May 5, 2011 | by Joey DiGuglielmo
Put the blame on Mame

Sting, front left, and Kelly Garrett, the Academy's current best actor and actress perform at an Academy event last weekend. (Blade photo by Michael Key)

Actress Sally Field, whose much-lampooned “you like me” Oscar acceptance speech has been in the pop culture vernacular for decades now, had a clever retort to those still eager to scorn her earnestness when Entertainment Weekly invited her in 2007 to remember her career.

“You know what,” she said. “I invite you to say what you like when you win your second Oscar, because the chances of that are slim to none.”

Members of Washington’s drag community have known that for eons and in part stung by both familial ostracism and an early ‘60s lack of venue — even in the city’s gay bars of the day — for drag performing and socializing, a handful of gender-bending enthusiasts formed The Academy of Washington and gave each other Oscar-esque statuettes among dozens of other titles and trophies. The annual “best actress” and “best actor” prizes — despite the title, no acting is required to get them — are the group’s highest honors and have gained prominence within the Academy since they were first awarded in 1962, less than a year after the group formalized under the direction of the late Allen Kress, who, in the Academy, was known as Elizabeth Taylor.

Formerly known as The Academy Awards of Washington Inc., — when the group went online about 10 years ago, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences insisted they stop using its name — the group is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. On Saturday, current best actor Sting (Karl La Cour) and his “real life” partner Kelly Garrett (Joey King) will pass the torch to two other members (Ophelia Bottoms and Carlton Stephyns) in an elaborate ceremony that, like many Academy functions, is likely to run several hours.

The awarding of the statuettes — now known safely as “Golden Boys” — is a big deal to members. They gathered Sunday at Ziegfeld’s, as they do most weekends, for a nearly five-hour marathon performance to honor Sting and Garrett with performances lip synced to pop standards like “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” and “You Light Up My Life.”

Den mother Mame Dennis (Carl Rizzi) says she’s proud the organization has endured and thrived under her leadership. “The Godfather” (Bill Oates) convinced she and Fanny Brice (the late Alex Carlino) to rejoin after a tumultuous period and lead the group with Taylor in 1973. Taylor was “chairman of the board,” Dennis president and Brice vice president.

“It’s organized and people like that,” Dennis says. “A lot of these newer people like the feeling of belonging to something and not just floundering along on their own. A lot have been ostracized from their families, so it’s a second family.”

The scene Sunday about 40 minutes before show time is both bustling and relaxed. Most who will be on stage today are in the opening number and run through a rehearsal before doors open to the public. Most of the queens have been in full makeup for a half hour or so by now. Destiny B. Childs (Ric Legg) saunters around looking regal in a bright orange, floor-length gown, an elaborate cake featuring figurines representing all the former best actress winners is set up on a table to the side of the stage and folks from all walks of LGBT life — from butch lesbians to Academy members who perform as men — mingle and share laughs and gossip.

Dennis, 70, points to a group of three guys not yet in makeup in their early 20s and are smoking at the front door, and says despite a bounty of outlets, the Academy is thriving and is more popular than ever with about 150 members.

“The young people are just coming out of the woodwork,” she says. “Like those boys right there, they’re all brand new. They see the performers at the bars, they get involved with them, they come to us and they like it and they stay. It’s a credit to us. We must be doing something right.”

The Academy’s history is also Dennis’ story to a large degree. The Milford, N.H., native came here in the Navy in 1959 and first did drag for Halloween 1965, just four years after Taylor started the Academy. She wrote in the program for the group’s 25th anniversary that she “never wanted to be alone” and “strived to mold an elite group of people whose social life would center around drag. By creating parties and activities, I knew that I would always be surrounded by people wanting to attend them.”

Mame Dennis (Blade photo by Michael Key)

Taylor invited Dennis — they’d met at a gay bar — to a party at her house. Even now, though, Dennis is hard pressed to articulate the appeal.

“Oh I don’t know,” she says. “I just don’t know how to explain it. I had seen it at North Beach at the shows on Sundays and it was just something I wanted to do.”

