Leaha Nova Rizzo, 77, entertainer

June 07, 1998|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Leaha Nova Rizzo, a former Block ecdysiast and costumer who was sometimes called "Baltimore's Betsy Ross of Pasties and Sequins," died Monday of Alzheimer's disease at Keswick Multi-Care Center in Roland Park. The Towson resident was 77.

Mrs. Rizzo sang and danced on The Block during the "Guys 'n' Dolls" era of the 1930s and '40s under the stage name Leaha Scotti, billed as "The Blonde Bombshell."

During World War II, she was a headliner and mainstay of the 2 O'Clock Club on Baltimore Street.

The former Leaha Willey was born and raised in Oklahoma. She began dancing and performing in burlesque in the mid-1930s.

"The burlesque circuit eventually brought her East, and she performed in clubs and theaters from New York to Havana," said her son, Ralph J. Rizzo Jr. of Towson.

In the mid-1940s, she left burlesque and established Leah Scotti's Costume Shoppe on East Baltimore Street, where she made custom gowns, panties and bras.

Mrs. Rizzo was a master of human architecture, and had as her slogan, "We make the wardrobe to fit the artist" -- designing garments to fit not only a client's body but her act.

In a 1976 interview, Mrs. Rizzo said, "There are no patterns for a 50-inch bust." She listened to what a performer wanted the garment to do, made notes, designed it and then sewed it.

"You make the costume as tight as you can. They all squeeze. As long as the zipper will hold, you're all right," she said.

Moving to a basement shop on North Charles Street, she created costumes for such Block legends as Blaze Starr.

With the passing of the golden age of burlesque -- and its performers in luxurious gowns with yards of material and thousands of sequins -- Mrs. Rizzo regretfully changed with the times. She expanded the business to include costumes for other uses, props, banners, waitress uniforms and hats.

Her work was recognized by England's Royal Doulton China Co., which commissioned her to make life-size reproductions of costumes worn by its china figurines.

She retired in 1992.

She was married in 1948 to Ralph J. Rizzo Sr., who died in 1990.

In addition to her son, she is survived by a daughter, Atheanna Louise Walsh of Finksburg; a sister, Helen L. Willey of Baltimore; and three grandchildren.

Services were held yesterday.

Pub Date: 6/07/98

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