01/22/2015 08:00 EST | Updated 03/24/2015 05:59 EDT

Stylist has spent five decades making Edmonton look its best

Everyone over a certain age remembers that poster.

The red, one-piece bathing suit. The smiling teeth, so big, so straight and so white. And all that hair. Especially that hair. 

The crazy layers, the dark roots and blond curls, tantalizingly tumbling over tanned shoulders.

Her name was Farrah Fawcett. And in 1976, she was the IT girl, and it seemed that every second woman who walked into Frank Spadafora’s Edmonton hair salon wanted to look just like her.

He did so many of those layered haircuts in the late 1970s that he got sick of them.

“People spent hours and hours trying to look like Farah Fawcett,” he says. “It was the one we just got tired of the most.”

Fifty years. That’s how long Spadafora has been cutting and styling hair.

He started his career in the 1960s, back when all the ladies sat against the wall with their heads encased in those enormous contraptions that made them look like astronauts about to join Apollo missions to the moon.

In five decades, he has seen styles come and go.

The shag, the dreaded Farrah, those short and sweet Vidal Sassoon cuts, the Dorothy Hamill wedge, the huge afros, and whatever it was the punk rockers were doing at the time.

The constant, it seems, is the customers.

He has women who’ve been coming to his salon for more than four decades.

They’ve grown up together. Grown older. Grown close. They are his friends, now, and he looks after them, pampers them, shares his stories with them, listens to theirs.

And to think, it all happened almost by accident.

The Aha! moment

Spadafora came to Edmonton from Italy in the early 1960s. He didn’t speak the language and struggled in school. He was 17 when he left high school to look for work, to seek his fortune, to find the place he where he truly belonged.

He had friends who worked outdoors, who got their hands dirty doing hard, physical work. Shift work. He knew that wasn’t for him.

He had other friends who were starting out as hairdressers, working regular hours, indoor, with clean hands.

It was an Aha! moment, and he quickly made up his mind and enrolled at the Marvel Beauty School.

The rest, as they say, is history. Five decades of it.

He learned to speak English standing behind salon chairs.

“I could read and understand what I was saying, but I couldn’t speak it. It forced me to speak, and I became better and better.”

He got his start with salon owner Frank Cairo and opened his own place about 30 years ago. He’s had three locations over the years. The first was on Jasper Avenue at 118th Street.

Now Francesco’s Hair Salon is off Stony Plain Road and 164th Street.

He still remembers his first electric curling iron, back in 1966. It didn’t have a thermostat and he admits he burned some hair learning to use it.

Four decades of clients

His clients, he says, are like books. Spend time with them and you get to learn their stories.

Some Francesco fans have been with him almost from the start. He began styling their hair when they were in their 20s, and has watched them raise families and have grandchildren.

“I’ve seen a lot of change in these people,” he says. “You share different conversations. Whether it be politics or religion, or life in general.”

He gets invited to weddings, baptisms, family gatherings. He runs into clients at restaurants or community events, or at the opera.

On the day the CBC visited his shop, Lynn Mandel was in the chair. The wife of the city’s former mayor Stephen Mandel, who is now health minister in the Prentice government, she has been going to Francesco’s for 40 years.

“We’ve been through a lot together,” she says. “Every time my husband is doing … what my husband does, he’s there, (she points behind her), helping, campaigning, building signs.”

In a way, you could say Francesco’s has developed an international following.

“My sister will come here once a year,” Mandel says. “She doesn’t want anyone to touch her hair. Except him. She lives on a sailboat in the British Virgin Islands, but when she comes back to Canada, she always makes sure she comes once or twice here to get him to do her hair.”

Norma Downey has been a regular in the salon for 44 years.

“He’s not allowed to retire,” she says.

No worries there. Spadafora is 67 now and isn’t even thinking about hanging up his scissors.

“I love it more now than ever before,” he says.

Some clients haven’t changed hairstyles in 30 years. Others want something new every time they come in.

What matters most to him is that they’re happy.

“When they get up out of the chair, they feel great.”

The world has changed so much in the last 50 years that Spadafora doesn’t think he’ll ever see the day when another style will come along that everyone simply has to have.

“Now we’ve reached the stage where anything goes,” he says. “Now we even shave a half a head and leave the other side long.”

By the way, that red Lycra bathing suit that people of a certain age remember so well? It’s now in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

Times change.