Throughout the past 84 years in the history of downtown Fort Myers, in the ebb and flow of construction and demolition, of boom and bust, of depression and resurrection, one thing has remained constant—the revolving red, white, and blue barber pole in the barbershop at 2216 First Street. This shop, originally opened in 1929 as the Whiteway Barber Shop, is the oldest continuously operating business in downtown Fort Myers. Its iconic and original barber pole has been moved inside for its own protection, but it still goes round and round and, thanks to a man who was one of its first customers when the shop opened, the cylinder casing for the pole has been electrified. Round and round it goes, shining brightly, in Blake’s Tonsorial Parlor in downtown Fort Myers.
Outside the big front windows of this barbershop, the passing parade of history has been a continuing moving picture show.
Model Ts pass back and forth on First Street, their engines vibrating like lawn mowers. On the sidewalk in front of Whiteway’s, laborers in overalls and pork pie hats, businessmen in fedoras and double-breasted suits, and women in cloche hats and floral print dresses with butterfly sleeves, walk to and fro.
Inside the shop, the Jack Benny Program is on the radio. Hair clippers clicking, Mr. White smiles at the droll exchange, interrupted frequently by canned laughter, between mild-mannered Benny and gravel-voiced Rochester. His customer, a director of the newly established First National Bank, pulls his watch from his vest pocket and checks the time. White slaps Brilliantine hair tonic on his hands and palms it into the man’s hair, slicking it back on the sides with a comb.
An officer from Page Army Airfield walks in, tosses his olive drab service cap on the bench against the opposite wall, falls into the barber chair and jerks down his brass-buttoned uniform jacket as Barber White snaps a cape over his head. On the radio, the Andrews Sisters are singing “Don’t Sit under the Apple Tree.” Lowering his head so that Mr. White can razor the hair off the nape of his neck, the officer lifts his eyes to the front window.
Outside, a little boy dressed smartly in a shorts suit with knee socks and a cap leans against the glass, cupping a hand around one side of his face to see in; in his other hand, he clutches a balsa wood airplane. Spying the army officer in the chair, he grins and begins swooping his toy plane back and forth, making machine gun sounds. The officer chuckles and waves. Behind the boy, a big Ford V8 coupe passes, splashing through a puddle of rainwater.
Fort Myers’ premier retailer of men’s clothing steps in, greeting the new shop owner, Troy Springer, with a courteous smile. In his pale yellow, Sanforized cotton twill trousers, single-breasted cream sports coat, and suede oxfords, this gentlemanly haberdasher looks as if he just stepped off a National Airlines flight from Palm Beach, CA. He takes a seat and Springer tilts back his chair for a hot towel facial.
Outside, a big blue and white Pontiac convertible, driven by a woman in white gloves, white headscarf and sunglasses a la Lana Turner, bumps and sways over the uneven pavement on First Street. The charm bracelet on her wrist swings back and forth as Frank Sinatra belts out “Love and marriage, love and marriage, go together like a horse and carriage…”
Bill Mazeroski, second baseman for the Pittsburgh Pirates, falls into the barber chair. Elvis Presley’s baritone “It’s Now or Never” rolls with a Calypso beat from the radio. Whacking a piece of Juicy Fruit gum, “Maz” grins at Blake Landrum, the new owner of the shop. Landrum is an avid baseball fan; when the Pirates are in town for spring training, he’s a happy guy. As he whips a cape over “Maz,” Landrum sees several other ball players coming out of Chuck Ross’s men’s store across the street. They’re in slacks with fashionably thin belts, short-sleeved Madras sport shirts, and penny loafers. Dodging between a Corvair and a beep-beeping little Volkswagen Beetle, they pile into the shop. They’re noisy, having fun. They all want crew cuts. To Landrum’s delight, one of them grabs the bicycle Landrum rides to work every day, wheels it through the shop and out the front door and wobbles off down First Street.On October 13, when “Maz” hits the home run that wins the World Series for the Pirates, the screaming in the barbershop can be heard clear out on First Street.
Blake’s Barber Shop is quiet. Mr. Landrum sits in his barber chair, watching a faded, metallic-green Datsun cruise by driven by a black man with an Afro. During working hours in Fort Myers, the people downtown are mostly government workers and professionals. When they go home at 5:00 p.m., the streets are deserted but for a dimly lit nightclub or two.
The tidal pull of the Edison Mall, which opened in 1965, and the consequent development out along 41 has sucked the life’s blood from the businesses in downtown Fort Myers. The historic old buildings are molding. Awnings and other decorative features of the Mediterranean and Art Deco buildings have been removed and the brick and windows plastered over with stucco.
On the radio in Blake’s, the Bee Gees are singing “Stayin’ Alive,” when a middle-aged, disco-dance instructor prances in, dancing to the music, swinging his long, layered, bouffant hair and snapping his fingers. He’s wearing a white, polyester, zippered jump suit with flared legs and white, patent-leather shoes. The suit is open to mid chest and a large golden crucifix is nestled in his chest hair.
Managing a smile, Landrum gets up from his chair and drops his magazine on the waiting bench. He turns his back on the gyrating dance instructor to prepare his electric razor for the man’s horseshoe mustache. He also raps down sharply a can of heavy-duty hair spray.
Ruthann gently pushes her client’s head chin down to trim the hair at the nape of his neck. Blake Landrum, affectionately known for the past 20 years as the “mayor of First Street,” has retired. His friends, John and Ruthann Yeomans, have bought the shop, and for the first time in its history, the barber is a woman.
The Yeomans have taken over at the darkest hour in the history of downtown Fort Myers, but on the eve of its rebirth, for in 1984, the city creates the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) to restore and resurrect the historic river district of Fort Myers.
The labor pains that will accompany this rebirth commence.
Over the next 3 decades, the scene outside the barbershop windows is one of demolition and reconstruction. Scaffolding for painters and carpenters goes up and comes down, pavers slap down new concrete, and landscapers send in 60’ trailers with royal palm fronds drooping from the tailgates. Jack hammers tear up First Street as effectively as Allied bombers rubbled Berlin, and Public Works Department laborers haul in new water and sewer pipe lines. The stucco facades of the ‘70s are chiseled down and the original exteriors, architectural details and colors restored. Tax incentives bring in new tenants for the buildings. As the city struggles to entice people back into the river district, new government buildings and riverfront condominiums rise.
And through it all, the hair clippers in Blake’s shop keep on clicking.
The scene outside Blake’s is a colorful, crowded and noisy one of sidewalk cafes and a continually advancing and receding tide of visitors and downtown residents. Drawn to holiday festivals, art and music walks, boat and vintage car shows, cook-offs and bikers’ nights, concerts, theater and film festivals, the people jostling past Blake’s front windows now are of every age, race, class, ethnicity, profession, nationality and style of dress. Some of them are costumed. Some only appear to be.
Inside this “old-timey” shop, the 3 remaining original barber chairs are occupied nearly as often by women as by men. On the weekends, the men in the chairs are generally in tee shirts and shorts and mesh sneakers with soles like tractor tires. The barbers are stylists and the stylists, with the exception of owner John, are all women.
The radio is long gone, but every time the door opens, music—everything from Rock to Country, from R&B to Salsa—crashes in.
After 35 years, John and Ruthann are thinking about retirement. “It will be new blood that pulls this into the new generation,” says Ruthann. “We need young people in here.” Her daughter Jill, who works in the shop part-time, says quietly, “My husband and I will take over.”
And the red, white, and blue barber pole keeps on turning.