Theater artist brings out his best when things get scary

Oct. 23, 2013
Post-Crescent Media's Mike Thiel gets a monster makeover by makeup artist Erick Gyrion, the director/designer of 'Halloween Rocks' at the University of Wisconsin-Fox Valley. / Wm.Glasheen/Post-Crescent Media

If you go

What: “Halloween Rocks!”
Where: Perry Hall, University of Wisconsin-Fox Valley, Menasha
When: 8 p.m. tonight, Friday and Saturday
Tickets: $12 adults, $10 students and seniors (age 60 and older)
More: For information on the Oblivion Haunted House, check out our Halloween guide on page 4 or at


Saturday is the busiest day of the year for Erick Gyrion.

The 30-year-old makeup artist will wake up at 6 a.m., slam a cup of coffee and head straight to the University of Wisconsin-Fox Valley in Menasha, paintbrush in hand. However, Gyrion won’t be painting canvas. He’ll be painting people.

The Menasha native, who’s been director of communication and theater arts at UW-Fox Valley since 2009, starts preparing for this day almost six months in advance. And that was before he became director of UWFV’s “Halloween Rocks!” which runs tonight through Saturday.

Since the Saturday before Halloween is the night everyone hits the bars, clubs and parties in Halloween get-ups, Gyrion has a long list of people who want his help. From 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Gyrion will host 30-minute to two-hour sessions with clients who want him to transform their costumes from scary dud to scary stud.

Immediately following, Gyrion will start airbrushing, painting and detailing the 19-plus cast members in his “Halloween Rocks!” variety show. When the one-hour show is over, he’ll drive to Green Bay to check on Oblivion Haunted House, which he helped launch in 2010, and he’ll probably hang out there until midnight.

It’s Gyrion’s favorite day of the season because his talent is dispersed all over the community, whether it’s a ghoul at his haunted house, a zombie in his show or a freaky clown throwing one back at the tavern.

After getting his start through makeup, effects and design classes in Chicago and St. Louis, Gyrion used his knowledge to gain experience, working on the sets of independent films in Milwaukee and Chicago. He launched his own business, Dead End Detailing, which has designed sets for haunted houses in Texas, Michigan and Florida.

With Gyrion right in our backyard, Post-Crescent Media put the artist’s skills to the test by turning me into his human canvas. The objective: transform fun-loving Mike Thiel into a creepy, flesh-eating zombie (OK, maybe not flesh-eating).

I sat in a barstool-style chair, not knowing what to expect as Gyrion airbrushed, sponged and painted my face into one of the walking dead. A stickler for detail, Gyrion even painted some weird goo on my teeth to make me look like I hadn’t brushed in a decade. You know, for the full zombie effect. Within 40 minutes (with a few stops), Gyrion remodeled my face into a legit-looking Halloween oddball.

Between “Halloween Rocks!,” Oblivion Haunted House, Dead End Detailing and his day job at UWFV, Gyrion found time to talk about his eerie endeavors and the 2013 Halloween season.

P-C: Tell me the plot behind “Halloween Rocks!”

Gyrion: It’s like a musical Halloween party. The basic plot is there was a curse put on Menasha in 1814 because evil started to roam about. This gypsy woman put a curse on the evil, locking them into these grounds, which we call the Mihm’s Cemetery. There are a couple jokes about Mihm’s in there because we all love a good burger (laughs).

The only way the curse can be broken is if two virgins enter the cemetery grounds at midnight on Halloween, so the story is based around these two kids who are dared to spend Halloween in the cemetery. Throughout the show we have different Halloween music and you don’t know if the curse will be broken or not until the end of the show. … What’s fun and different about this kind of theater setting is the show is only an hour. We didn’t want to appeal just to the normal theater clientele. They’ll still love it, but we also wanted to attract the late bar crowd people who could have a drink before the show, watch the show and then go out to party or something afterwards.

P-C: Why did you decide to create this style of show?

Gyrion: We just wanted a quick in and out for people. We understand there’s a whole bunch of events during this time of the year and everybody is crazy busy. There are costume parties, Halloween parties and the bars are fun this time of year. We wanted to offer something that was short and to the point but was still a creative outlet for our community and the cast. The show is also very customer interactive, so if you thrive on that, the actors will pull you onstage to start dancing. If you’re not into it, you can just stay seated.

P-C: Where did you find the inspiration to create this one-hour show?

Gyrion: I started out writing this show and it was getting so monotonous and long and too involved. I talked to my friend Jim Romenesko, who directs at Xavier High School and he said, “You’re doing this completely wrong.” He told me to pick the songs first like “Mamma Mia!” and then build the story around it. So I have a guy in Europe who handles all the tracks for us and he started sending me songs that might involve a plot. We started talking through email and it just became more and more funny as we added songs you wouldn’t expect like “(You’re The) Devil in Disguise” by Elvis, which isn’t a typical Halloween song. It was exciting to make this different.

P-C: Did you finish writing the show before your first casting call?

Gyrion: No. I actually rehearsed this show as a workshop piece, so I had a good portion of the show written but there were also scenes that had nothing. So we sat as a cast and talked about what’s funny here, what could we add there. Some cast members even wrote their own scenes. I had a plot with Halloween style songs and then we, as a cast, wrote a story between those songs.

P-C: You also own Oblivion Haunted House in Green Bay. How has the haunted house grown since its debut in 2010?

Gyrion: We opened the first year with thousands of people coming in and I’ve always been very fan-based. I want to give our customers what they want. It’s been a challenge for me to relinquish the design to our customers but it’s also been totally successful. Every year I get hundreds of emails saying we should do this and this. I read every one of those emails instead of saying no, I’m a designer and I want to do this. The first year we designed the entire set, and now, essentially our customers are designing it. I want them to feel involved.

P-C: You’ve created designs for haunted houses across the country. What’s the biggest haunted house you’ve worked on?

Gyrion: The biggest one I’ve worked with is Dark Hour in Plano, Texas. Those people contacted me this summer on Facebook when we started building the foam wall pieces for the “Halloween Rocks!” cemetery. They said, ‘We’re building this multi-million dollar haunt and we want a cemetery in the opening scene of the attraction. Can you help us do that?’ I said yes, designed some things and sent it off to their build crews. I just send the designs and then they build it and paint it themselves. … They contacted me just because they saw pictures of the “Halloween Rocks!” set, which is really cool. They knew nothing about my company outside of this show.

P-C: How has juggling Oblivion, “Halloween Rocks!” and your design business changed you as an artist?

Gyrion: It’s definitely improved the speed at which I do things. Before I owned the haunted house and even during the first couple years, I would spend hours looking at certain things and changing them, but now I’ve gained a certain self-confidence. I don’t stop and think about things so much. I just dive right in.

— Mike Thiel: 920-993-1000, ext. 526, or; or on Twitter @thielwrites

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