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Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow

Somewhere in all the historic hairdo magazines is that one article that will remind Ethel Gomez how to build a beehive. Here, under the candy dish? There, by the invoice for the faux Titanic jewelry sitting in the display case next to the Kewpie dolls that double as air fresheners? Or in that stack of papers resting precariously on the burnt-orange vinyl hair-dryer chair?

Oh, who knows. And who needs instructions, anyway?
"Oooh, girl," Ethel says, encouraging herself. "I haven't forgotten how to do this big back-combing thing. Not at all. And when you get tired of that, you can wear your hair in this Seventies gypsy shag. I used to love that gypsy shag. Very nice. I can do these hairdos, girl. I am stuck in time!"

But in fact, Ethel is just as adept at creating the thoroughly modern "look at that--they don't even comb it" hairdos of today as she is with the giant ratted towers of the late Fifties that she's been doing ever since she graduated from the Bon Ton Beauty School in 1956, having paid $135, total, in tuition. "I had long hair myself and just wore a pageboy every day with pin curls in the front that made a swoopy wave down across my forehead. Girl," she says, looking into the mirror at her prospective beehive installee, "you could have that, too."

She has worked out of this shop on West Mississippi for about a year and has yet to fully unpack. Family pictures lean against the wall. Curling irons lie scattered about, as if flung from above. But there's no need to organize, because one day soon, curators from Lakewood's Heritage Center will be by to cart much of it away to their facility, where it will be catalogued, then reverently displayed in the very building that Ethel and her husband, Gil, occupied on West Alameda Avenue from 1961 to 1994--a building now thought to be a shining example of the International Style. Or Art Deco. Or Art Moderne.

Museum types have been happily wallowing in those architectural distinctions for a couple of years now. But while her hairdos may be structural marvels, Ethel herself is more of a common-sense/inner-beauty type, and she has trouble with the concept of her own past, and the building that housed it, as history.

"Did I ever think I'd see that?" she asks. "Never! We never saw anything special about the building. The rent was reasonable, is all. And Gil and I were just starting out. We were on a budget."

Halfway through its restoration, the Gil and Ethel's building today sits where it landed seven months ago, on a bare patch of earth at Lakewood's Heritage Center, a multi-building museum complex located on the former site of May Bonfils's Belmar mansion on South Wadsworth Boulevard.

Until two years ago the facility, then known as Belmar Historic Park, was a modest repository for whatever stuff Lakewood citizens had amassed, then donated--old farming equipment, filing cabinets crammed with hats and shoes. Occasionally the park would offer a Colorado-themed exhibit, and it still hosts an annual fall apple-harvest festival, but usually things were pretty quiet.

"It lacked focus," says Deb Ellerman, who took over as administrator in 1996. "I had to figure out what it should or shouldn't be. Part of the problem has always been the sense that we have nothing old in Lakewood."

For that matter, the notion of Lakewood itself was rather amorphous, since it started as a series of unrelated rural enclaves. After World War II, the area began its transformation into one of those amorphous western suburbs, full of car dealerships and four-lane arteries and lacking even the most rudimentary downtown. More recent developments have obliterated much of what had gone before--which meant that sometimes, the only historic artifacts in Lakewood were the people who remembered how things used to be.

Ellerman's assignment wasn't exactly an archaeological dig, but she found herself fascinated. The best way to display and illuminate the collections of stuff she'd inherited, she thought, was to declare that the newly renamed Heritage Center was now a museum of the twentieth century. "It's easy to discount this kind of history because it's so recent," she says, "but we decided to go ahead. And then we thought, wow, what a concept--a twentieth-century museum in a place where things are being destroyed all the time. This stuff seems like yesterday, but when it's gone, it's gone. It doesn't have to be--"

"--so we're proactive," explains Kris Anderson, who, as collections curator, oversees the center's 30,000 twentieth-century objects, "from old paper and textiles to buildings."

When Anderson and Ellerman arrived--both from the same Rockford, Illinois, museum--the facility already operated several buildings as tourable attractions: a calving barn, a one-room schoolhouse, a 1920s-era Russian Jewish dairy farmhouse. But Ellerman and Anderson were sure there were other "collectible" buildings, as well as other worthy artifacts, lurking in Lakewood. So Ellerman drew up a five-year plan to turn her charge into a twentieth-century showcase and started hunting for funding as well as historic, if not particularly old, items.

Gil and Ethel's barber and beauty shop was one of the center's first finds. It became the first, and so far only, modernish building to occupy what will become a one-block strip of re-created Colfax, stretching from 1925 through 1969. Called the Colfax Hub, the project casts Colfax Avenue itself--Gateway to the Rockies, onetime transcontinental highway, the closest Lakewood ever came to a downtown--as a potent modern symbol.

