible of course, given the scale of the spectacle). One particular piece of advice stuck out to me: "lean into it, and don't be a spectator."

To clarify, you don't need to be an extrovert to attend Theatre Bizarre, but costumes are in fact mandatory. For those that attended by themselves or with a small group of friends, many spend a considerable amount of time simply taking things in.

People pack into an elevator as they head up to explore all 8 floors of the Theatre Bizarre.
/ Emily Elconin for NPR
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Emily Elconin for NPR
People pack into an elevator as they head up to explore all 8 floors of the Theatre Bizarre.
A statue of Zombo, the all-seeing overlord of Theatre Bizarre.
/ Emily Elconin for NPR
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Emily Elconin for NPR
A statue of Zombo, the all-seeing overlord of Theatre Bizarre.
People watch the crowd and a variety of performers at Theatre Bizarre.
/ Emily Elconin for NPR
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Emily Elconin for NPR
People watch the crowd and a variety of performers at Theatre Bizarre.

Upon walking through the front door, I was immediately transfixed and a bit intimidated. The eerie glow of the lights, shrouded ever so slightly in fog, felt like a portal to another realm.

The entrance way, soundtracked by quietly ominous music, featured an impressive array of jack-o'-lanterns and gothic displays, and of course, every type of costume that you could imagine.

When photographer, Emily Elconin told me that she was downstairs by the poison darts, and I had absolutely no idea what that meant, but after a brief but thorough search mission I was able to find her. While there was a large stage in the room we were in, featuring an acrobatic fire performer among other things, performers were interspersed throughout the entirety of the crowd. You couldn't turn a corner without finding something new, and the line between attendee and performer was blurred.

An attendee observes performances as an orange spotlight illuminates them.
/ Emily Elconin for NPR
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Emily Elconin for NPR
An attendee observes performances as an orange spotlight illuminates them.
People watch the performances from a balcony above the third floor.
/ Emily Elconin for NPR
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Emily Elconin for NPR
People watch the performances from a balcony above the third floor.

People come from all over the world to attend Theatre Bizarre. The elaborate costumes and personas that people adapted for the event were remarkable, and the energy was contagious. The first few floors were an adventure themselves, but after a satisfying yet taxing survey of the lower levels, we decided that it was time to up the ante. We heard that there were 8 floors of action, and we were determined to see it all.

People wearing costumes were immersed in the experience.
/ Emily Elconin for NPR
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Emily Elconin for NPR
People wearing costumes were immersed in the experience.
A pair of clowns dancing with fire take the stage.
/ Emily Elconin for NPR
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Emily Elconin for NPR
A pair of clowns dancing with fire take the stage.
People move on to their next adventure after riding the Ghost Train.
/ Emily Elconin for NPR
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Emily Elconin for NPR
People move on to their next adventure after riding the Ghost Train.
The Theater Bazaar is a costume-mandatory event.
/ Emily Elconin for NPR
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Emily Elconin for NPR
The Theater Bazaar is a costume-mandatory event.

Our first attempt was futile, it was no surprise that everyone would want to eventually move upward, and with only a few elevators and some narrow staircases to get there, we were willing to give it some time.

We waited for 20 minutes as the doors opened and closed in front of us, teasing us with their promise of novel enchantments, only to be finally welcomed inside and taken one floor down before being kicked out. Discouraged, but not deterred, we decided to try to take the stairs.

Jack-o'-lanterns and candles illuminate the front entrance.
/ Emily Elconin for NPR
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Emily Elconin for NPR
Jack-o'-lanterns and candles illuminate the front entrance.
People make their way up and down the 8 floors of performances, immersive art and endless decorations.
/ Emily Elconin for NPR
/
Emily Elconin for NPR
People make their way up and down the 8 floors of performances, immersive art and endless decorations.

Whether it was due to logistical concerns or another bout of facilitated trickery, we were made to wait at least another 30 minutes at the entrance to floor 5. We almost gave up several times, but our intuition told us to push on.

There was so much left to see, and if the lower floors were any indication, it was going to be worth the wait. Our patience was eventually rewarded as we were allowed to pass through to experience the rest of the rounds, which proved to be as peculiar and captivating as we could have hoped.

A couple watches performers during Theatre Bizarre.
/ Emily Elconin for NPR
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Emily Elconin for NPR
A couple watches performers during Theatre Bizarre.

Grace Widyatmadja photo edited this story.

Emily Elconin is a freelance photographer base in Detroit. Follow her on Instagram: @emilyiriselconin

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rob Luzynski
Photos by Emily Elconin