Long Live The Queens
One of the Washington drag scene's most pivotal figures illuminates a long-secret world
ON THAT LAST DRAG SUNDAY IN SOUTHEAST, Mame Dennis wanted the show to be something everyone would remember.
For more than a dozen years, Mame had presided over the weekly performances at Club 55, as president of the gay theatrical organization, the Academy of Washington Inc. That alter ego was the most vital half of Carl Rizzi's double life. Then there came the first unfathomable whispers that a new baseball stadium might push them out; that the drag queens could lose their corner of the world. Some in the gay community, which had been in the area more than 30 years, held public meetings and protests.
But not Mame. You can't fight city hall, she thought. The aging drag queen had come up at a time when you kept your head down, at least until it was time to go onstage. That's where you took all your joy and pain.
The week before that final September 2006 show, "the damn phone didn't stop ringing," Rizzi says. Some Academy members urged him to look for new space, others were clamoring to perform. Mostly they were just panicked: What were they going to do? Where were they going to go? They looked to Rizzi for answers, and he didn't have them. Still, he had to keep it together, write the program and get his own remarks on paper. Handling the Academy's last show at Club 55 became his obsession. Finally, he made a painful decision.
He'd always arrived by 10 a.m. for the 3 p.m. show to get his gown and makeup on, before making sure everything else was in order. But on that day, he didn't need dress and makeup time. He double-checked the details, and the show went on without a hitch. For the final numbers, the reigning Mr. Club 55 performed "Last Night of the World," and Miss Club 55, Destiny B. Childs, performed Dolly Parton's "Go to Hell," dedicating it to the future stadium. Throughout the night, Mame stayed in the background, letting others take center stage. But then it was time for the last goodbyes.
Standing in front of nearly 90 of Mame's heartbroken people, it was Carl Rizzi, not Mame, who read the valedictory. In a powder-blue blazer, a tie and loafers, with his silver-gray hair combed neatly down, in trousers with pleats that strained against his bulk, without a hint of dazzle, he began his final comments:
"We cannot let tonight pass without saying goodbye to this building at 55 K Street," he read. He recounted Academy history: the awards, the shows, the members who had passed away. His voice broke, and all in the room clapped wildly. It was long moments before Rizzi could continue.
He called the club owner to the stage to present a plaque. Then, everyone in the audience and every performer formed a circle and sang "Auld Lang Syne." As they cried, Rizzi walked the room, consoling, urging strength, letting them know how very much they meant to him and how determined he was that this would not be their end.
But there were some who could not see beyond the blazer and loafers. All night, those closest to Rizzi had worried it had all been too much for him. They whispered and speculated, unable to conceive that on one of the most significant nights of his life, the president for life of the Academy of Washington Inc., perhaps the oldest drag organization on the East Coast, which he helped build and hold together, was dressed as a man. He wore no red nails; no high-combed wig; no beaded, jewel-toned gown to sweep the floor, gently forgiving the most defiant parts of Mame's figure; no extreme false lashes to bring the crowd into the cool blue of her eyes. No illusion at all.
"I couldn't [allow] the best part of me to be closed," Rizzi said. He had to say goodbye as Carl, an aging, heavyset man. Because saying goodbye as Mame, who for more than 40 years had been all the light and sparkle in Carl Rizzi's life, would have felt too much like drying up and dying.
A YEAR AND A HALF LATER, RIZZI IS SITTING BEHIND HIS PERFECTLY ARRANGED DESK at a pest control company in Baileys Crossroads, where he's worked as an office manager, twice a week, for a dozen years. He is neat and nondescript in light washed denims, white tennis shoes and a blue button-down shirt. His short, silver hair lies straight and flat. His cerulean blue eyes betray nothing of the excesses of drag. A nearby invoice is stamped past due; there are detailed pictures of insects on the wall; and a few feet away, a large, hairy tarantula is slowing crawling the length of her cage.
Rizzi doesn't dress up in drag so much anymore, and he relies on other people to do his hair and makeup when he does. "I'm 67. I can't just get in drag in 10 minutes," he says. At least not beautifully. It's an old-school thing, but to Rizzi, if you aren't in a constant search for loveliness, there is really no point. Rizzi says that a couple of his co-workers in the small office don't know he's gay, let alone that for four decades he's been one of the most storied drag queens in Washington. That's fine. He's not trying to upset anyone. He knows how to go along to get along.