I was a 14 year-old dancer living with my family in Long Beach, California when I was invited to join the Long Beach Civic Light Opera Company, which was a semi-professional organization at that time. I was thrilled. Not only did I get to dance, but as the youngest member of the company, I was lovingly taught by the older members how to build scenery, sew costumes, apply my own make-up and do my own hair. The beautiful older dancer who helped me with my hair styling had long blond hair down to her waistline and she was fond of saying, “Your Hair Is Your Crowning Glory!” How true it was and is.
Yes, all performers know that hair style is an important part of both our personal appearance and our professional Look. However, while a personal hair style may last years, our professional look changes for every show. At the highest professional level of the Performing Arts, namely Broadway, Opera, Nightclubs and Ballet, HAIR STYLISTS are responsible for the hair look of the production and they style the hair for stars and soloists. The chorus members are usually coached by the stylists on how to achieve the hair look themselves, and/or are helped by the wardrobe staﬀ. Instructive drawings are often taped to dressing room walls.
Sometimes, performers are required to wear wigs. As a New York City dancer, I wore wigs both at the 1964 New York World’s Fair extravaganza, To Broadway With Love and at the World Famous Latin Quarter nightclub. But, generally, my hair, both personal and professional, was my responsibility. I was always armed with electric curlers, regular curlers, curling irons, rubber bands, hair spray, shampoos, combs, brushes, hair pins, bobby pins, styling gel, hair pieces and scissors. I was an expert at doing my own ballet buns, French rolls, pig tails, pony tails, pixie bangs, flips, spit curls, big curls and long sexy hair styles – à la Veronica Lake. At one point, I was ironing my hair on the ironing board trying to make it hang straight. Whatever worked at that moment. Whatever would get me the job. Whatever would help me keep the job.
However, all of my personal hair tricks were not necessary when, in 1966, I became a Copa Girl at the legendary Copacabana nightclub. The Copa required that all Copa Girls wear The COPA HAIR do, which was hair swept up into large, round and firm curls on top of your head affectionately called a Beehive.
To maintain this glamorous hair style, The Copa sent us everyday, all expenses paid, to the Larry Matthew’s Beauty Salon at the Great Northern Hotel on W. 57th Street. Larry Matthews was New York City’s famous chain of 24 hour a day beauty salons. In the city that never slept, they never closed and since they never closed, there was never any rush unless you were rushed.
Refreshments were served. No matter what time you arrived, the stylists embraced you. They looked at you. They discussed your hair color. Mine was a dark brunette. They discussed your eyebrows, but since Liz Taylor didn’t pluck her eyebrows, I didn’t pluck mine. They discussed your eye make-up and eyelashes. How can your eyes look bigger? By wearing double eye lashes and extending your black eyeliner out towards your temples. They discussed your lips. What could be done to enhance them? No Botox then. Try Revlon’s Fire and Ice lipstick outlined with a darker color and made more luscious by a provocative lip gloss. Stylists massaged your head, shoulders, back, arms and hands and they gossiped! “Where did you go in-between shows? Did you go to Danny’s Hideaway or the Playboy Club or Jilly’s? Where are you taking Dance Classes now? June Taylor, Richard Thomas, Ballet Arts, Luigi’s or Matt Mattox. Who are you dating? Anyone new? Is he attractive in all the right places? Is he married or single and, most importantly, is he rich? Does he pick you up in a limo? Does he give you cab fare? Or is he your high-school sweetheart?”
My own personal stylist was an extremely handsome blonde guy named Sergai. He lavished enormous amounts of time on my curls. He slowly wound each curl on his magical fingers and placed it carefully on top of my head. It took me years to realize that he was probably stoned. Sometimes, after a wash, I sat under the big metal helmet hair dryers and closed my eyes while having my fingernails and toenails manicured. Notice I said, “under the dryers” because blow drying hair in salons was still a novelty. One Copa Girl thought it was a dirty joke. “Hey,” she said, “did you hear that they’re ‘blow drying’ your hair in the Village!” Anyway, the whole experience at Larry Matthews was heavenly. I relaxed. I stopped worrying about my future and when I would meet Mr. Right, I became addicted. I was convinced that if I went to the beauty salon, everything would be ok.
