'Coiffure and Quips' propel Aliquippa salon on-screen
August 30, 2012 12:45 PM
At a table filled with Mac's Donuts and Palladini chocolates, Maria Rubino, left, presides over a conclave of friends and customers -- or "family," as she calls her patrons -- in her Aliquippa beauty salon, including Marialice McElwain, fresh from a hair wash, Janet Walker, her assistant of nine-years, and Bernadette Callaghan. "I always wanted to film Maria's as a reality show," said Ms. Callaghan, a writer of children's books and non-fiction books for women.
Maria Rubino works all day, every day in stiletto heels in her Aliquippa beauty salon. Her salon has gone from an oasis of neighborhood culture to an international documentary film.
By Bob Podurgiel
At Maria's Beauty Salon in Aliquippa, it sometimes feels as if you wandered onto the set of a sitcom.
There's Maria Rubino, still wearing stilettos and going strong after 47 years in her shop -- her nimble fingers preparing a perm with the help of her assistant Jan Walker.
"Nobody does a perm like Maria," she says.
Yes, those same hands once punched out a man's dentures.
Her shop is usually filled with homemade cookies and candies, loyal customers and their humorous to outrageous stories.
So for Aliquippa-native Bernadette Callaghan and film director Peter Kinkead, turning the salon into a set for a documentary didn't seem like such a stretch.
"I always wanted to film Maria's as a reality show," said Ms. Callaghan, a writer of children's books and non-fiction books for women.
Ms. Callaghan's idea received a boost after she completed a screenplay called "Living in Limbo," that attracted the interest of Mr. Kinkead. While scouting locations for the movie, they stopped at Maria's.
Ms. Callaghan, who now lives in Kennedy, started going to Maria's about 20 years ago with her mother.
"My mother ... had a southern accent, but Maria and the women all welcomed her," she said.
"They called her Blanche after the character on the TV show 'Golden Girls.' "
Mr. Kinkead was so taken by Mrs. Rubino, he put the movie project on hold and told Ms. Callaghan he first wanted to film a documentary about the salon and Aliquippa.
A film crew flew in from England, where Mr. Kinkead's Ravenhilll Films media production company is based, to begin work on the documentary.
When at Maria's...
Mrs. Rubino has cut back a little on her hours. The shop is open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, but she still has about 300 to 400 loyal customers. Many are from families that went to Maria's for two or three generations.
There's usually plenty to eat at the salon.
Women bring in homemade candy, doughnuts and pizzelles -- but they also bring in humorous to outrageous stories about their children, boyfriends and husbands.
Last week, one story told of a child who kept throwing up, but kept eating after throwing up.
"Sometimes I come to Maria's when I'm feeling blue, and just being here is enough to cheer me up," Ms. Callaghan said.
Few hairdressers can serve up the stories or wisecracks while they work like Mrs. Rubino can.
There's the story about a man who walked into the shop and started swearing at the ladies.
"I punched him and knocked out his false teeth," Mrs. Rubino said, as the ladies who were waiting their turn to sit in her chair nodded in agreement. "He came back a half hour later, apologized, and I gave him his teeth back."
Sometimes Mrs. Rubino's quips are directed toward her customers -- or her "family," as she calls the ladies who come into her shop.
Her work can present some big challenges, she said, before launching into a tale about one woman with three hairs sticking straight up from her head who asked Mrs. Rubino to make her hair look fuller.
"I'm a beautician, not a magician," Mrs. Rubino told her.
Another lady slept on her side and came in with her hair sticking up in the air like Don King, she said, referring to the boxing promoter noted for his wild hair.
Thin hair or Don King hair -- Mrs. Rubino tackles it all.
She will even break out her "binogles," a pair of eye protectors that look something like the safety goggles used by workers at the J & L Steel Aliquippa Works, once the town's biggest employer before the mill closed in 1984.
She uses her "binogles" when she cuts the toe nails of a 90-year-old lady.
"God bless Maria," she said.
Life under the bright lights
It doesn't seem as if all of this new-found notoriety has changed Mrs. Rubino's outlook on life, though.
"I wouldn't trade Aliquippa for all the money in the world. I thank God every night for blessing me with so many nice people. They're not my customers. They are my family," she said.
And as far retiring, or pursuing the bright lights of Hollywood, Mrs. Rubino put a quick stop to those ideas.
"I'm staying here in the salon until God retires me," she said.
The 46-minute-documentary, "Coiffure and Quips," will debut at a private screening Sept. 26 at the Double Tree Hotel in Moon.
The documentary is scheduled to be shown at a number of film festivals around the country and in England.