Mame's Scrapbook: Five Decades of Fabulous

On the occasion of its 50th anniversary, Mame Dennis tells the story of the Academy's founding

After a tour in the Navy, Carl Rizzi came to D.C. for a career in the Postal Service. But the life of a fabulous high-drag performer beckoned and Rizzi created his other self, Mame Dennis, and became a member of the now-legendary Academy.

With the glamorous gals of the Academy celebrating the group’s 50th anniversary, Rizzi shares his thoughts on the origins – and future – of D.C.’s drag dynasty.

”The Academy was formed in 1961 by Allen Kress, aka Elizabeth Taylor, and a small group of his friends made up the first executive board. Taylor, as president, maintained a tight control: Her word was law and she demanded complete obedience from her members. The amount of bourbon furnished and the size of a wallet often determined the future of many a star.

”All of the social events and parties for drags were held in various homes in the city. Blair House, Butterfield 8, Camelot, Hollywood House, Mintwood Place, Port Valada, Sand Piper and the Taylor Lounge. The all-important event of the Academy year became ‘Oscar’ Night, usually held at the Cairo Hotel. To receive a title and a golden trophy was the ultimate proof that a person was a ‘star.’

”During these early years the Academy flourished or floundered depending upon the membership and their interests at the time. During 1971-72, the Academy received new hope in the person of Bill Oates. He literally became ‘Godfather’ to the group as his foresight, money and influence formed a new social structure and status for the Academy.

”In May 1973, after much internal strife, the Academy was formally incorporated under the guidance of the Godfather into The Academy of Washington Inc. Elizabeth Taylor formed The Butterfield & Family and was named chairman of the board. My Beekman Place family rejoined and I was appointed president. Fanny Brile and her Henry Street family rejoined the Academy and she was appointed vice president.

”The Academy acquired the use of the third floor at 9th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW and soon had its own home: ‘Oscar’s Eye Theatre.’ Through the years, the Academy has also used the facilities of the Rogue, the Rogue II, Club 55, Apex and now Ziegfeld’s. Our larger shows have been held at the D.C. Convention Center and Almas Temple.

”The Academy is no longer just a social group – it has also become a regarded fundraising organization. The Academy formerly served on the board of Brother, Help Thy Self, and produced the Rhinestone Review show for them for many years. I have served on the advisory board of the Rainbow History Project and the Academy produces an annual benefit show for the organization. We also perform an annual benefit show for Pets DC. The Addison Road family hosts an annual benefit show – this year the recipient was the Gay Men’s Chorus. Our members gladly participate in these various benefit shows and provide top-notch entertainment to our audiences.

”Over the years, every person associated with the Academy has experienced the far-reaching social gratification of the group. They have had their moments of glory, their share of applause. We honor each other for our contributions to theater, make-up, design and the gay community in general. The Academy allows us all to occasionally make-believe, and continues to provide each of us with a touch of glamour and elegance that many would not otherwise experience.”

The Academy will celebrate its 50th Anniversary at The Golden Boy Awards, honoring Sting and Kelly Garret, on Saturday, May 7, 2011 at Almas Temple, 1315 K St. NW. Doors open at 3 p.m. Cocktails from 4 to 6 p.m. Awards begin at 6 p.m. Tickets are $20. For more information, call 703-671-1617.

For more historical perspective on the Academy, visit our Scene archive for coverage of performance events, and don’t miss our 2005 interview with Carl ”Mame” Rizzi.

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