Enter the world of Carl.
Born in 1940 to Guido and Mildred Rizzi, and raised in the conservative New England town of Milford, N.H., Carl Rizzi spent his formative years sheltered, without many friends. So he made his own fun. Cutting out paper dolls. Creating dresses for those paper dolls. Imagining himself dressed as a woman — a fantasy routinely fulfilled without so much as a raised eyebrow from his parents each and every Halloween.
In the late ’50s, a stint as a yeoman in the Navy brought a sexual awareness that had long simmered beneath the surface. Along with it: fear of being found out, shame of being different, repression of identity.
It wasn’t until after leaving the Navy, when Carl was working as an administrative assistant at the Postal Service, that things began to change.
For one, he came out.
For another, he decided that the glamour of high drag was a lifestyle that perfectly suited him.
And if you wanted to be part of the Washington, D.C. drag scene in the ’60s, you had be a member of the Academy.
Carl — rechristened Mame Dennis — officially joined in 1966, while the Academy was still under the rule of the late Alan Kress, who went by the drag persona Liz Taylor. It wasn’t until 1973, says Rizzi, when he was appointed president that changes in the organization began to take place. Things like raising funds for various causes, allowing blacks and other ethnicities to join, finding participatory roles for men who didn’t do drag, and building one another up instead of tearing each other down.
”We’re no longer a bunch of alcoholics that pull off each other’s wigs and start fights,” says Rizzi one Saturday morning in the sunroom of his Arlington residence — a charming home filled with porcelain knick-knacks, framed needle-pointed homilies, and hundreds of salt and pepper shakers, reminders of the 16 years that his late mother, an avid collector, lived with her son. ”We’re very respected,” he continues. ”And when one of our own needs help, damn it, they get it.”
Rizzi, 65, has helmed The Academy for 32 years. ”They claim I am president for life,” he says. ”And I honestly don’t know the reason for my longevity with the group. But the good things that come out of the group rejuvenate me to do more for it. If we were still having the problems we had back in the ’60s [during the Liz Taylor years], I don’t think at this point in my life I could tolerate it.”
Hospitable, bright and engaging, Rizzi recently underwent angioplasty — and lost 71 pounds as a result. His gowns — and there is an entire room crammed wall-to-wall with all manner of dresses in every conceivable style and color, including Rizzi’s favorite, blue — have to be taken in so they fit. ”I’m down to a size 20,” he beams. A guest bedroom is inhabited by the various ”Oscars,” titles, awards and Academy memorabilia he’s accumulated over the years, as well as boxes upon boxes of costume jewelry. ”I’ll be wearing these at the photo shoot tomorrow,” he says, gently caressing an elegant pair of blue and white bejeweled earrings.
He’s sometimes wistful for the old days — particularly around Halloween.
”Back in the ’70s we called Halloween the High Holy Days of Drag. Every bar had a show on different nights. And I always had to take a week off because I had to recover.” He leans in, and adds, in a hushed, knowing tone, ”In those days I drank scotch and water.”
Rizzi no longer drinks alcohol, and due to back troubles, doesn’t always attend Academy functions in drag. Yet he tends to the Academy as lovingly as he tends to his prized garden. He is a leader, a den mother, and by his own admission, ”a part-time business woman” whose job it is to keep the organization thriving.
”I have to please so many people,” he says. ”I have to keep these functions going. I have to try to make everything jell. And I want everybody to have a good time, because that’s what it’s all about. I have to run the show.” He pauses, and, as if finishing an Oscar night acceptance speech, says, ”I have a lot of people who help me. Because without their help I couldn’t do it. You can’t do it all by yourself.”
Enter the world of Mame.
METRO WEEKLY: What was your childhood like?
CARL RIZZI: Very quiet, very sheltered. I was an only child. I was not allowed out. I went to church. I went to high school activities. My aunt used to hold the American Legion rummage sales and what they didn’t sell, she stored in the attic of her barn. On Halloween I had free range of everything that was up there. Guess what I went for? The dresses. I was able to get lipstick and eye shadow and everything I needed. That’s how it all started.
