Champion barber tells of clipping a bit of fame

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

April 14, 1992|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau

LONDON -- Denny Rowe became world famous on June 19, 1988, though he never got rich. That, he'll readily admit, was a disappointment.

But Denny has his memories, and a profusion of press clippings. And right up on the wall of his shop is the testament to his great day. It reads:

World Record

Guinness Book of Records

Denny Rowe

shaved 1,994 men in 60 minutes

with a retractable safety razor

at Herne Bay, Kent

on June 19, 1988

Actually, it wasn't one razor, but 1,994. Each beard was dipatched with a new blade, supplied by the British razor blade company that sponsored the competition. The British army supplied the beards. "I only cut four men," Denny recalls.

Since 1988, Denny's record has held. He is still the world's champion in this peculiar specialty.

Denny Rowe operates from a little shop with large windows and green wood trim on Poppin's Court, one of those alleys as thin as a capillary off Fleet Street. The place is called Leonard & Michael Hair Dresser.

Denny's name doesn't appear. Nor does Denny, readily. He works in a small, windowless room in back, complete with the usual barber shop paraphernalia, the plaque that gives testimony to Denny's greatness, and a price structure that draws the cognoscenti to his chair.

Cognoscenti in this case being those who think it unwise to spend up to $30 for a haircut when Denny Rowe, perhaps the fastest barber in London, will do it for about $10.

It's a pleasure to watch Fast Denny at work. He does about 30 haircuts a day, and still has lots of time to sit around and chat. He moves fluidly around his subjects, his instruments flashing like those of Edward Scissorhands. The eye can't follow; the clipped hair drifts down in a light drizzle. Denny throws his own long, wheat-colored hair back now and then: He's leonine, kind of a tonsorial athlete with a firm grasp of barber-shop ethics and eloquence.

"If you cut out the bull---- you can do a haircut in five minutes," he says.

Denny Rowe has evolved from a rich tradition. There are 32 hairdressers in his family. "It's one of the largest hairdressing families in Britain," he affirms. He is clearly proud of that, but even more proud of this:

"My father is a world champion. He's retired now."

For those of us who never knew hairdressers competed like, say, pole vaulters, Denny is prepared to apprise us of the international men's hairdressing competitions staged each year in a different country. Women have theirs, too.

"My cousin George, he was on Britain's world team," Denny adds. Just another star in the firmament of the Rowe clan.

Denny Rowe led something of an itinerant life over his 39 years. He started barbering in the seaport town of Hull, in Yorkshire, moved to London in the 1970s.

He worked, illegally, in California, and Mexico. He used to go around on a motor bike, tools in his pack. He has cut the hair of Germans, Belgians, and Dutchmen in their own lands. This year he marks a quarter-century in the trade.

Of the cities of Europe, he prefers Amsterdam. He likes the legal marijuana. "I'm just an old hippie," he says, but he's settled down now with a wife and daughter in a house near Croydon, in the London suburbs.

Still, the best day of his life was when he unseated the previous champion, a swift-fingered fellow who nevertheless only managed to shave just under a thousand upturned faces in an hour's time.

The 1988 contest was held as a charity event for London's Great Ormand Street Hospital for children. The subjects were all soldiers. Denny recalls how things went:

"They put 100 chairs, back to back, and lathered the soldiers up 50 at a time. After each one I dropped the blade and started with a new one. I was running for an hour, just running." So far nobody has bettered Denny Rowe, nor have they had any opportunities to. The army, for fear of IRA bombs, won't allow that many men to assemble in a public place.

Denny admittedly expected more to eventuate from his triumph. "I approached the [razor] company several times, about doing some kind of advertising for them, but they always told me the budget was down."

His face fills with disgust at the memory of corporate deceit, as he sees it. Was he paid for his exertions?

"If you call five thousand razor blades pay."

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