News of the closing of Simon "Cy" Avara's hair-styling academy — a Baltimore institution — arrives just as we enter the 50th anniversary of the start of the British Invasion of rock music. I make the connection because the British Invasion was as much about hair as it was about music, and one of the most notable things about Avara's career was his ability to adjust from crew cuts to mop tops.
Not every barber was so flexible.
First things first, regarding the British Invasion:
A lot of people mark the start in early February 1964, when 73 million Americans tuned in to "The Ed Sullivan Show" to see the Beatles' debut on national television. But cultural historians, including Beatles expert Martin Lewis, trace the roots of the invasion to mid-December 1963, when a teenage girl from Silver Spring, Marsha Albert, requested that radio station WWDC in Washington air "I Want To Hold Your Hand."
A deejay, Carroll James, managed to get a copy of the record a month before its retail release in the United States, with the Beatles still generally unknown here.
According to Lewis, WWDC's airing of the song was the first in the country, and everything went crazy after that. Radio stations and record stores were swamped with requests for a record they didn't have. Capitol Records pushed up the release date, and the Beatles sold a million copies in the two weeks after Christmas 1963.
The rest, of course, is a history of musical, cultural and tonsorial change.
Upon seeing American girls and young women react to the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Dave Clark Five — I could go on, so I will — the Animals, Herman's Hermits, the Kinks and other bands, American boys and young men soon let their hair grow.
And there was Avara in West Baltimore, four years after opening his barber school, facing a revolution in the way boys and young men wanted to wear their hair.
Before the British Invasion, men's hair had run generally short. Avara had learned all the elementary cuts from his father and uncle, barbers of the old school and the first generation of the family in the hair trade.
But while most men of the 1950s kept their hair cropped, a certain segment wanted something bolder. The DA (for "Duck's Ass") came along, the greaser style associated with wise guys in leather jackets (think The Fonz from "Happy Days" or Johnny Depp in John Waters' "Cry Baby"). It called for a nice pile of hair on top, with heavily-greased sides swept back to form a tail.
It wasn't for everyone, of course, but Avara smartly learned the style. He was soon known as the DA expert in West Baltimore.
"By that time, I had guys coming from all over the city," Avara says. "I knew how to do the DA. The older barbers would send guys who wanted a DA to me."
A decade later, when the British Invasion pushed long, shaggy hair into the American male mainstream, Avara was ready for it. He had — also smartly — become a Roffler franchisee. That was a European "sculpture" method, introduced in 1958, that employed a straight razor. If an old-school barber could learn the Roffler method, he could call himself a "stylist," handle the public demands for long and shaggy British styles and preserve his livelihood.
He also could charge more for his services.
So barbers came to Avara's International Academy of Hair Design on West Pratt Street for help. They came at night and they came on the weekends to learn from the master. "They came from Virginia and West Virginia," Avara recalls. "One even came from California."
Avara was a good teacher. He taught older barbers to become stylists and deal with long hair. He taught them how to style women's hair. By the mid-1960s he was teaching women to style hair. The barbers union hired him to teach white guys to cut blacks' hair and black guys to cut whites' hair.
Three years ago, when he celebrated the 50th anniversary of his school on West Pratt, Avara estimated that he had trained 5,000 men and women in the basics of cutting hair, and another 1,500 in advanced styling methods.
He's 80 and ailing now; he can no longer make the trip from his home in Baltimore County to tend to the school. He closed the place and put it up for sale Nov. 30. I learned this the other day from Nate Smith, one of Avara's skilled proteges, who now has a chair at TGQ Cutz in Govans.
"It was a hard decision to make after all these years," Avara said.
He hopes a former student will buy the Pratt Street place. Meanwhile, the Avaras have their other school in Dundalk — the Academy of Hair Design — and he still makes appearances there. One of his recent graduates was his grandson, Chris Watson — another Avara ready for the next chapter in the history of hair.
Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.