MW: What drew you to the dresses?
RIZZI: I didn’t go in for anything masculine. I was very feminine. I’d make paper dolls and then clothes for the paper dolls out of my grandmother’s sewing kit. I was very creative.
MW: Do you remember when it started to dawn on you that you might not be attracted to girls, but instead to boys?
RIZZI: I had feelings for men. I was drawn to the male teachers but didn’t understand why. It was not a sexual thing — I didn’t want to have sex with them. I just was drawn to them. I didn’t find out about the sex until the Navy.
MW: How did joining the Navy change your life?
RIZZI: I joined the Navy after I got out of high school. I’d never been away from home in my life. I went from New Hampshire to Chicago, and I cried on the train. I got to boot camp and all of a sudden I was with all these men. I had to go to the bathroom in a room without stalls. I had to take showers in a room without stalls. I had to adjust as best as I could. Then I went to a class where they told us what homosexuals were. I realized they were talking about me.
I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to come out because I didn’t want to get kicked out of the service and go back to New Hampshire in shame. So I stuck it out.
MW: When did you have your first opportunity to act on your sexual feelings?
RIZZI: I was 21, still in the Navy — I’d been in for three years. My high school art teacher had stayed in contact with me — he was living in New Jersey. I was stationed in Washington, D.C. He invited me up for the weekend. We went to New York City and saw the Rockettes and all that kind of stuff. That night, it became obvious we were going to sleep in the same bed and we had a little chat. He was very gentle with me and brought me out very nicely. It was wonderful. It was what I wanted.
MW: Did you continue seeing him?
RIZZI: No. Nothing else happened until after I got out of the service. A couple of boys that I had been in the Navy with came up to my apartment one Sunday morning and said they wanted to talk to me. They said, ”We think you’re gay.” I didn’t know what to say. And they said, ”Well, we are and we think you are, and you’ve got to come out.” They took me that afternoon down to the Hideaway at 9th and Pennsylvania Avenue, right by the FBI. That was in ’62. In those days the Hideaway had a band. But you couldn’t dance, you couldn’t touch each other. When I got there I saw a number of boys who I knew from the base. I was shocked that they were gay. Shortly thereafter, they took me up to Baltimore to an afterhours dyke bar. Almost every WAVE that I knew was there. I had no idea that all these WAVEs were lesbians. And, of course, they all thought it was fantastic. They said ”We all knew you were gay. It’s about time you came out.”
MW: How did you feel?
RIZZI: I felt free. I came out strong. You couldn’t keep me out of the bars.
MW: Were there any problems that you recall?
RIZZI: I had just moved into this apartment off Columbia Pike in Arlington. There were six apartments in the building and I was the only single young male. The others were old ladies — and they caught on real quick as to what I was. I wasn’t doing drag, but I was bringing all these men home. At the end of my year I had a notice on my door saying I was evicted. I was devastated because I still had that fear of rejection. I moved up the street to the Quebec Apartments and I lived there for almost 20 years before moving into my house here.
MW: When did you come out to your parents?
RIZZI: After I moved into this house in ’82, my mother came down for Thanksgiving — my father had died two years before — and I said, ”Mother, we need to talk. When you get older and can’t take care of yourself in New Hampshire, I want you to come down here and be with me.” I told her about being gay and she said, ”I know.” And I said, ”How do you know?” And she said, ”Well, it’s on TV, it’s on all my soaps. So I know what gay is and I know you are.”
Obviously, I had to tell her about the drag. She was not excited about it, but she was interested. That weekend she went to a drag show with me down at The Rogue. Her only comment was that I had too much makeup on.
When she moved here, she enjoyed going to the shows. She loved the gowns, the costumes, the production numbers. All the people in the Academy took to her. She collected salt and pepper shakers and anyplace anybody went, they brought her salt and pepper shakers. When she died she had over 3,000 sets.
MW: What about your father?
RIZZI: My father had already died. He was Italian and I don’t think he would have taken to it. It’s hard to tell with those old, old Italians. He might have accepted it but I don’t think he would have been too happy. And I don’t think the drag would have ever gone over with him. But my mother took to it like a duck to water.
