THE J.L. HUDSON BARBER SHOP
Original Written and Photographic content is Copyright MEL BIRNKRANT
There was another amazing thing at the J.L. Hudson Co. that was almost as good as Toytown. On the 14th floor was the Children’s Barbershop. There is an Images of America book on Hudson’s, and I scanned this photo form it. But the photo only hints at the sheer Magic of this establishment. Hudson’s was, in a way, everything to everybody. To a child growing up in Detroit in the 1940s it was the place where you were taken to pose for your first Photograph. And, of course, your first visit to St Nick. Now add to the list, your first Haircut, and if you were lucky, many more, thereafter.
The Children’s Barbershop, by the way, was designed by the great artist, illustrator, and puppeteer, Tony Sarg. It was he who designed the first Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, including the Balloons.
As you can see in the photograph, each barber chair was a different animal, sort of like a carousel. But that was only the beginning; the best part was what the photo doesn’t show. Through the arched windows one could behold the Main Street of a perfect model village, not perfect as in realistic, but perfectly imaginary. And the street that stretched from one end of the long room to the other was lined with shops and buildings, complete in every detail. Standing shoulder to shoulder, along the sidewalks, on both sides of the road, was a crowd of beautifully crafted tiny people. Well not so tiny, really; the average adult, I’d say, was maybe 10 inches tall. There were also lots of children, in various smaller sizes and amusing pets as well. Maybe I am imagining this, but it seems to me, in memory, that many of these tiny people were subtly animated, looking from side to side and waving.
I could have, easily, gazed upon this wonderful world, studying every detail for the duration of a haircut, were I not distracted by something more amazing still. Along this road, traveling slowly, from left to right, was a most glorious CIRCUS PARADE, horses, elephants, clowns, and acrobats, wagons with wild animals, and even marching bands. It was all there, the ultimate Circus Parade, complete with a calliope.
While you sat there, transfixed in the chair, and the barber, inconspicuously, cut your hair, the parade moved slowly magically along. Sooner or later, you would realize that the same paraders were appearing again. The fact that, even as a child, I could tell the road, itself, was actually a moving conveyor belt, long and flat, didn’t diminish the pure enchantment of it.
If one peeked around the very corners of the window, which, of course, I did, one could actually see the objects rounding a big roller and tipping downward topsy-turvy to disappear into a hole. Clearly the parade was turning over and continuing in the other direction, suspended from the moving belt, upside down, below. Eventually, the same figures would pop up on the left side, to travel down the road again. Rather than diminishing the illusion, this nuance only added to the Fascination.
All too soon, the best haircut in the World was over. The barber splashed you with a refreshing pink liquid called “Rose Water” that really did smell like a rose. Then he helped you down off of your animal, brushed you off, dramatically, and with all the flourish of a matador, whisked your pinstriped cape away.
There really was no place on Earth as wonderful as the J.L. Hudson Company.