He stands about five and a half feet tall and might tip the scales at 140 pounds, as long as he's soaking wet and holding a cinder block. Before he even gets you in his styling chair he'll dish out several one-liners and is usually telling a joke while he drapes the smock around you. Jokes are very important to Billy Blades, and even more so to his customers. "If you don't laugh at my jokes, it's bad haircut time," he says with a grin. So it's probably a testament to his wit, as much as his skill with scissors and comb, that he's given very few bad haircuts.
In 1999, Billy Blades celebrated his twenty-fifth anniversary as a State College hairdresser. Born William Michael Harbadin in 1953, he grew up in Forest Hills, a suburb of Pittsburgh. An uninspired student, he decided as a junior in high school, that he was going to cut hair for a living. "There were about eleven members of my family that were in the business," he says. "So it seemed like a natural choice." Billy learned his trade at a vocational school and was working as a "shampoo boy" in his Aunt Fran's beauty parlor even before graduation. He soon went to work for Sam Guentner, a flamboyant entrepreneur who owned a chain of "Miss Haircut of Pittsburgh" shops and preached a simple three-step program to his underlings: "Get the hair on the floor, get the money in the drawer, and get 'em out the door."
After two years of learning the hair salon business, Billy moved to State College at his mentor's request. "Sam wanted to open a Miss Haircut franchise here and I was 'volunteered'," he says. "I arrived in the fall of 1974 with an 8-track tape player, one cereal bowl, and a tea cup and rented a spacious walk-in closet at 220 South Allen Street."
When Billy, with Guentner's blessings, decided to go out on his own in 1979, he invited his customers to compete in a "new name" contest, even though he'd pretty much decided what it would be. "My brother Michael had been calling me 'Billy Blades' forever, and we wanted to use that," he explains. "So we had the contest in the hopes that somebody would come up with it." The winning entry was "Billy Shears," which they considered "close enough," and the lucky customer was awarded a year's worth of free haircuts.
In 1987 Billy moved his shop "a grand total of 72 feet" to its present location at 212 South Allen Street. Upon entering the Billy Blades Hair and Tanning Salon, first-time visitors are usually taken aback by the insipid fishing decor, evidence of Billy's favorite pastime. There's also a miniature aluminum Christmas tree that he keeps up year-round and decorates according to whatever holiday is next on the calendar. And although there are two styling chairs in the shop, one is seldom, if ever, used. The tanning booth, added in 1994, is mercifully void of the touches that make the rest of the shop a veritable monument to the low-brow taste.
One picture, of the many that adorn the shop walls, is of particular interest. It's an old black and white photo of Billy and Michael (ages 5 and 7, respectively) posing with the Three Stooges. Like many steel-town baby-boomers, the Harbadin brothers were, and still are, devoted fans of the Stooges. After all, Paul Shannon, the TV host of the Pittsburgh-based afternoon show Adventure Time, sparked the Three Stooges revival over forty years ago. And, as a public service, Shannon invited the trio to appear at the Holiday House in Monroeville, a suburb east of the city. Billy remembers that there was a lot of concern at the time because kids were going to the hospital as a result of Stooges-inspired violence. "They found out that when they hit their little brother in the head with a hammer, it didn't make that 'tink' noise - it made a thump noise and their brother dropped to the floor like a sack o' corn." So a good portion of the Stooges' stage act was spent demonstrating exactly how they performed their onscreen atrocities. Afterwards, at the photo session, Mow Howard accidentally burned Billy's leg with a cigar while Billy sat on his lap. "You can see it in the picture," he says, pointing to the wall. "I had shorts on and I'm holding my finger over the spot where he burned me." Moe apologized profusely for the mishap, but he needn't have bothered. "I didn't care," Billy says with a laugh. "I had been marked by Moe! I picked on that scab for months so it wouldn't go away. In fact, I still don't tan there. I got this Moe-spot on my leg!" He shakes his head and smiles. "My two passions are my family and fishing, but I'll always love the Stooges. 'Course you look at the hair on those guys, and maybe that explains why I got into this business."
It might also explain the vaudevillian approach to his craft. Although Billy employed several co-workers during his early years as a shop owner, he's been a solo act for the last sixteen. "I work alone and all I do is cut hair and blow it dry," he states bluntly. "That's it. The floor show is free of charge." The "floor show" consist of more than jokes and witty banter, however. He's an excellent raconteur and will fold balloons or juggle upon request. He does a dead-on impression of Floyd, Andy Griffith's stammering barber, and, if he happens to have it in the shop, he'll show off his skills as a unicyclist. He's an accomplished knife thrower as well, and has given some thought (hopefully not serious thought) to setting up a target wheel so he can strap down any willing customers, spin them around, and hurl knives at them. "I guess if they let me do that," he says, "I could give 'em a discount."
Billy has an impressive number of steady clients and when they talk about him, the same phrases invariably arise:
"The nicest guy in the world"...:The funniest haircut I've ever had"..."I only come here for the jokes." They've also learned to accept the fact that Billy can't resist a verbal jab when the opportunity presents itself. One female customer fondly recalls showing up for an appointment and, upon seeing how her layered haircut was growing out, particularly on the sides, Billy remarked, "You kinda got a Bozo thang goin' there." To the many regulars who slump onto his chair, grimace at the mirror and say, "Just make me look good," Billy's standard reply is, "I don't have the time, and you don't have the money."
Traditionally, a salon is considered a place for good conversation and the latest gossip, but it also can be a confessional of sorts for people who want to share their personal feelings and problems, to commiserate. And in Billy's shop, his customers feel comfortable doing just that. He's heard his share of painful stories over the years, and has told some of his own. "I went through a very difficult divorce a few years ago, and just talking to my customers was some of the best therapy I could ask for." Billy is now remarried, and lives in State College with his wife, Jean, a computer programmer at the university, and his two step-daughters, Stephanie and Diane. He also spends a great deal of time with his two sons from his first marriage, William Jr. and Nicholas, who live in Pittsburgh.
When asked to what does he owe his long-term success, Billy answers, "Good haircuts and lots of bad jokes. But it's my customers. They make my day." Sometimes they make it an early one. He's been known to meet clients at the ungodly hour of five in the morning, on a Saturday yet, to squeeze them into his schedule. "If you trust me at 5 AM with a pair of scissors in my hand, I'll be there," he laughs. And in the event that a regular is moving away or is going to be out of town long enough to need a trim before returning, he offers this bit of wisdom passed down from his late Uncle Tony, who was an "old school" Pittsburgh barber: "if you walk into a shop, and there's two barbers, look and see which one has the best haircut...then go and sit in the other guy's chair."Show More>
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