MW: Do you regret not telling your father?
RIZZI: No, we were never close. I’m glad I didn’t have to tell him.
MW: Did you have any long-term relationships in those early days?
RIZZI: No, I was too loose. There were too many men out there and I wanted to sample everything. Some of my friends had lovers but I just didn’t want a relationship. I wanted variety. And when I fell, I fell bad and I got hurt. And then I’d say I’d never fall again, but I did. I guess I’ve been a loner all my life. I have a lot of people I love, but not in a physical way.
MW: The clichÃ© in straight society is that single gay men live very lonely lives in their later years. Do you feel that’s true?
RIZZI: [Laughs.] I don’t have time to be lonely. I have my house, I have my yard, I have the Academy, I have my gay friends, I have straight friends who don’t know I’m gay. I’m active, I go out to dinner. I’m not lonely.
MW: Wait a minute, you have straight friends who don’t know you’re gay?
RIZZI: I guess they probably know I’m gay. We don’t discuss it.
MW: Why haven’t you told them?
RIZZI: I just feel that they don’t need to know. I don’t know whether I feel it would change our relationship. But it just hasn’t come up. Just like my doctor. I have no reason to tell him.
MW: Actually, you have every reason to tell your doctor that you’re a gay man.
RIZZI: I think he knows. People have a way of knowing. There are certain things that give me away. My hands are shaved up to here. When the doctor takes my shirt off, my chest is shaved. My eyes are arched.
I know I’m a closet case with my doctor and I don’t know why. I probably should discuss it but I just can’t. I did come out at work.
Mame, circa 1974
MW: You did?
RIZZI: Not of my choosing. It was about 1974. Two postal inspectors came into my office and called me into a room. They had a letter from someone who had identified me to the Postal Service as being a homosexual. They had a picture of me in drag. At that time, of course, they were doing witch hunting, if you want to call it that, so they cross-examined me about my homosexual experiences. Their main thrust was: Could I identify other homosexuals in the Postal Service? I knew enough to say no. I also told them the picture was a terrible one and if they wanted a better picture for their files I would bring them one.
After about two hours they let me go back to my office. My boss was livid. He said, ”Where have you been?” I started to cry and told him I guess I have to resign. He was furious. He called the chief postal inspector and lit into him. ”You are to leave my secretary alone! I know his personal life and his personal life has nothing to do with his work.” And they never questioned me again. Afterwards he said, ”I know you’re gay, Carl, but you don’t bring it to work. You’re like a son to me.” He really stood up for me. He was a fine gentleman.
MW: Do you think that you were identified by another gay postal worker under similar pressure?
RIZZI: No, I think it was somebody in the Academy who was very jealous of my position [as president]. See, Liz Taylor [Alan Kress] had been president up until they put me in, in 1973. I think it was one of her people who was jealous of my authority and didn’t like the idea of her not being number one anymore.
MW: It’s always surprising how people can be so vicious as to try and ruin another person’s life.
RIZZI: But see, in the old, old days of drag, it was very common to turn somebody in. It was vicious. Liz herself had lost her job — she was a court reporter on Capitol Hill — over somebody exposing her.
MW: What about you? Were you…
RIZZI: Was I vicious? No. I don’t have any viciousness in me. I couldn’t live with it. I’m firm and I rule with an iron hand. Some people call me evil and some call me mean, some people don’t like me. But I don’t think I’m vicious. I couldn’t jeopardize somebody’s livelihood. I don’t think that’s right.
MW: Do you recall your first time in real drag?
RIZZI: It was in the fall of ’65. My friend Tom and his lover were going to have a Halloween party at their apartment in The Woodner. They all wanted me to go in drag. So I went to Woodies and bought this wig made out of I don’t know what — it wasn’t hair — and this granny dress, and Cover Girl makeup and lipstick. Of course, I’d had practice [as a kid].
MW: Did you call yourself Mame?
