Storytelling: The 1959 flattop haircut that made all the difference

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Many of my classmates at North Catholic High School in 1959 sported stylish flattops or “Detroit” haircuts that they had gotten at a barber shop on East Ohio Street near the Arcadia Theater.

One friend with a flattop, Mike Uhor, bugged me to get one, too. I lollygagged and could not make a decision. Sal’s was an alternative popular shop that many kids went to on North Avenue, a couple of doors from the famous Garden Theater (before it became infamous).

I checked them both out but could not work up courage to change from my lifelong haircut with a straight part on the left side to something so drastically different. Finally, one day I decided to do it! I nixed both of the aforementioned establishments, however.

I walked slowly to Herb’s Barber Shop on Spring Garden Avenue, where many pals from my nearby neighborhood on Voskamp Street had been converted from “basic-boy haircut” to one of the new voguish “doos.”

I took a nervous, but close, look at Herb’s old-fashioned barber pole, complete with its red, white and blue stripes adorning the wall outside the brown-bricked building. I peered into the large window and slowly entered. While waiting my turn, I continued to toss this crazy idea back and forth in my mind. I had been getting my head butchered before then for 25 cents a clip at the barbers’ school on Federal Street.

This was the first time in my life I was getting a haircut at a regular barbershop. I do not remember the cost — probably a buck and a quarter or so — but it was more than I realistically could afford. I could only do it by saving change from cashing in pop bottles and winning pennies playing poker.

Waiting for my turn in the big chair felt like being on death row in the Big House. I paged through Look and Life magazines, but nothing registered upstairs. Abruptly, I heard those dreadful words: “It’s your turn, son.”

I walked with trepidation to the maroon seat, as if it were the official “electric chair” and Herb was my executioner.

“What’s your name, son?”

“Bill. Bill McKinley,” I said. “My buddies call me Minnie, though.”

“I am Herbie. Most people call me … Herbie,” he replied, grinning. “What’ll it be, Bill?”

The decisive moment arrived. “I’d like a … Detroit,” I responded with a touch of fear.

“You want a Detroit — flat on top with long hair in back and both sides … right?”

“Yes,” I answered, like the brave saint whose head awaited the drop of the guillotine.

He extracted a silver forklike metal comb with a half-dozen teeth and a handle and placed it on my head. Within minutes, he was finished.

“Well, Minnie, you’re done. I know this was a bold move for you. Don’t worry, I think you’ll like it. All the kids are wearing them. Do you want me to turn you around to see the new Bill?”

I gazed into the mirror, turned back and forth, and kept feeling the flat, almost bald, top of my head.

“Do you like it?”

“Yeah — yeah, I do. Thanks a lot. My mother won’t like it, though.”

“It’ll grow on her. Do you want me to put some of this pink, greasy-kid stuff on the sides and back? It makes your hair real shiny … kinda the way Elvis Presley looks.”

“I guess — since you said everybody uses it.” Suddenly, I felt like a real cool dude!

“Do you want to buy a container of the pink gel to take home? You’ll need it to keep your hair looking as sharp as it does now. It’s a quarter a jar.”

I started counting my leftover change.

“Never mind. Since you made the big switch, the first jar’s on me,” Herbie whispered.

I was right; Mom did not like it — at first. In a couple of days though, she stopped commenting on it.

My friends liked it. I felt more a part of things, somehow. I wondered if it would give me more courage to talk to girls, who might flock to me in droves like the 97-pound weakling on the beach who, after signing up for the Charles Atlas course in magazine ads, no longer got sand kicked into his face by bullies.

I’ll let you guess whether that’s how things turned out.


Bill McKinley of West Deer, a retired administrator for United States Steel and Carnegie Pension Fund, can be reached at The PG Portfolio welcomes “Storytelling” submissions and other reader essays. Send your writing to; or by mail to Portfolio, Post-Gazette, 34 Blvd. of the Allies, Pittsburgh, PA 15222. Portfolio editor Gary Rotstein may be reached at 412-263-1255.

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