With nimble fingers, Pearl Battaglia wraps short, silver hair around perm rods for one of her regular customers at Pearl’s Beauty Salon on Lexington Avenue for the last time.
Pearl has been a hairdresser on Lexington Avenue in Pendleton Heights since 1960. At the end of 2022, she decided it was finally time to retire. A few months back, she had her sign taken down to avoid doing it in the cold – she’s practical like that – and threw the big, red block letters away.
“I think I bought this building in 1976, but I’ve been on the block since 1960,” Pearl said. “I had a beauty shop exactly two blocks down the street from here. This is 2115 and my other beauty shop was 2315. I was there for about 15 years, then I came up here and that’s it.”
Pearl said she’s had a terrific business, but the COVID-19 virus put a big dip in it.
“My problem is, I’m 80 years old – I don’t look it, but I am – and my body can’t take it no more,” she said. “I mean, I can work and do a permanent and then I better go sit down.”
She really should have retired 10 years ago, she added, but she kept saying to herself, “Well I can still work a little bit.”
In more recent years, a lot of her customers have moved out of the neighborhood – some to nursing homes – and many passed away.
Pearl began doing hair when she was 17 and living in Historic Northeast.
“When I was 17 years old, my dad talked to one of his friends – see, my dad was a produce man and this man had a grocery store – and he said, ‘I went into the grocery stores because people always have to eat, and people will always get their hair done.’ So my dad came home – and I was 17 years old – he said, ‘You’re going to go to beauty school.’”
At the time, Pearl didn’t want to go to beauty school. She had her sights set on being trained as an X-ray technician.
“He said, ‘No, you’re going to beauty school,’ and he said, ‘If you don’t like it, you don’t have to finish, but at least you’re going to try.’ So I went and I wasn’t crazy about it, but I liked it, and I was a beautician at 17 years old,” Pearl said.
Pearl secured her first beautician job at Carol’s Beauty Salon on St. John Avenue. She went to Jefferson City to take the State Board test. After she passed, she kept working for Carol for a little while.
“Then my dad says, ‘Let’s open up a beauty shop,’ and I said, ‘No, I don’t want to. I don’t want the responsibility,’” Pearl said. “Well, he did it anyway – I’m a true Italian girl and we listen to our parents – and so he opened up this little beauty shop down the street and I worked it for 15 years, but I had people working too, we had two other beauticians working there.”
Since 1960, she’s never considered doing anything else.
“Because by the time you take your test in Jefferson City and get your license and everything, that’s a lot,” Pearl said.
Her customer, Virginia Yearwood, who throughout the interview was sitting patiently for a perm and attempting to convince Pearl to stay in business just a little bit longer, said she’s told Pearl to teach young girls to do hair because she’s so good.
“It’s too hard, though,” Pearl said. “I mean, my body can’t take anymore and there’s not many going to beauty school anymore because it’s kind of died out. People don’t get their hair done like in my day. I had weekly customers, the old ladies would come in every week because they couldn’t do their hair. But now everybody lets their hair grow and they part it in the middle, they parted on the side, and that’s not how it used to be.”
Pearl lives on Gladstone Boulevard in the Scarritt Renaissance neighborhood, where she’s been for 70 years.
“Once I get in a place, I don’t move, I stay there,” Pearl said. “I’ve had a good working time. I mean, I enjoyed myself, mingling with the people and exchanging food recipes and cookie recipes and stuff.”
The holidays are always busy, because people want to look good for their families, so many ladies come in to get permanents and color their hair, Pearl said, adding that it’s not as busy as it used to be.
Many of Pearl’s longtime customers had been with her for decades. One, Joan Rizzo, passed away in 2022 at 103.
“I had her for permanents,” Pearl said. “She would only come for permanents, and then I have another lady that – actually she called me yesterday – and she said, ‘How come you haven’t called me? I heard under the grapevine you’re retiring.’ I said, ‘It’s over the grapevine, ‘cause I am retiring!’”
Ultimately, it’s her aches and pains that have led to the decision. However, she’s also seeing how the industry has changed.
“Not being able to really get my supplies – because I go to Sally’s Beauty Supply – and for two months they’ve been out of my hairspray that I use, for six months I haven’t been able to get a color, No. 30 Clairol, they have never had since last April, so I had to get a substitute,” Pearl lamented. “You’re getting substitutes for everything and it’s kind of hard.”
As her customers get older, she’s had to do more helping.
“I help them get in and out of the car, the elderly ones,” Pearl said. “I got one that’s 96 years old and she comes every Saturday at nine o’clock and she will not miss, unless she’s sick or something. She’s here every Saturday. She was driving until – it’s been about a year now – her son, he comes from Raytown to bring her up here and she just lives down the street, and he brings her every Saturday at nine o’clock and picks her up right on time. I said, ‘You’re like John Cameron Swayze.’ He picks her up right on time.”
