Remembering my friend Michael Wallace and his Mom Dixie Belle; From Alabama to Radio City and NBC!

One of the most talented people I ever met in New York City was costume assistant and apprentice designer Michael Wallace, whom I met when I worked at Radio City Music Hall.  I’ve often thought that if Michael hadn’t died young, his name would be on labels in department stores because he was such a creative force.  He loved the Italian designers…he used to say “Armani designs for the WIVES and Versace designs for the MISTRESSES.” Ha Ha Ha.
I remember when Michael turned down a couple offers to design for Calvin Klein, Nolan Miller, Bob Mackie and other big-named designers because his clothes wouldn’t be “his”…the label would have  the other designer’s name. Michael used to say…”I’m waiting for the right offer because some day I want MY name on the label.”
It makes me sad when I think about him because I know he would have been a fashion superstar! There is now a hot young British designer named Michael Wallace, but it’s a different person. 
I’m still friends with many of my Radio City friends from those days including a few Rockettes but Michael Wallace unique.   He was a soft-spoken southern boy with white-blond hair and blue eyes. Michael was from Birmingham, Alabama and made his way to New York, where he put his costume skills to work at Radio City, across the street at NBC Studios for Saturday Night Live and also occasionally working as a costume assistant in the movies. Michael was a victim of the horrible AIDS epidemic that swept thru the entertainment industry. His memorial was in the Saturday Night Live studio and his friend Liza Minnelli led the service.
I worked one floor above the Radio City costume shop in the Art Department and later Public Relations/Special Events. The Radio City Costume shop, run by two talented ladies, Lee Ann and Penny was a busy place, especially in the weeks before a new show was opening.  The centerpiece was a large room filled with sewing machines where the various tailors and seamstresses turned out costumes for the Rockettes and other performers.
Since I was raised in Kentucky and Michael in Alabama, we bonded immediately and realized we both lived a short walk from the Music Hall. Michael lived on West 55th Street and I lived on West 52nd Street so we would often leave work and walk home together. Michael had a “side” business in his apartment designing dresses and gowns for famous women that he met at Radio City and Rockefeller Center. He did dresses for many actresses and TV personalities like Liza Minnelli and Jane Pauley. His apartment had dress dummies in various sizes where he could work on the dresses and then have the women drop by for final fittings. I remember him listening to his answering machine (remember answering machines?) and almost every message was a celebrity asking about her dress. Every other message seemed to be from Liza Minnelli, whom Michael had become friends with on a movie she starred in and he was her costume assistant. She had given him a key to her Eastside apartment and she always gave him gifts of jewelry, watches, etc. even though he told her to stop.
When I asked Michael how he got into the costume & design industry, he blamed his Mom…her name was Dixie. He said she was a southern belle turned STRIPPER. As a little boy, she brought Michael all over the south where she was billed as DIXIE BELLE—the STAR OF THE SOUTH. He would sit backstage in dressing rooms and learned to sew and help make and fix costumes for his Mom and the other strippers, so it was natural to go into the costume business.
I remember when Dixie moved to New York to be near her only son…she got a job as a receptionist in a dental office and then later Michael got her a job at NBC as a costume assistant for Saturday Night Live, where Michael was now in charge. I asked Michael where she was living and he got this panicked look in his eyes…”She’s got an apartment at the building RIGHT NEXT DOOR!!” he almost shouted! I remember how hard I laughed but Michael was NOT laughing. Later Dixie moved into Michael's building just down the hall.

Dixie was a total character who worshipped her son and was so proud of the success he was enjoying in New York show business circles. Later it was a blessing when Michael became ill with AIDS…his Mom was right there to take care of him...just down the hall.…to the end. It completely broke her heart to lose him, and a couple years later I heard that a devastated and heartbroken Dixie committed suicide. She just couldn't live without him.
I want to believe that Michael Wallace is now designing for the angels and Dixie is proudly watching.


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