After my stint at The Copa ended, I continued to go to Larry Matthews Beauty Salons for the rest of my theatrical career and beyond. Larry Matthews helped me to get jobs on Broadway, at Jones Beach, in Minsky’s, in TV Commercials, at Hair Shows and exercise studios and even at Bloomingdales spritzing perfume. True, it wasn’t free anymore, but it was always reasonable. And it was always relaxing. No therapists needed. At one point, I even sported a fashionable Afro but the perms took a toll on my hair. At another point, I cut my hair very short in the Gamine style inspired by the famous French Ballerina, Zizi Jeanmaire.
As the years went by, Larry Matthews salons began to close down as other trendy hairdressers and salons came onto the scene. I occasionally modeled for stylists at these new salons and got a reduced fee, or a free haircut. But one memorable day, I went to a salon which had advertised for models and I was rudely rejected. They said that I didn’t have the right type of hair for them, and it was then that I quietly realized that I was no longer a Copa Girl or a Latin Quarter showgirl or any kind of “Girl” at all. I was a middle aged woman. True, I was still getting my color done at the Revlon labs for free, but they always allowed for an age range. Other older show-biz types were going to beauty schools, which always needed customers. I went and they were fine, but it was hard to get an appointment when you needed one. Finally, after getting married and divorced, I got a very good job at the Metropolitan Opera where I worked long hours and I needed to find a Beauty Salon close to Lincoln Center. Enter SUPERCUTS! They were courteous, eﬃcient and cheap. They weren’t relaxing, but then, I didn’t have time to relax anymore. However, because of intensive competition, they too began closing their doors.
Well, I’m retired now and entering my 8th decade and the Crowning Glory of my hair is, as the poet TS Eliot said, “growing thin.” It also grows very slowly. So slowly, in fact, that I only need go to the beauty salon three times a year. And, because of the Covid lockdown, my old salon closed down, but my stylist, Jolie, moved to a great new salon on Columbus Avenue that has an astounding decor of white marble floors, mirrored walls and a diamond disco ball hanging from the ceiling. Pure glitz! But, in spite of its disco atmosphere, most of the cliental are over 40. Jolie is a lovely woman with children, but I rarely discuss my past with her because I’d have to explain too much. And it’s not relaxing. You must arrive exactly on time and leave exactly on time. That means only one hour for shampoo, cut, and blow dry. Thank god, there’s always some kind of gossip! Last visit, Jolie told me that the shiny long black hair of the younger woman sitting next to me was all hair implants and had cost a fortune. I was stunned. Of course, my appointment isn’t free either. The salon’s prices are average by today’s standards but still, with tips, it comes to almost $100.00. And, if I decide to change my color to platinum grey, it will be another $100 or more!
As the new age gurus teach us, I do have choices. I occasionally use some of my old personal hair tricks and cut my hair myself. It doesn’t look too bad, but I’ve lost my knack. Or I could bus it over to the last SUPERCUTS in town where the senior rate is $26.46 plus tip, or I could join another retired friend who goes to a salon in Chinatown where the whole process of wash, cut and blow dry, which was $28.00 plus tip has now inflated to $36.00 plus tip. Very cheap, but cheap doesn’t work for me anymore. Too much running around wears me out and I still need a little touch of glamor. What I need is to find an inexpensive fashionista beauty salon where I can hang out, and just for a while, relax and get lost in a dazzling reverie of handsome beauticians, big curls, dance classes, singing classes, dressing rooms, double eye-lashes, French-cut leotards, g-strings, pouty lips, sequined costumes, body paint, rhinestone jewelry, live music and dancing in the bright lights for happy audiences. Because, in spite of being a senior citizen, I’m still a Copa Girl at heart.
This article was written by dancer, writer, Francine M. Storey. Copyright June 28, 2022. To learn more about Francine’s life and career, watch her oral history video here.