Richard Buttacavoli: Keeping it blue, with a splash of rainbow

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Richard Buttacavoli

Richard (Ricky) Buttacavoli is a true renaissance man. Over the years he has worked in a funeral parlor, dressed mannequins, influenced style as a young man in the department store business, he’s run events, worked as a DJ, and founded the Montgomery County LGBT Business Council. Now a behind-the-scenes politico, he runs Ricky’s Pride PAC and as soon as we recover from the pandemic, will start up the LGBTQ social group Guerrilla Gay Bar, a kind of flash mob where LGBTQ folks take over a bar or restaurant en mass. Oh, and he’s a Mummer too. I met Ricky at the Business Council’s TailGayte Party. The council is a great resource with virtual and in person events each month. 

Where do you hail from?

I grew up in Ambler, a lovely town. Then I went to school in NY for Merchandising and Visual Presentations, I worked in NY at various places, sold mannequins and worked at Saks 5th Avenue for a while. Then I lived in Philly for a short time, right across the street from Woody’s, after that I moved back to the suburbs, first to North Wales for 15 years, and now I’m in Lansdale. 

What was the best thing about living in the Gayborhood?

When there would be a Pride Festival. Just seeing people in the streets laughing, having fun and celebrating our pride was beautiful. 

What did your folks do?

My mother was a waitress for Meadow Lands Country Club; she was there for over 50 years. She loved it and the members all loved her, and my father was a machinist, blue collar. They worked hard, long hours to put me in private school and pay for my college education, along with some scholarships I got. They were wonderful parents and I miss them. 

What traits did you get from them?

I think I have my father’s sense of humor and my mother’s persistence, as well as her way with people. 

What were you like as Little Ricky?

The word I would use is enthusiastic. When I was very young I had a paper drive to raise money for my church, and when I was in 4th grade, I talked the parish priest into lending me the cafeteria and I put together a fair to raise money. We had games of chance and hot dogs and they published the event in the paper! And I’ve been doing charitable work ever since. As long as I’m enthusiastic about an issue or cause, I’ll dive right in. 

Sounds like you’ve been an event planner all your life.

Yeah, my event planning really took off when I moved back from NY and started working at the West Side Club in Norristown. It was a gay club that later became a gay after hours club. It was my introduction to the gay community. It showed me that nightclubs, past and present, often act as community centers. Norristown didn’t have one, so the club was where we met and raised money for causes like AIDS. It was a place to congregate and feel safe. It broke my heart when it closed and I was in mourning for many years. 

I remember the Lark in Norristown.

Another lost treasure. I’m one of the Executive Producers on a film about the bars that my friend Daniel Brooks is making with New Hope Celebrates.  

Daniel is great, I did his profile a while ago. When did you come out?

I came out around 1983, I was in my early 20’s and going to the Lark Bar. [Laughing] They didn’t have a DJ so I would bring mixtapes to play! I was excited when I was invited to spin at the West Side. It was a lot of fun. 

How did you find the initial connection to the community?

That’s a funny story. I had wandered into an adult shop and someone had written on a wall, “For a good time come to ——- and look for the blue light”. So I checked it out and it was this older guy who would host house parties for a lot of fellas my age. He was about 30, but that was old to us then. I learned about the Lark bar from the guys at the party and that’s when my world just opened up. I didn’t know anything about the gay community but I made friends at the bar and it changed my life. 

It’s interesting the way we find our place. 

Yeah, I knew nothing about the community, even though my brother was gay! I was afraid to come out even to him. He died of AIDS in 1987, so that was a tough time. I never officially came out to my parents, but they knew. [Laughing] My mother was very passionate and when she got angry, she got angry. I did something to really piss her off once and she yelled, “Stop lookin’ at poles and start lookin’ at holes!” She was in her 70’s at the time. 

Now that’s funny!

Yeah, I laughed out loud too, she was actually very cool about it. If me or my brother brought someone over they were always welcomed. Both my mother and father were very accepting. If my friends came into the house my mother would put a plate in front of them and say, “Stay for dinner.” 

So, you went to school for Merchandising and Visual Presentations, what made you study that?

When I was in 11th grade I got a job at Bamberger’s department store. After just a few months I was promoted to a yellow flower. I took an interest in moving merchandise, looking at the numbers and working the floor. They loved me and I really got into it for a bit, I’d talk to buyers, helped with floor design. Unfortunately, things changed as the stores merged and became bigger. The creativity for the individual stores was taken away and I lost interest. Plus I got sidetracked working in the nightclub industry. 

And when did you develop an interest in politics?

When Barack Obama was running for president, I really wanted him to win. I didn’t know anything about politics, but I knew that every vote counted, so when I had two new neighbors that hadn’t changed their registration yet, I offered to drive them to their old polling place. I contacted the local Democratic party and said, “Could you encourage people to make sure they change their registration when they move?” They invited me to a meeting to discuss it and I got roped in. I became involved in the party and it really put me on a different path in life. [Tearing up] I’ve met so many wonderful people in the party. I don’t mean to cry, but they’re like a 2nd family to me. [Wipes eyes and laughs] And that’s how that happened!

Preaching to the choir, I post things regularly about why I love my Dems. My nephew is getting into politics and people are calling him the next big thing out of Illinois! He’s in Vermont for school and at 19, he ran a state senate campaign and won. What made you start Ricky’s Pride PAC?