RIZZI: I had the nickname Auntie Mame a few years before I started to do drag. I used to have a long cigarette holder and was real campy, so people called me that — but it wasn’t until Halloween 1966 that I got a bit more serious about drag. That’s when I wore my first famous blue gown and my friend Pearl and I performed the song ”Bosom Buddies.” From there it just took off.
MW: What was it like in the mid-60s to walk into a store as a man and try on a dress to see if it fit? How did people react?
RIZZI: I would have died going into a regular store in those days. Somebody had told me to go to a store called Royal Formal Wear, and that this lady — I think her name was Rose — would help us. She was selling to the drags and she took you in the back room and measured you, and you tried it on in the back room. Still, the majority of stuff in my early days was handmade. Gowns and clothes and everything.
MW: What about buying a wig at Woodies?
RIZZI: Well, that was another thing. You proceeded with caution, held out your charge card and ran. [Laughs.]
MW: Did you ever encounter homophobia?
RIZZI: Not myself, no. I had my wig snatched one night off my head at a restaurant over in Georgetown but that was just somebody being a smartass.
MW: Did you have friends back then who encountered problems?
RIZZI: Not violence. We never got into those areas. We were cautious. We stuck to ourselves.
See more pics from The Academy’s October 16 benefit
MW: How did you come to be part of the Academy?
RIZZI: Liz Taylor, who ran the Academy, came to a Halloween party I threw with Pearl in ’66 — and she had a way of latching onto people. If you wanted to go in drag in those days, you had to be a friend of Liz’s. She invited us to parties at her house. She was very strict. She would call you and say ”I’m having such and such on such and such date and this is what you’ll wear.” And, Jesus Christ, I didn’t have a big wardrobe. But we did what Liz said. We were petrified of her.
MW: She sounds a little controlling.
RIZZI: She was. And when you got to her parties it was all good. Until she got drunk. If you saw her looking in her mirror, talking to herself, telling herself how beautiful she was, the best thing to do was leave. Because after that, the wig would come off and it got nasty.
MW: Nasty in what way?
RIZZI: Hollering and fights and wig snatching. They were a drunk crowd. And our crowd — I was running with Lainie Kazan [Paul Criss], Patty Duke [Mark Stewart] and Frank Harris — wasn’t that way. And when that started we all got out of there.
MW: What was Liz’s problem?
RIZZI: Her problem was alcohol. She didn’t do drugs or any of that shit, it was pure alcohol. [She was] a mean drunk. And she wasn’t a pretty drag. And that was a problem. Alan thought he was Liz Taylor. Liz Taylor was a wonderful, fabulous star in the ’60s, the epitome of beauty, and that’s why he took her name. But he couldn’t measure up to her.
MW: When did you get your first ”Oscar”?
RIZZI: In 1967. I was thrilled. If you wanted to be anybody you had to get an Oscar. It’s the trophy they gave out once a year, just like the awards in Hollywood. Back then to get one, you had to give a party. One of my friends in D.C. let me have the party at his house on Mintwood Place. Towards the end of the evening, Liz had had her few cocktails and she said to me, ”Well, Miss Dennis, this party is very nice, but if you want your Oscar, you will let me sleep with your friend Billy Quick.” Well, Bill Quick was just a friend of mine. He lived at the house where the party was. We weren’t even tricking.
But Liz was known for that — it was her way of getting tricks. Oh, yes, many a star in those days sacrificed their husband for a trophy.
So I’m out in the kitchen crying and this boy who owned the place said, ”What the hell is the matter with you?” And I said, ”I’m not going to get my Oscar. Liz wants to sleep with Billy Quick.” Bill was standing there, and he laughed. He said, ”I’ll fix her.” They got her even more drunk — she literally passed out. They put her in Billy Quick’s bed. The next morning when she was trying to wake up, Billy kind of pushed her a little bit and acted like he was waking up, too. She looked at him as if to say ”What’s going on?” And he said, ”Liz, I have to tell you something. Last night you gave me the best blow job I’ve ever had in my life.” And I got my Oscar.
