Carl Rizzi Papers on the Academy of Washington : Digital Collection
The year 1961 saw the creation of two of Washington's first organized LGBT groups, the Mattachine Society of Washington and the Oscars. The Academy Awards of Washington, an amalgam of Oscars members and Awards Club (1965) members, incorporated in 1973 in Washington, DC, provides secure venues, mentoring, and a structure for female impersonators in the area. It is one of the oldest and most enduring organizations in the nation to provide support for female impersonators.
The Climate for Drag in the Sixties
Until 'Liz Taylor' created the Oscars in the autumn of 1961, drag performers and those aspiring to 'do drag' had no organized structure, no venues, and very little safety. In the repressive atmosphere of the 1950s and 1960s, wearing drag was an invitation to scorn and physical danger. Wearing drag was illegal in most southern states, and Washington DC was indeed southern in those days, though drag was never illegal in the district. Still it invited arrest and persecution. Public social spaces didn't allow drag (an ostracism that existed until well into the 1970s). Those who wanted to wear drag did it in the privacy of their homes or at private after hour parties. Indeed, Liz Taylor's house parties at her Hollywood House on Monroe St. NW were legendary in their time.
Many clubs would not allow patrons in drag to enter, and few hosted drag shows. The single exception was the Golden Key Club in North Beach, MD. For other clubs, drag and drag shows were an option only during Halloween Week, which Mame Dennis calls "the high holy days of drag". At Halloween, the Brown Derby, the Chicken Hut, Hide-a-way, Georgetown Grill, Johnnie's, and the Rendezvous organized drag contests.
Creating a Safe Haven for Female Impersonators
Along with the Mattachine Society of Washington, the Oscars and the Awards Club were the very first organized groups for gays in the Washington area. Recalling her vision for the Academies, Liz Taylor said "... I 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... I knew that some form of drag group was necessary. I had thought about it for a long time -- and suddenly I found the answer one evening on television -- the first time I saw an Awards show called the Oscars." The first parties were held in various homes in Washington DC, which took on special names such as Blair House, Butterfield 8, Camelot, Hollywood House, Mintwood Place, Port Valada, Sand Piper, Taylor Lounge, and others. In time, these house names became the names of 'drag houses', associations of female impersonators who participated in the social activities of the Academy Awards. The first board members of the Academy were Lix Taylor (President), Bob Clauze, Prince Karl, Frankie, and 'Lena Horne'.
Organization of the Academy
The Academy's Houses in 1976
The houses of the Academy over 30 years have included Beekman Place (led by 'Mame Dennis'), Butterfield 8 ('Liz Taylor's house), Maryland House (led by 'Patty Duke'), Henry Street (led by 'Fanny Brice'), Liberty House, Dragonwyck, Phoenix House (led by 'Jean Nate'), and Twelve Oaks (led by 'Mae Bush').
In 1965, Jerry Buskirk and 'Vivien Leigh' led the formation of a second group, the Awards Club of Washington. The Awards Club organized the International Emmy Awards. By 1968, many members of the first Academy were also members of the Awards Club.
Bill Oates Jr. & Mame Dennis In May 1973 Bill Oates Jr. ("the Godfather") brokered an agreement creating the Academy Awards of Washington, led by 'Elizabeth Taylor', 'Mame Dennis', 'Patti Duke' and 'Fanny Brice'. Beekman Place and Henry Street Houses rejoined the Academy at this time. 'Mame Dennis' (of Beekman Place), chosen as president in 1973, continues to lead the group. Bill Oates, who became known as "The Godfather", helped put together the structure of the new group. The original houses of the Academy Awards of Washington were Beekman Place, Butterfield 8, Henry Street, and Maryland House. Liberty House (led by 'Edie Gorme') was added in 1974.
In 1975, the Academy re-organized following a period of internal dispute. The new organization included the houses of Beekman Place, Dragonwyck (of Hagerstown, MD), Henry Street, Maryland House, Phoenix House, and Twelve Oaks (of Norfolk and Richmond).
In the 1960s, most hotels and clubs would not host drag events. In its first years, the Academy held monthly contests at the short-lived Uptown Lounge in Cleveland Park. It was at the Uptown that 'Liz Taylor' first did her long remembered rendition of "Letter to Daddy".
'Fanny Brice's house, Henry Street, formed a drag performance show, Showstoppers, in 1971, which premiered at Georgetown's Trinity Theatre in September 1971. In May 1972, the Showstoppers group participated in DC's first Gay Pride celebration with a show at George Washington University's Marvin Center. Showstoppers appeared at the Marvin Center from 1973 to 1981. Showstoppers endured for many years as a very popular annual production in Washington DC's GLBT community.
Until 1968 when the Washington Hilton hosted the Black Pearl Awards, most events were held at the Cairo Hotel, Casino Royale, Dodge House, and the Palm Ballroom. One of the first venues used by the Academy Awards after 1973 was the third floor area above the Hideaway and Louie's clubs at 9th and Pennsylvania NW. This third floor space became the Oscar's Eye Theatre and was used for most of the Academy and house functions. In the 1970s, Academy members became involved in the Waaay Off Broadway theatre at 55 L St. SE. Beekman place opened the theatre with its production of Cabaret. The Academy held events at the Rogue, after the latter's move to 5th and K Streets NW. In 1992, the former Waaay Off Broadway theatre became Club 55, and Academy events were invited to move there. It is still the home of many Academy functions. The Academy Awards holds events every Sunday from September through May at the Club 55, 55 L Street SE (formerly the location of the Waaay Off Broadway theatre).
Protocols and Events
From the beginning in 1961, the Academy has sponsored Oscars for Best Actress, Best Actor, Best Drag in a Series, President and First Lady, Mr and Miss Academy, Mr and Miss Showbusiness, Vice President and Vice Lady, New York Drama Critics Best Actor and Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress, and Mr and Miss Oscar. In addition to regularly scheduled drag balls, the Academy's top annual pageants are those for Miss Gaye Universe-DC and Miss Gaye America-DC. Monthly contests at Club 55 present Zodiac awards. Annual special awards, such as the 'Lanie Kazan', recognize outstanding contributions to the community.
At pageants, the order of appearance of award winners is strictly controlled by the Protocol. For some titles, the winners make make an entrance on stage. Top awards, such as Miss Gaye America and Miss Gay Universe, are 'walking' awards entitling the winner to take a formal presentation walk on stage before the audience.
'Fanny Brice', speaking to Bruce Pennington in a 1975 interview for Friends Radio talks about her first drag experience. Brice was 'mother' of the Henry Street drag house and founder of the popular Showstoppers revue of the 1970s.
- Rizzi, Carl