David Pierce, center, and chorus line in rehearsal for Cirque du Horror. Photo: Jerome Weeks
The past five years, a musical cabaret horror show has become a popular, annual Halloween tradition in Denton. It features dancers, musicians, shadow puppets and people dressed up as zombies and giant spiders. KERA’s Jerome Weeks reports it’s mostly a funky, silly scarefest – with the real thrills coming from the band.
The Cirque du Horror is rehearsing tonight at Dan’s Silverleaf, Denton’s venerable music venue. It’s not a dress rehearsal, but some actors are putting on their witch and vampire costumes. Sound effects are tested (cue thunder, rain and creepy footsteps) and the Orchestra of the Undead warms up. Then David Pierce takes the stage.
“Goblins and ghouls tonight,” he sings. “Slugs and toadstools tonight. Oh, there’s gonna be a lot of frights this Halloween night.”
Actually, the show is not all that frightening. Maybe if you’re five. With its dancers, comedians and zombies, Cirque du Horror is like a cross between The Threepenny Opera and an old horror movie, the kind local TV stations would air on a weekend with a sleepy-looking host dressed up as Count Dracula. There’s gross-out humor about fried sneeze sandwiches and the show has deliberately cheesy props like rubber rats and tombstones made of cardboard. It’s mostly just campy fun.
But what’s wickedly serious about Cirque du Horror are the music and the musicians. Probably only in Denton with the UNT music department could you get a pick-up band like this to play a funky little Halloween show.
“I have outstanding musicians,” Pierce says, “musicians that have played with everybody from Tom Jones to Toby Keith and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. They’re all good friends of mine.”
Onstage and off, Pierce is the show’s ringmaster. He produces it, composes and conducts all the music. For his regular daytime jobs, Pierce has taught music, played trombone, wrote commercial jingles and teamed up with bands like Polyphonic Spree and the Baptist Generals. He’s a mainstay of the Denton music scene. That’s why he could pull together such a group.
And that’s why he went blank six years ago.
“There was a void that was in my life,” he recalls. “I felt empty because what I was writing, what I was composing, what I was playing, they were all for other people.”
Fortunately, he was inspired by a handful of short poems written by an uncle. They were a bit macabre, which appealed to Pierce. They led him to the idea of a Halloween show: silly, scary, not too scary, a show that recalls the fun and anticipation he felt as a child at Halloween.
“In the beginning,” recalls Paul Slavens, “he came to me and he’s like, ‘I’ve got this idea for a Halloween music show.’
Slavens is a Denton musician and the host of a radio show on KXT. He’s appeared in Cirque du Horror since Pierce first talked to him about it. Pierce had “all these grandiose ideas. He was gonna get a 16-piece orchestra and have sets and do all this stuff. And I’m like, ‘Yeah, good luck trying to get two people together let alone 25 or 30.’
“And you know, some people can just do that.”
So with his Orchestra of the Undead, what Pierce does every year is assemble an old-style big band. It’s only natural for a former member of the One O’Clock Lab Band, UNT’s renowned jazz ensemble. The Undead Orchestra whips through jazz, bluegrass, gypsy music, Latin tangos (Pierce has headed up several Cuban bands), even a little Kurt Weill. Typical of Pierce’s music: One song, “13 Seconds,” features a 13/8 time signature, meaning instead of a typical 4/4 rock ‘n’ roll or marching band rhythm, it’s got a 13-beat measure. Wicked.
That kind of sophisticated music — which Pierce tailors for his individual musicians — is one of the things that endears his compositions to Veronika Vassileva. Before she became the Undead’s violinist, Vassileva was the concertmaster, or lead violinist, for the UNT Orchestra. Now she’s finishing her Ph.D at UNT in music performance.
“I’m having a lot of fun jamming with the guys,” she says. “I don’t get to do that all the time. I’m specializing in baroque performance so I’m playing with the major baroque orchestras around the DFW area. So this is my only reach into jazz and funk — and loud music,” she adds with a laugh.
Pierce says he never really had a plan for Cirque du Horror. The show simply evolved. But now he sees one possibility. It could tour.
“Just playing and making this a very special night is fine with me,” he says. “But the ultimate goal would be to perform the month of October and to play not just in Texas but all around.”
So this year, for the first time, Cirque du Horror is taking a short road trip. It plays in Denton this weekend. Then next Sunday, it plays the Texas Theater.
The Denton zombies are invading Dallas.