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Blast from the past: For one longtime Marina hairstylist, everything old is new again

Vivian chats with longtime customers (from left) Vickie Balestreri, Frances Walhberg, Lisa Wiborg, and Aladina Pavia while the ladies’ locks set photos: inga lim

I sit in a salon chair as my long hair is slowly unraveled from huge plastic rollers. I have just spent a half-hour under an old-fashioned hooded hairdryer, so that my locks, saturated with styling lotion, could be properly set. My hairdresser, Vivian Tamura, owner of Vivian’s on Scott Street, now begins to separate my tresses into one-inch sections and, with a metal comb, methodically tease each one until it sticks straight up from my head in a stiff, tangled mass. In the mirror in front of me, I see a figure that resembles Ursula the Sea Witch from The Little Mermaid.

“Holy moly, look at that,” says an elderly client of Vivian’s who has just walked into the salon with a friend around the same age. “What’s that you’re doing to her head?”

“We’re getting her ready for a 1960s party!” Vivian laughs, as she sweeps smooth portions of hair over the teased clumps, creating an impressive beehive. “It’s an updo like you ladies wore back in the day!” She retrieves a formidable container of bobby pins and starts pinning chunks of hair into place. Then she douses my head with hairspray. Viv and I cough. The two ladies stare.

I’ve hired Vivian to deck me out for a party my husband and I are throwing to celebrate the hit TV show Mad Men, and all the drama and fashion of the Cold War era. Deviled eggs, Jell-O molds and Sidecars are on the menu, and we are dressing up like the associates of Don Draper, the series’ smarmy leading man who works at a Madison Avenue ad agency and slings back one too many cocktails before breakfast. Among the retro trends that have re-emerged, thanks to the show, is over-the-top hair.

I have been informed that Vivian, who has been a stylist in the Marina since the ’60s, can recreate a killer authentic beehive. After graduating from San Francisco Beauty College, she went to work as a stylist for Salon de Christina on Chestnut Street in 1967, back when most women visited the beauty shop weekly. “Everyone came in once a week to get set and styled,” Vivian recalls. “Women of every age, but especially the schoolteachers and secretaries. They had hot dates on the weekend, so they’d come in after work on Thursday and sleep with the pins still in their hair. Some also came for comb-outs on Monday, otherwise they were dealing with a rat’s nest.”

Vivian suddenly stops talking and smiles, as if musing about the good old days. “That was all before Vidal Sassoon came in with its geometric styles and precision cutting and ruined everything,” she says. “Before the blow-drying started.”

She fondly remembers the pre-blowout era on Chestnut Street. “The Marina was like Peyton Place, a cute little town where everyone knew everyone. You walked down the street and bumped into your friends, customers, other storeowners. I miss that.”

Today, she laments, Chestnut Street “is all baby carriages and dogs. Now you can’t move when you walk down the street.”

In 1969, when the Marina was still basking in Peyton Place charm, Vivian switched jobs and began working at the salon Candi’s, on the site of her current shop. A few years later she became a partner, and by the early ’90s was flying solo. Over the years, Vivian has styled many of the City’s most well-regarded ladies, including Frances Aliola, Beatrice Geraldi and Ann Harris. Thanks to Vivian’s exuberant personality and capable hands, many of her original clients have remained loyal to her for decades. Harris was Vivian’s first client ever, and continued to see Vivian until just before she died, at 97, last May.

At Vivian’s this morning are longtime clients Vickie Balestreri, Frances Walhberg, Aladina Pavia, and Lisa Wiborg, who has lived in the Marina since 1964 and boasts that she has been knighted by the King of Sweden. “Vivian is good,” says Wilborg, 87, as Vivian massages shampoo into her scalp. “I can’t walk down Chestnut without someone stopping me and asking me who did my hair.”

Another afternoon, regulars Haide Slade and June Manor arrive at the shop, along with June’s dog, Coco Chanel. Vivian, armed with a curling iron, nods sympathetically as June voices concerns about thinning hair and Coco’s upcoming vet appointment. “Listening to their stories is part of my job,” says Vivian. “I know these ladies better than their children, better than their best friends. We talk about their families, their daughters-in-law. I’m sort of like a bartender. I have all their confidence. And they know that what they say at Vivian’s stays at Vivian’s.”

Case in point, about three decades ago, a walk-in customer confessed to Vivian that she was having an affair with a well-known, local businessman, who also happened to be the husband of one of Vivian’s regulars. “I kept my mouth shut for 30 years,” Viv says. However, just a few months ago, she finally told her longtime client, who has since divorced her first husband and is now happily remarried, about the encounter with the mistress. Was the woman upset? “Nah,” says Viv. “She had a good sense of humor about it. She said, ‘It’s all in the past. Plus, my ex-husband is now dead.’ ”

The salon provides not only a safe haven to discuss problems, but also a lively social scene. “A lot of these ladies are neighborhood friends,” says Vivian, who offers free coffee and stocks a generous assortment of magazines. “They sit here on Saturdays and chit-chat with one another.”

Vivian’s client list now spans multiple generations, and over the years she’s adopted the blow dryers and flatirons required to create today’s sleeker styles. She enjoys fulfilling requests, like one client’s wish for pink-striped tresses and several young women’s desire for “Jennifer Aniston hair.” While some older customers have embraced modern looks, many won’t stray from the hairdo they associate with their youth. Which means Vivian is still spraying and setting and rolling their locks into place. The cuts are now slightly shorter, Vivian notes, “because the ladies now have less hair,” with more volume to “help lift their faces.”

Vivian says creating my Mad Men beehive reminds her how much she enjoys playing with height and proportion. “It’s been a while since I’ve done that kind of teasing,” she says. “For me, this sort of thing is fun and creative and
pure nostalgia.”

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Maryann LoRusso is a San Francisco-based freelance writer and editor, and a mother of two. She also writes a blog for women at Redtypewriter.com

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