But the times have changed. In the old days you had to give the party, you had to get Liz drunk, and you had to let her sleep with whoever she told you she wanted to sleep with. I don’t believe in any of that. Now people get their awards for what they do — the work they put into the group. It’s a reward. You have to be dedicated to the Academy. You have to come, you have to participate, you have to work on the tech crew, you have to perform, you have to be active. In Liz’s day you just had to kowtow to her.
MW: How many Oscars do you give out every year?
RIZZI: Last year we gave 110. It’s a big thing.
MW: How many Oscars do you personally have?
RIZZI: I have had 35 to date.
MW: How many Best Actresses?
RIZZI: I have been Best Actress for the Academy once. I’ve been Best Actress of the Emmys once and Best Actress of Beekman Place once. I’ve been the Best Foreign Actress of Norfolk once and I’ve been the Best Actress of Richmond once.
MW: How important is Best Actress?
RIZZI: Being Best Actress is the supreme thing. It’s the biggest accolade a drag can get. I mean they can get all the beauty titles they want — they can be Miss America, Miss Universe. But the Best Actress is supreme. She is it. She is supreme.
MW: AIDS impacted every facet of the gay community, especially the drag community early on. Can you address that for a moment?
RIZZI: Well, the biggest impact that AIDS has had on the Academy is we have lost some of our most talented people, some of our brightest upcoming stars. Some literally have died in our arms, right before our eyes. At one time I thought it would be the end of the Academy because we were losing so many people. I didn’t know how we were going to survive. We weren’t getting any fresh blood, and we were just losing so many people.
But we survived. And we are getting new people and people are surviving longer with AIDS. I no longer see it as the big threat I once thought it was going to be to our complete survival — but the fact remains we’ve lost some of our best performers. Lainie Kazan, just to name one person off the top of my head — a big, big, big talented person. She was with me since my first day. Just gone.
MW: How did your group respond to the AIDS crisis?
RIZZI: Several years ago, we formed a fund called The HOOP Fund — Help Our Own People. A lot of times when performers perform, their tips go into the HOOP Fund — it’s a jar on the stage. When I’ve had people who are sick and can’t afford medicine, we buy it out of this fund. We help our people. One of our boys died — not from AIDS, but from cancer — and there was no money for his funeral service. We buried him with money from the fund. We have a very tight-knit group, and when somebody is sick, we help. If someone is in the hospital, the last thing they need is a bouquet of flowers. They usually need a check for $100 to pay their bills. And that’s what they get from the Academy.
MW: Is drag tougher as you get older?
RIZZI: It’s rougher on the skin. Sometimes you have to tape your eyes a little bit harder. When you rip it off later that night it hurts.
MW: What has drag meant for you personally?
RIZZI: I don’t know what to say. It’s a way of life for me. It’s an outlet.
MW: What about the Academy? What has that meant to you?
RIZZI: There again, it’s a part of my life. It’s not just a Sunday thing. It’s seven days a week. There’s always planning to do, always something going on. The Academy keeps me active. It gets me out of the house.
MW: Finally, this being Halloween, let’s have some tips from an expert for those novices planning to go in drag.
RIZZI: The first thing: you have to have a close shave. You gotta hide the beard. A wig is very important — or at least it used to be important. Nowadays some of these boys use their own hair. The glamour days of drag are not like they used to be. The high drag is not high anymore. I wouldn’t think of going out without being in a gown. Nowadays they go out in whatever they feel like going out in.
And, last, I guess, you should have a positive attitude. You have to feel comfortable because if you don’t feel comfortable, you can’t portray something that you aren’t. [Pauses.] Ask me about the future.
MW: Okay. Tell me about the future.
RIZZI: The Academy just celebrated it 44th year. My long-range goal is to get to the 50th anniversary, which is in six years. We have wonderful plans for it. We’re leading up to it. I envision it being a magnificent evening, inviting everybody back that’s ever had anything to do with the Oscars. I want it to be a big celebration. And how old will I be? 71. I hope not to be in a wheelchair. But one way or another, I’ll walk it. Proud. And in drag.
For more information on The Academy and its functions, call 703-671-1617 or visit www.thewashingtonacademy.com.