Carl Rizzi, who performed as his drag alter ego Mame Dennis for decades in Washington as president of the Academy of Washington, died Monday according to friends. He was 74.
Rizzi had been in the hospital for about two weeks, initially because of a urinary tract infection. Although the cause of death was not immediately known, friends said Rizzi’s health was complicated by a blood clot in the leg and pneumonia.
Rizzi was born in Nashua, N.H., on June 22, 1940, according to Mark Meinke, who did an extensive interview with him in 2000. He was the only child of Guido Rizzi and Mildred Fisher Rizzi. Upon leaving the Navy, Rizzi settled in Washington and was employed at the U.S. Postal Service where he worked until he retired in 1995. In retirement, Rizzi worked part time for All American Pest Control in Arlington, Va., for 15 years.
Rizzi came out in 1963 and enjoyed the Chicken Hut, a gay bar on H Street, N.W.
“Somehow because I was crazy and I was loud and I was flamboyant, they called me Auntie Mame,” he told Meinke. “And the name stuck though the Auntie dropped off.”
Rizzi first did drag in 1965 for Halloween. He performed in drag soon after. Within a few years several groups of local drag families had formed including the Oscars, Beekman Place and Henry Street. They united in 1973 and as Dennis, Rizzi became president of the Academy as it is now known. Over the next four-plus decades, Rizzi presided over the group that had several annual events including Miss Gaye Universe D.C. and Miss Gaye America D.C., its own version of the Academy Awards in which “Golden Boy” trophies were presented a la Oscars, and in which best actor and best actress prizes were given to the organization’s most dedicated members. Rizzi himself made the selections.
The group was also known for its philanthropic efforts giving money to Whitman-Walker, Brother Help Thyself and many other organizations. Academy members sometimes received aid through its Helping Our Own People (HOOP) Awards. Rizzi was pleased to present a check to Frank Kameny a few years ago for his many years of activism.
Rizzi told the Blade in 2011 on the Academy’s 50th anniversary that the group was founded 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.”
“She will be remembered as a tireless and very dedicated leader of the Academy of Washington,” said Andre Hopfer, who performs as Tula. “This organization was everything to her and her favorite man was her ‘Oscar.’ She loved to carry him onto the stage and frequently brought him along to other Academy events.”
“When I think of words to describe her, I think pioneer, legend, trailblazer and friend,” said Daniel Hays, who performs as Muffy Blake Stephyns. “Without her noble deeds … I would never have had the opportunity to perform and grow as a performer in D.C. I will cherish every minute we had together.”
“She paved the way for many a drag queen to come and be who you wanted to be in the Academy and everyone was a star in her eyes,” said Leon Hargraves, who as Chris Monroe, was Dennis’s drag daughter. “She was an icon to the drag community.”
No information on a funeral or memorial service was immediately available.