James Rizzuto is known in Carnival circles as the "Wig Master." A makeup artist for Vieux Carré Hair Shop, he spends Mardi Gras backstage at more than a dozen balls, preparing kings, captains, pages, clowns and everyone in between for their royal presentation.
With a welcoming face, tufts of white hair and a dark blue pharmacy jacket, Rizzuto looks like a neighborhood barber. A terrific conversationalist, he reads tarot cards in his free time and wears a short white rat-tail braid that reminds him, "of a time in the '60s, when people were nice to each other."
Spread on a table in an otherwise empty hotel conference room overlooking Canal Street, a beauty pageant-worthy array of makeup supplies includes tissue boxes, hairspray, makeup brushes, sponges, a spectrum of brown bronzes, red lipsticks and pink blushes. There is a brown wig with gold highlights, a wavy beach blonde and a short black wig originally intended for a Barack Obama impression that will be used instead to recreate Michael Jackson circa Thriller. A hatbox contains a gold satin crown glimmering with costume diamonds.
The roar of men preparing for the Janus ball rises from another room as "Sweet Home Alabama" blasts in the background. The air smells of beer and whiskey. A husky male voice shouts, "Yeah, baby, yeah! I am going to take an Oscar for this."
Janus, a nonparading Carnival club established in the 1940s, is modeled after the old-line clubs but seems more like a fraternity.
A short, balding doctor walks into the conference room in a gray T-shirt, yellow shorts worn over mustard-colored tights and gold boots.
"You ready for this?" Rizzuto asks.
"They give you so many instructions," confides the man, about to reign as King of Janus.
"Yes, but you will be good at it," Rizzuto assures.
Rizzuto covers the king with a layer of brown bronzer to create a Florida tan, and brushes his face to smooth out the makeup. With a brown pencil he fills in the king's eyebrows to make them pop. He creates contrast on the cheeks with a pink blush and runs a paintbrush full of color across the man's lips.
"I try to give his face contrast so when it is hit with the lights, it can be seen," Rizzuto explains.
He applies a layer of theatrical glue around the man's jawbone and presses the beard to the king's face. The monarch leaves mid-transformation to finish dressing. He returns wearing a gold robe, moving with the mobility of a bejeweled scarecrow. He sits down and Rizzuto outfits him with a brown and gray wig. The colors were chosen according to this king's complexion and gold motif.
Rizzuto, who always coronates his kings, sets the glimmering crown on the man's head and shoves bobby pins around the perimeter. The king winces.
"It is painful to be king," he says.
The windows of the Vieux Carré Hair Shop are lined with full-face masks of all shapes, styles and ethnicities, which, arranged together on mannequin heads, look like the French Revolution's busiest day at the guillotine. Many shops sell magenta Marie Antoinette wigs, rhinestone eyelashes and rubber boobs, which Vieux Carré does also. But not every shop staff can fulfill the Carnival dreams of kings and queens with personalized wig shopping and handmade beard application, all while providing the confidential advice of a psychotherapist.
Beyond the celebrated "We Have Warts" sign on the front door, patrons are welcomed to New Orleans's oldest home of masquerade by cherry red curls, maroon bobs, long white gloves, Darth Vader masks and beatnik cigarette holders. Directly in front, under the register, the shop sells pointy bras wrapped in Mardi Gras beads that would drive Madonna nuts.
The space smells musty, like old cardboard with a hint of mothball. Rizzuto sits on a stool in the kings' room, a small closet in the rear of the store no bigger than 4 by 5 feet. White boxes, labeled with the names of dozens of Mardi Gras clubs, are stacked on the wall. In his lap, he is hand-sewing several wefts of blonde human hair to a green cap already fitted for a king. Before it is attached, the human hair is washed, dried and set with curlers. Once finished, he protects his work with a hairnet and sends the hat to the costumer to add additional accessories. Rizzuto then resets the wig to ensure perfection.
Vieux Carré is involved in the costuming of more than 42 New Orleans clubs and does everything from making up the King of Hermes to hand-crafting wigs for Momus. Today, Robert Saussaye, Lynn Highstreet and James Rizzuto run the fifth-generation business. Like the Hollywood stylists who make sure no one appears on the red carpet in the same Versace gown, Vieux Carré ensures the King of Janus is not wearing the same wig or beard as the Captain of Nerus, nor any costumed man in the crowd. "It is part of maintaining the secret, mystique and mystery of Mardi Gras," Highstreet says. "If there is a king, he is not retail. There is a certain level of secrecy and we try to keep him away from the public and make appointments so the kings don't run into each other."
It is difficult to imagine a costume dream that Vieux Carré could not bring to life. "Some things would take some time, but I think we could probably do just about anything," Highstreet says. She is not bragging. "We provide a service: They tell us what they want, and they leave knowing everything and how to use it."