I felt that the LGBTQ community in Montgomery County needed a voice. I founded the Montgomery County LGBT Business Council, and when I decided to hand the reins over to Melissa Buckminster, I wanted to find new things to get involved in. I’d started the pack before but never did anything with it so this time I filed with the state and we got under way. There is an LGBTQ caucus, but they only work with LGBTQ candidates. I knew a lot of allies who were very supportive and I wanted to help get them elected too. The folks who supported me at my events, and were committed to the LGBTQ community. That’s how Ricky’s Pride PAC came about. 

I met some great politicians at the Fest last week. 

They are all incredible. I spoke to each and every one of them before endorsing them. They were all down to earth and truly care for us. One of them was taking pictures with the drag performers at the festival. 

And readers in Montco can go to your website to see the list of candidates you’ve endorsed, correct?

Yes, they’re all there. We have a lot of local candidates that we’re really excited about. I just had a chance to meet one of them, Adrian Serna, who’s running for Conshohocken Borough Council. I met him at an Asian, anti-hate rally and spoke to him for two hours before endorsing him. We actually went to the movies last week with the mayor of Conshohocken. 

So as an ex DJ, what’s the last song you played on your phone?

I’m kind of stuck in the 70’s & 80’s, I love my house music. Especially gospel house music. I’ve been getting into shape, working out by myself in the house, so Cathy Dennis, “Touch Me” was the song of choice. I haven’t DJ’d for a while, and frankly, I wasn’t that good at it, so as soon as they found someone else, I switched to doing lights which I loved. People underestimate the importance of a good light guy in a club; it makes a huge difference. It creates magic and mood. 

When I worked at Sisters and saw someone who I thought was cute, I’d get the light person to bring the lights up on them so I could get a better look!

That’s too funny! 

Best celebrity encounter?

I was taking a train to NY to go to a display convention and I sat down next to this tall, attractive woman. We started talking and I was telling her about the convention and that I spun music on the side and she asked me if I’d heard of Phyllis Hyman. I told her that I’d just won a Phyllis Hyman album on a radio contest, so yeah, I knew her music. And she said, “Good, because I’m Phyllis Hyman.” We talked all the way there and she signed an autograph for me and gave me her business card. She was great. I remember that I was sitting on my mother’s stoop when they announced that she had committed suicide. I lost it, it was so sad. But that was my brush with greatness. 

What would you pick for a drag name?

Hedda Overheels. Because I get so enthusiastic about things, I go all in, head over heels.

Favorite piece of clothing?

Bell Bottoms! They’re coming back baby! I love them, they’re very slimming and they look great with chunky, clunky shoes. I found a few pairs on Amazon. They’re hard to find for men, but I’m bringing them back! I was wearing them at the festival. 

Tattoos?

Several, I keep getting them. I don’t know if I’m going through a midlife crisis or what, but I was always attracted to guys with tattoos so now I’m getting my own. On Mother’s Day I got, “Blessed Mother” on my leg. I have a lot of tattoos, including my mother, father and brother’s signatures. I didn’t have anything with my mother’s signature, but luckily my sister had a copy of it. I’m getting my hands done next. I worried at first but then decided, at age 60 I’m gonna do what I want.

If you could own one famous piece of art, which would you choose?

Rodin’s “The Thinker”, I was always attracted to it. [Laughing] Maybe it was just because it was a good looking man, that and Atlas carrying the world. I have a replica of that one, but the original would be nice!

I need to get over to the Rodin museum, I live nearby but haven’t been yet.

I’ll go with you! I have to come into Philadelphia to drop off a proclamation from the Department of Health and Human Services. Cameron McConkey and I worked on a website about LGBTQ health, well it was my idea, but he did most of the heavy lifting. So when you go on the Montgomery County website, there’s a link that takes you to an LGBTQ Health Link where you can find all sorts of resources. We were given a proclamation from the county and I need to drop off his copy as well as a copy for the William Way archives. Which is another hobby of mine, I like to archive LGBTQ history. 

That’s great! Congratulations. 

Thank you, I’m just so grateful and honored. I’ve been so lucky. Over the years I got involved with the Montgomery County Democratic Committee I’ve been able to bring LGBT issues to light. I’ve never held office but I’ve been able to influence friends that I’ve made in government. 

I have a facebook page called Celebrating Non-discrimination in Montgomery County, and I did it to inspire people who were on the boards of areas that had not yet passed LGBTQ protective ordinances. I’ve been able to get about 5 municipalities to pass pro-LGBTQ protections. A while back I got to raise the Pride flag at the Montgomery County Courthouse for the first time at an event with Dr. Rachel Levine and other notables. And last week, the business council put my name on the Legacy Award, which totally floored me. When they showed me the award with my name on it… I lost it. You know, my sister owns two funeral homes and I worked there for a short time writing obituaries. At the time, I had done nothing, I was a party boy and I thought, “Jeeze, what are they going to write about me?” You see even little things like, ‘…was a member of the Garden club’ and I thought, I’m not a member of anything. I’ve done nothing. [Takes a moment] I have to say… if they buried me in the ground tomorrow, they’d have things to say about me now. God forbid, but at least now, I feel like I’ve contributed something to this world. I always do it in my brother’s name and in the name of all the gay men, the friends, that I’ve lost in my life.