Quite a few of her customers come from north of the river, where many Italian families moved from Northeast over the years.
“For permanents only. They come because they don’t trust anybody out north, and really and truly, a lot of the beauticians don’t give permanents out north,” Pearl said. “They just do a lot of blow drying and stuff.”
It’s been a good 62 – almost 63 – years.
“I have enjoyed talking to people, and sure, I’ve enjoyed it,” Pearl said.
Recently, Pearl has worked alone, but for 37 years, she had an assistant.
“Due to her sickness, she had to quit, by the doctor,” Pearl said. “He said her lungs were bad, but she was a heavy smoker. She was a good beautician for 37 years, every day. I talk to her all the time and she says, ‘Oh, I wish I was still working.’ I said, ‘I wish you were here too,’ because she would be down in that part,” Pearl said, gesturing toward the chair at the far end of the salon, “and I would be up here and we were so busy we didn’t even talk to each other. And then pretty soon it was time for her to leave, and I’d say, ‘Okay bye, see you tomorrow.’”
Pearl said at its busiest, every single dryer in the salon would be in use.
The customer in her chair had been coming for permanents for 37 years, since she was in her 50’s. She doesn’t trust anyone else with her perm, but she’s going to give her sister’s hairdresser a chance.
“I don’t care where I take her, she always gets compliments on her hair,” said her companion, who has a photo of his darling with a fresh perm as his phone’s background.
Pearl’s watched a lot of change take place around her on Lexington Avenue over the years.
“The neighborhood’s changed. I’m glad somebody’s down there,” Pearl said of PH Coffee and the nonprofits who office out of the buildings just east of her salon. “It was empty for a long time, and then they kept having little grocery stores, but it was just like an accumulation place. A bunch of people would come and accumulate there.”
She said she’s also watched the neighborhood become more diverse as Italians moved out, has seen rent prices in the neighborhood triple, and she’s still getting used to the bike lane coming up Lexington.
Pearl moved into her house when she was 10 years old.
“We just liked the neighborhood, really, at that time,” Pearl said. “I mean, it’s changed, but I’m not going anywhere. I’ve been here all my life.”
As far as advice for young hairdressers, Pearl said it’s a good life.
“I enjoyed it,” Pearl said. “I still enjoy it. My customers, most of them are gone, really. I had them for like years, and years, and years, every week, every week, every week. But once they passed on, that was it. But their families still contact me once in a while. Some of these young girls, they were like three or four years old, and they would come up with their grandmas, and they still come up.”
In some families, Pearl has done hair for three generations of women.
“I don’t regret anything my whole life. I don’t regret anything that I didn’t do,” Pearl said. “I made everybody happy. I mean, I’ve been through weddings, baptisms, communion, confirmation, divorces, I’ve been through them all.”
Getting people ready for major life events was always very stressful, Pearl said.
“One time, I had six people that I had to get ready for a wedding at one o’clock, and these people, there were a couple of them I did not know – they came from out of town – and their hair was real, real long and they had hair pieces and I had to put the hair pieces in with all the curls and everything – this has been a long time ago – and I had to come at six o’clock in the morning to do their hair,” Pearl recalled.
She had two curls left to do on the last girl when the room started spinning.
“I didn’t have no breakfast or lunch or anything, and the room started spinning and I said, ‘Oh my god, I can’t finish this hairdo,’” Pearl recalled.
Pearl’s assistant stepped in to finish the hairdo while she sat down with a cold rag. The next day, she ended up in the emergency room with vertigo. She remembers the bride’s mother’s name to this day.
“The weddings are stressful, stressful, and I’ve had a lot of people that for their 50th anniversaries – that’s not as stressful because it’s just like one person – but when you do five and six at a time, it’s very stressful,” Pearl explained.
Pearl’s Beauty Salon was more than a quick in-and-out visit. With perms or color setting, ladies would spend hours – some even brought food – and chat amongst themselves during their appointments.
“They used to say that beauticians heard everything in the neighborhood, and that’s true,” Pearl said. “People would come up here – and they might be discussing it with someone else – but they’d say ‘I heard it at the beauty shop,’ so we’d get blamed for stuff that really didn’t come from us. I took it anyway, as long as it wasn’t really bad news – but you didn’t hear it from me.”
Pearl’s Beauty Salon has made important life events and everyday life in the Historic Northeast more special, and has been a catalyst for community through six decades of reliable weekly appointments. As Pearl shuts the metal gates and turns off the lights one last time, she knows she served her community well.