Vieux Carré's business carries on 130-plus years of costuming tradition. Euginie Saussaye, Highstreet's great-grandmother, emigrated from France and found a job in the French Quarter making hairpieces. A natural who loved the artistry of weaving hair, she eventually learned more complicated processes and began to sell her work to performers at the French Opera House. She founded the Vieux Carré Hair Shop in the French Quarter in 1877. "People would come up to the counter and ask to see different things, and she would just say 'Do you want it, or don't you want it?' And then she would return to her work," Highstreet says, recalling the introverted matriarch.
Rizzuto, who never met Euginie, believes her ghost haunted the store's former location at 805 Royal St. "She was absolutely weird," he says of the ghost. "She grew to like me later, but she saw me as an intruder at first. I was in the shop, working, and she was standing behind me and she kept complaining. She said, 'Faster, faster.'"
The business became the consumer-oriented labor of love that it is today when Euginie's grandson and Highstreet's father, Herbert Saussaye, took charge. He reveled in the opportunity to interact with the diverse patrons of the shop. Under Saussaye, the shop outfitted everyone from the krewe members, to opera singers to neighborhood transvestites, for whom he would keep special supplies of fake eyelashes. "My dad always taught me: If they come in dressed as a woman, you address them as a woman, and if they come in as a man, you address them as a man," Highstreet says.
According to family lore, Herbert Saussaye started making up the krewes in the late 1940s. "He made connections at the opera, which was high society at the time, and in barrooms," Highstreet remembers. Notably absent from Vieux Carré's list of clients are the old-line krewes of Rex and Comus, who are dressed by another Carnival family business, owned by the Dillons. Years ago, a member of the Dillon family and Herbert agreed to split the krewes. The Dillons wanted Rex and Comus, and Herbert took the rest. "We still make new contacts at each ball," Rizzuto explains of the expanding business. Their clients mostly include the predominantly white clubs. "Not all African-American kings go to that extent. They don't go as far with disguise," he explains, "We are lucky to do one a year."
Most of the Saussaye family learned the trade on the job. William J. Saussaye, who represents the fifth generation, has been working in the family business since he was 14. "By the time I was about 9, my dad said 'Well, OK, it is time for you to do this,'" Highstreet remembers. "So then, I would do all the pages, and then eventually I'd do the other guys." Rizzuto, a family friend, has been working for the shop for almost three decades. "We have seen so many that we can help them look the best they can — from the neck up," Highstreet explains. The king comes in twice for measurements, first to the get the size of his head for the wig, and then to check the final look. Rizzuto always asks if there are rhinestones in the collar. "If the wig is too long, it will grab the rhinestones, and then they will look like spastics."
Vieux Carré also offers new royalty emotional support at the ball. "We have done some people as pages and then as dukes and then as king and then as captains. The same person, we have seen from the beginning to the ultimate," Highstreet says.
Rizzuto remembers asking one politician king, "'Do you have your undies? Bloomers? Tights?' And he didn't even know what they were. I had to help him put them on."
The traditions of Mardi Gras preserve the traditions of Vieux Carré. "It is sort of like a bride on her wedding day," Highstreet says. "Their grandfather may have been king, and maybe their father, and now it is their turn. We are here, with confidence, to make them feel special."
Like a Valentino red or a Chanel black, the artistry of Vieux Carré has stamped a signature look on Mardi Gras. "I have a reputation for 'if I don't like it, you are not going to wear it,'" Rizzuto says. He reviews photos of his kings at the end of every season to critique his work. "They don't know what they want. Some think that they would look good as a cotton top king. But if you put it on them, then it looks stupid." He picks his wig colors carefully. "I don't put black on, it makes them look too sinister. I will do brown." Rizzuto left his mark recently when he moved kings away from heavy rolls and hairnets towards a pageboy style. "Some of the younger kings looked terrible in it. That, I changed without anyone noticing and was very happy." Like any trendsetter, Rizzuto knows what he likes. He prefers human hair to the wool beards, which the Dillon stylists purchase from Vieux Carré. "One year, Rex wanted to be a red-head, so we furnished a redhead wig and redhead beard. When he got to Canal Street, he looked like Bozo." The beard-maker assures, "I am not going to do the same thing as Rex. We have gotten much more classy. The wind has a way of growing the beards. Sometimes you see the kings pulling hair out of their mouths. I hate that. It is so tacky."
"Hey, James, they are teasing me. They said, they want a double with fries," says King Janus, who looks like a cross between a Shakespearean Richard II and the Burger King.
"My fans say my mustache is coming off. Is it, James?" he asks, "I don't have to listen to them. I would rather listen to you."
Rizzuto paints spirit glue under the man's mustache. The heavy crown will also present this king with obstacles. "Don't bend down. Bow to a wife. If you don't have one of those, you are in the clear. Nod to everyone else. I am here if you need anything."
Transformed, the King of Janus exits the room. His giant gold cape spins, glimmering, as he carries his scepter hesitantly.