Within a year she was dressing in drag on a regular basis. She remembers a radically different social climate both for drag queens and gays in general.

“Liz had these parties mostly at her home. No bars had shows. Now you can go out every night of the week. These people now, it’s quite available. Then there was just no other place to go so we had these social parties.”

Records are sketchy for the Academy’s early years, though they know 14 statuettes were presented at the first awards in ’62. Queens going by names like Lucille Ball, Marlena Dietrich, Tippi Hedren, Jackie Kennedy and Vivian Leigh were on the executive board. Interest increased and the Academy started hosting pageants, balls and parties, though the Oscars, as they were then known, was always the group’s highest honor, or, as Taylor put it, “the ultimate, the necessary proof that a person was a star … [it was] an open ticket to the numerous parties the Academy held.”

There has been drama over the years — in ’75, a few members attempted to drive a wedge between Brice and Dennis, but weren’t successful.

“Who knows why that stuff happens,” Dennis says. “Just difference of opinion about the direction things should go.”

Today, Dennis is Academy royalty and members practically fall on top of each other in an effort to heap praise on her.

“It’s a tremendous triumph that she’s kept the organization going for so long,” says Sarah Lee Garrett (Michael Folks). “She comes from an era when police would go beat the crap out of people just for fun. They wouldn’t even bother to arrest you, they just beat you for fun. The fact that we have her as our leader to connect us to that history is absolutely important and gives us a sense of being the heirs to a very old tradition and something much larger than ourselves.”

There are several drag enclaves in Washington, widely seen as a drag-rich city. Though Childs has her own show at Freddie’s and Ziegfeld’s legend Ella Fitzgerald (Donnell Robertson) is an Academy member, most Academy regulars don’t perform outside of Academy functions. They say it’s a less rigorous, more welcoming environment that offers nurturing and tutelage.

“It’s an avenue where any queen can go and entertain,” Childs says. “You don’t have to audition, you don’t have to be the best. You get many titles just by virtue of your time and dedication and participation. … not every queen is talented enough to be on the Ziegfeld’s stage, but the Academy allows them to come and be themselves and perform. They don’t really judge and anybody is welcome.”

New members become one of four Academy “families” and have drag mothers, sometimes fathers, siblings and even grandparents.

“That family-oriented network is what appeals to me,” says Cameron Carrington (Cameron Hibshman), a member most famous for the “Queen of Hearts” crown she won in February. “This network of people really do become your family over the course of several years.”

Dennis chooses the Golden Boy winners herself and looks for people who are willing to get involved, stay loyal and help in practical ways, from sharing makeup with young members to running sound. And becoming best actress or actor is a deliberate decision — members are in the running for years and say Dennis’ selections follow a logical line of succession.

“It’s something you look forward to for a long time,” Garrett says. “You sort of get in line, so there’s a lot of anticipation and as it gets closer to your year, you become incredibly excited to get that.”

Despite being a largely social organization, Dennis is proud of the group’s philanthropic efforts. Proceeds — stemming mostly from dues and ticket sales — often go to charitable efforts. Dennis is uber-excited the group just came up with nearly $3,000 for a local LGBT cause she’ll announce soon.

Ultimately, though, the Academy, members say, is about more than make believe, fantasy, awards, pageants and dress up. What it’s done for their sense of self-expression, they say, is priceless.

“Growing up, you’re sort of this ambiguous, androgynous little queen that doesn’t really have a place,” Sarah Lee Garrett says. “Your family doesn’t really know what to do with you, your friends see you being girly and they don’t necessarily even know what to make of you. The Academy has given me a space where someone like myself is something to be celebrated and nurtured and allowed to grow into something greater than what they ever would have had the opportunity to grow into elsewhere … It’s important to get past the horrible treatment so many people have endured and say, ‘Wow, I do have something of value. I can go out into the world and be something.”

Joey DiGuglielmo is the Features Editor for the Washington Blade.

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