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D.C. Drag Queens Discuss Starting Over

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. In a minute, we remember two important cultural figures who died over the weekend, Bernie Mac and Isaac Hayes, and we'll hear my thoughts about the upcoming presidential debates.

But first, our weekly visit to the pages of the Washington Post Magazine. Just about every week we dip into the pages of the Post Magazine for interesting stories about the way we live now. Today, baseball and the drag scene. We'll explain.

When Washington's new baseball stadium opened this spring in the city's southeast section, many saw it as a new beginning for a troubled, economically depressed area, but it also marked the end of an era for a group of drag queens who had made the neighborhood an unlikely haven. Lonnae O'Neal Parker wrote about it for the Washington Post Magazine and Carl Rizzi, also known as "Mame Dennis," was one of the stars of the scene and the article and they both join us now. Welcome. Thank you for talking to us.

Ms. LONNAE O'NEAL PARKER (Staff Writer, Washington Post Magazine): Hi, there. Thank so much for having us.

MARTIN: Hi, Carl. How are you?

Mr. CARL RIZZI (Drag Queen "Mame Dennis"): Yes, I'm fine. Thank you.

MARTIN: So Lonnae, what led you to the story?

Ms. O'NEAL PARKER: Well, it's interesting because with the ball stadium coming, I knew I wanted to do a story about a business that had been displaced and some lives upended. I thought I was going to find a guy who owned a drycleaner and was selling peanuts and that at the stadium or trying to get a vending job. I got there and started talking to folks, though, and I found the queens.

And that was such a compelling story. They had such a long history there, and it really was exactly what I was looking for, this story of loss and lives upended with a little sparkle added in, so it was a definite do.

MARTIN: Carl, how did you become a part of the drag scene in southeast Washington? I mean, obviously, it's a complicated story, both emotionally and as sort of a long history, but if you could, just briefly, how did you get into drag?

Mr. RIZZI: I started on a - at a private party and it led to Halloween.

MARTIN: OK. That's short and sweet. But how did you get to be Mame Dennis from just - a lot of people like to dress up on Halloween and it's great - it's a great time of year to try on, sort of, other identities, as it were. But how did you get from there to, you know, performing and actually to presiding over a whole community, really a performance?

Mr. RIZZI: It all started at a bar called The Chicken Hut back in the '60s. The main entertainment was piano playing and singing, and I love to sing. I had sung in high school and I was singing there regularly on weekends. And they started calling me Auntie Mame because I always had a long cigarette holder and wore bracelets and...

Ms. O'NEAL PARKER: A little bit of eyeshadow.

Mr. RIZZI: A little bit of eyeshadow. And like I said, that first Halloween, when I went there, "Mame" had just opened recently on Broadway with Angela Lansbury, which I did get to see, by the way. And that's how the name started, and performing there led to more drag and performing on stage with this group called The Academy.

MARTIN: One of the revelations of this piece - of your piece - was that a lot of the drag queens were not so nice to each other in the early days. In fact, there was this one known as Liz Taylor, who was quite an authoritarian...

Ms. O'NEAL PARKER: Oh, my God.

MARTIN: And in fact, was kind of a racist, also, didn't include other African-Americans in the scene. What's up with that?

Ms. O'NEAL PARKER: Even in a community that had no shortage of characters, she stood out to me as a character in the way that Carl would talk about her. My dear, you will do this and you will do that, and she established protocols of wardrobe and acting, and then, you know - so in addition to her need for control, she was a mean drunk, right, Carl?

Mr. RIZZI: Well, unfortunately, yes.

Ms. O'NEAL PARKER: And she wasn't a pretty drag, which was a problem.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: But Carl, you opened the doors to African-Americans to participate in the community. How was that received?

Mr. RIZZI: Quite well because there were a lot of people, African-Americans, who just wanted to be a part of what we were doing and I saw no reason why they couldn't any more than the gay girls are the men onstage, and it just all evolved that everyone got involved.

MARTIN: Lonnae, some people would hypothesize that this whole world that you're talking about survived and thrived in part because of extreme repression. And part because, you know, you had to sort of - if you were going to kind of live a certain fantasy, you had to do it behind closed doors. And you know, that's over with. There are thriving, affluent, sort of, gay neighborhoods, there are gay bars that you can go to, you don't have to sort of blacken the windows and all that other stuff. Given that, is there something really lost with the closing of these clubs?

Ms. O'NEAL PARKER: Oh, there absolutely is something lost. As I was doing the reporting and could tell that the genuine mourning of a place whose roots stretch back 30 years, and it occurred to me, I was like, I understand, you know, revitalization and redevelopment and this idea of a greater good and all of that. But are we willing to lose all the textured places of the city? Is there really no room for these kinds of places and people who had already felt marginalized, which is what pushed them to the edge of the city in the first place?

And we're, again, talking about a neighborhood that had been there for decades. And so anytime you kind of break that up, you're losing history. You're losing tradition. You're losing people who had attachments to one another and to places, and I don't know how you can quantify it. I just do it with the stories. These are stories of rebuilding but they are stories of loss, as well.

MARTIN: And Carl, just briefly, do you still feel the loss? Do you have any place to put on your fabulousness and let everybody know how fabulous you are?

Mr. RIZZI: Well, yes. We've been using a bar called Apex this past season and everything has worked out fine there, but it's not the stage and the area that we really need to do what we're used to. The unfortunate part is that so many of the people that had these buildings, like Ron and Delores(ph), have not been able to open. They get blocked no matter what they try and it just - it's just not happening for them or for these other people that had places.

Ms. O'NEAL PARKER: That they were shut down and hadn't been able to re-open is the point, yeah.

MARTIN: So it suggests that the world isn't as welcoming as perhaps we'd like to think that it is. Carl Rizzi, also known as Mame Dennis, joined us by phone from his home in Arlington, Virginia. Lonnae O'Neal Parker is a staff writer for the Washington Post. Her piece is titled, "Long Live the Queens." If you want to read it in its entirety, we will have a link on our Web site. She joined us in our Washington studio. Thank you so much to both of you for talking to us.

Ms. O'NEAL PARKER: Thanks for having us.

Mr. RIZZI: Appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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