Then Anderson learned that Lane's Tavern, a late-Forties time capsule that, unlike Gil and Ethel's, actually stood on West Colfax, was about to be demolished. When the building proved too rotten to move, she had architects prepare detailed drawings so that a complete replica could be created. She snapped up the metal skin of a Thornton gas station. She's still angling for a church, a firehouse and a motel.

"And we'd love to have Davey's Chuckwagon Diner," she adds, "but we never will--it's doing too well as a restaurant. You never move a building unless it's about to be destroyed."

Five years and $3 million from now, they hope, the Colfax Hub will exemplify what constituted a community gathering place during the fleeting period after the general store and before malls. "That's what's so interesting about the twentieth century," Ellerman says. "There's such a major change in what you see on Main Street."

"Coffee shops, for instance," adds Anderson. "And the changes in those, going from a time when sandwiches were good and the coffee was known for being bad, until now, when the coffee everywhere is good but you can't find a decent sandwich. Beauty shops, in the modern sense, outside a woman's home, didn't even exist until the 1930s and didn't become popular until after World War II. Bars could be community gathering places. And cars...well, there was an exciting moment in time when suddenly any Joe could own one. Hey, what if we put the bar next to the church?"

"No, no--remember? We put the church near the one-room schoolhouse so people can get married and then go have their reception at the school," Ellerman replies. "We've gotten some negative comments about representing Lane's as history. It was getting to be a raunchy bar by the time it closed. But there was also a time when it was almost a family place."

"Yeah, and so what," Anderson says. "History is not all nostalgia. If you wanna go to Disney World, okay, but we'll have our dark parts."

Some of the darkest parts of Lane's Tavern --the bar back thick with grease, the booths carved with crude Eighties graffiti--currently rest in the attic of the center's collection/conservation building, waiting for the Colfax Hub to come to life. They're crammed in next to molded plastic chairs from the Sixties, ancient variety-store display racks, a complete set of Popsicle-stick religious art done by a tuberculosis sanatorium patient in the late Forties, a Swanson's TV-dinner box--"representing the amazing changeover, when TVs became prevalent and freezers became big enough to hold this box," Anderson says--as well as cartons and cartons of paper, and drawers and drawers full of hats and shoes and walking sticks and buttons.

"We got a federal grant to preserve all this stuff," Anderson says, "and I am so proud of it, I even show it off to the firemen when they come to do their safety check. Look at this," she says, opening a six-foot-tall cabinet full of 900 milk bottles. "And this"--a Jayne Mansfield-shaped water bottle--"for the man who has everything. I can't wait to fit that into an exhibit. What could be more twentieth-century?"

By the time the very big beehive is complete, two hours have passed, and Ethel has been able to illustrate her favorite point about the difference between 1961--when she and Gil opened for business--and now.

"Back then," she says, "customers were our friends. I had wanted to be a secretary so badly, but I'm not sorry it never happened, because here I met everyone in the world and I got to know everything. Now, with Great Clips and Supercuts, your little butt is in and out of that chair in fifteen minutes or your boss wants to know why."

At Ethel's, your little butt is in that chair as long as she wants it there, through interruptions from five generations of the Gomez family, longtime customers--the only kind she has--who come to shoot the breeze, and lunch. Everyone who comes to Ethel's knows to take a seat and make herself comfortable, since hairdos never happen fast around here and there's going to be plenty of juicy conversation in the interim with a lot of detail. A baby crawls across the linoleum. A stooped woman with white hair discusses the strange weather. Ethel, sucking on a lollipop, answering the phone, limping around in a foot cast because of a fall she took--and her landlord will hear about it--covers the big topics: Romance, Marriage, Kids These Days, and The French Twist: Is It Back? Is her own hair long enough?

Ethel believes in talk.
"It's something Gil and I shared," she says. "We took turns. It would be my turn, and I would vent about every exasperating thing that happened to me, and strangely enough, he would listen."

Although Gil and Ethel's had two front doors--one for women and one for men--and a wall separated them while they worked, Gil and Ethel usually ate lunch together, discussing every nuance of their many clients and three children. Through three decades, there was a certain dependable rhythm to it all--and then, Ethel remembers, there was change. And not just the big incidents, either, such as the building being scheduled for demolition, or Gil's death, at 64, from a heart attack.

"More of a disappointment," she offers. "A feeling that there has been so much change you're almost out there in space. Where do you have time anymore, or a person whose hair you do, so they can come in and you can talk to them and go through the whole thing: 'How are you? And your kids? And your kids' kids?' Where are those people out here in space

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