Harps to toupees: A Baltimore story

Michael Kernan

December 29, 1992|By Michael Kernan

IN 1988, Gregory G's grandfather got off the boat from Italy with a suitcase, a good winter coat and two harps. He had no English to speak of, but he knew the real America was somewhere out there in the Territories.

So he took a train to the Dakota wilderness, spent five years in the Wild West, decided he had left the real America behind, came back to Baltimore and settled in Little Italy. By then he was 26 and a naturalized citizen. He still had the harps.

"My cousin got the prettier one," says Gregory. "I got the one that sounds better. Oh yeah, we always were a musical family on my mother's side. My grandfather wanted his sons to be barbers or musicians, and I would have had it made if he was alive today because I'm both."

Gregory took up the saxophone and made his living that way for awhile, but then he got married and needed a day job where he wouldn't keep getting laid off as he did at Martin Marietta, so he became a barber. Haircutting is his bread and butter at his two-seater shop in the basement of the Madison Hotel on St. Paul Street, but for 25 years he has specialized in hairpieces.

He is good at it. He has done a hairpiece for Bert Reynolds. For years he fixed Frank Sinatra's son's hairpieces whenever that minor celebrity came through town.

"I'm third generation," Gregory says. "I was born in Graceland Park, which was in the country then. My mother was born on Eastern Avenue. My father was from Canton. He worked in the broom factory; he was the fastest broom-maker at Southwestern Atlantic. Joe Gaydos. Called him Joby. He was a Czech, had an H on the end of the name, Gaydosh, but somewhere along the line they cut it off."

Those were the days in Canton: the can companies, Tindeco, the copper works, J. C. Young licorice factory, the packing houses on Butchers Hill, the coal piers.

The broom factory let Joby Gaydos go when he started making brooms on the side for himself -- "he'd go in the swamps out by the Point and cut the grass for them" -- and then he had a potato chip factory in a storefront at Canton Square, which used to be one of Baltimore's open markets.

"We lived in Canton. I had an uncle was scoutmaster at St. Casimir's for 40 years. In the war my father worked in a shipyard," Gregory Gaydos recalls. Gregory himself ended up with Special Services when he was drafted into the Army. He entertained troops all over Western Europe.

"I started out on bass fiddle, but I always wanted to play the sax. This was the swing era, rhythm and blues. The big bands. I worked opposite some of them, you know, spelling them on the '' stand. Earl Bostic. Nice guy, better than some guys who thought they were somebody great. Louis Prima. Billy Mays."

They had vaudeville and movies at the Hippodrome on Eutaw Street then, with the Three Stooges, Dean Martin, a lot of big names before they got big. Bands would stay in town for two weeks at a time, not just overnight as is often the custom now. There was always a call for a good musician, a solid pro who could play with any group.

"It's over with," says Gregory, who is 60 and just remarried after years of single life. "I play birthday parties, I work for friends. And a couple of times a year we have this big jam session at Parkville, the American Legion Hall. Everybody gets up and dances. Lot of old-time shaggers there, but not much jitterbugging anymore."

It is a scene, too. He has video of it: the men with their jeweled cufflinks, the women with big hair and shimmery gowns, everybody dancing. Baltimore is a dancing town.

He got into the toupee business when a customer whose cousin was makeup man for Sinatra came into the barber shop 25 years ago and sold him a fine hairpiece that he couldn't wear himself because he didn't have enough hair to hold it on.

"You can tell it's expensive. When I lay it on my hand you can't even see the edge. I just clip it on and comb it in. The whole secret is not to comb it like it was your own hair but just where it attaches. Guys come in, they don't listen, they get that edge there. I tell 'em to just blend it in."

With his graying black hair in a brush cut, Gregory says his front piece takes 10 years off his age. He will demonstrate it for you, removing the piece and deftly slipping it back on. He is right.

There seems to be a steady stream of customers at the shop, which consists of two rooms and an entry whose yellow stucco walls are covered with signed photos of Sinatra, Reynolds, Anthony Quinn, Tom Selleck, Sylvester Stallone and others. There are two trophies for fast-pitch softball.

"I pitched for 35 years," says Gregory G. "I lift weights now. I keep in shape. Get the saxophone out for a wedding or something. When my cousin's boy got married. Yeah, one of these days I'd like to go to Italy. Naples. Where my grandfather came from. With his two harps."

Michael Kernan is a Baltimore writer.

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