Happy 40th anniversary
By Rita Papazian
Just as a comb and a few strands of hair on a black canvas painting titled "Hair" by Jim Dine became the inspiration for "Hair," the rock musical that is now enjoying a revival at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre in Manhattan, the musical, in turn, became the inspiration for the name of the hair salon that Charles Tuozzoli opened at 39 South Pine Creek Road in 1969, just nine months after the musical's Broadway debut.
While just nine months separate the musical and the hair salon's opening, both continue to take pride in pleasing patrons for 40 years now.
Reflecting upon the four decades at the same location, Tuozzoli said he had decided to name his new salon shortly after seeing the Broadway show. In reading the musical's history, one can see similarities. They both brought vitality and spirit to their own landscapes and created a buzz about the innovative techniques unique to each venue.
When asked the secret to his longevity in a very competitive industry, Tuozzoli said, "I'm a very good business person. I work with the best people in Fairfield County, said the owner, who also gives much credit for his sustainability to the loyal customers who have been coming to the salon for years.
Tuozzoli opened his salon in a former two-story residential house, a short distance from the intersection with the Post Road. He received the required variances and renovated the house to accommodate his hair salon, which he opened after working a few years at a salon in Westport.
Just as the musical was singing of the age of Aquarius and the rebellion against convention, Tuozzoli had a front-row seat in the hair industry where women were beginning to wean themselves from the weekly standard appointment for a "wash and set" and experimenting with the more natural, longer hairstyles.
During his first year, patrons came to hair for the wash and set and then they began getting their hair blow-dried. Originally, the mothers came and brought their children, Tuozzoli said. When the hair salon began to get is reputation for being the "hip place," the young people started bringing their mothers.
Many people today may not know that Tuozzoli is responsible for the state law allowing hair salons to provide services to male clients. Before 1974, the law had allowed barbers to cut women's hair, but hair salon owners could not service male clients.
Enter Richard Belzer, who many people know today as the successful actor and comedian. But Belzer, a 1962 graduate of Andrew Warde High School, also is a longtime personal friend of Tuozzoli, dating back to their high school days. In 1974, Belzer became the co-plaintiff with Tuozzoli in a lawsuit challenging the law that prohibited hairdressers the right to service male clients while allowing barbers to cut the hair of both men and women clients. They won the lawsuit.
Back in the 1970s, Tuozzoli said he had been cutting Belzer's hair, but needed someone to file ths lawsuit. He wanted to ensure that his business followed all the laws.
"[Belzer] gets a big kick out of it. He thinks he's the one in the state that changed the law." In essence, he did.
Hairstylist William Zane, who has been with Tuozzoli for 20 years, said, "A big part of his success is in preserving the culture of the salon." He explained that Tuozzoli emphasizes the importance in recognizing that the hair industry is a service industry.
Zane said, "The emphasis is on good service and education and prioritizing the client first. People in the industry begin to prioritze themselves before the client." When this occurs, the salon loses its client base.
"Hair has no such problem in retention. Not only does Tuozzoli enjoy a loyal client base, but also, many of his 45 employees have been with the salon for many years.
Another longtime employee is Mary Lou Cordisco, who has worked at her cousin's salon for the past 29 years. While Tuozzoli reminisced about the last 40 years, Cordisco was giving a manicure to another loyal patron, Roni Feinstein of Westport, who followed her hairstylist, Yogi Principle, to the salon when he changed employers.
"It's so homey and warm here," Feinstein said.
"It's a family environment," said Robert Cemprola, who was getting color highlights during a recent visit to the salon. She had brought along her daughter, Julianna, 17 months old, whose sweet disposition seemed to indicate she was familiar and relaxed in the salon, especially when one hairstylist held the toddler. Cemprola, a former Fairfield County resident who now lives in Westchester, has been patronizing the salon for 12 years.
"I like the way Milexzey does my hair," the young mother said. "And they are very good with Julianna because I don't have anyone to watch her. You can go into a place with a baby and they look at you weird." Obviously, that is not the case at Hair.
Cemprola described Tuozzoli as "very artistic, a laid back professional with a good sense of humor." However, it is the salon owner's business acumen that is a major key to his success aside from his and his employees' talents as hairstylists. First, his decision to buy the building when he opened his salon was a major financial decision along with his attentiveness to making sure his revenues keep balance with his expenditures. "Keeping the profit margin is the biggest challenge a business owner faces," he said.
Another key factor in the salon's success and employee retention is Tuozzoli's emphasis on education. He welcomes newly certified hairstylists and will make sure they are paired with a seasoned staff hairstylist who will mentor the new employee. Throughout the year employees receive education about new products and techniques.
"It's like a teaching salon," Tuozzoli said, who noted that he offers all his clients "a personal guarantee." If a client is not satisfied, he will personally redo their hair.
Since he opened four decades ago, Tuozzoli never doubted his success. "I never thought I would fail. It wasn't ever close in my mind because I was lucky enough to have a woman -- my mother -- in the service business.
His mother owned a laundromat on North Main Street in Bridgeport. It was at the time that Trumbull was expanding and people would bring their laundry for his mother, to wash, dry and fold. He helped his mother in the laundromat from the age of 8 to 15.
"This woman never had a bad word to say about anyone," he said. His mother believed in giving people the best service possible. She never criticized the people she was serving.
"If a client is not happy here, then it's something we did wrong. It's our job to find out what they need and what we have to do to satisfy that need," Tuozzoli said. That can be quite a challenge since his clientele can range from people in their 80s to young children. "In the 1960s, I didn't know what the word "demographics" meant.
Tuozzoli, the father of four adult sons, noted that providing the services today can be quite challenging with the variety of trends in haircolor and styling that can range from high and lowlights to multi-coloring along with long hair with shattered ends and tapering for the soft edge lines to the short "Sassoon" look.
In his 1968 review of "Hair" in The New York Times, Clive Barnes wrote: "What is so likable about "Hair" "¦ is simply that it is so likable. So new, so fresh, and so unassuming "¦ " The same could be said about "Hair" the hair salon.