The Singing Barber of Sheepshead Bay

Posted on 22. Jan, 2010 by in Uncategorized

By Emily Johnson
November 17, 2009


Maury Reiss, 89, leans forward in the retro red-and-white barber chair, looks into the mirror and inspects his sparse, neatly-trimmed hair. He breaks into a grin. “Oh, that’s neat!”

“That’ll be twenty-five,” says the barber. And as he waits for the money, he begins to sing.

His voice, an arresting tenor that wouldn’t sound out of place at a glittering European opera house, rolls around the tiny shop. The windows vibrate.
“It’s now or never, my love…”

The impromptu Elvis ballad is enough to startle a person out of his chair, but Reiss doesn’t bat an eye. After all, he’s been coming here for 30 years, and this is Mr. Figaro, the singing barber of Sheepshead Bay.

“Singing haircutter,” Mr. Figaro insists. “I am unisex.”

Figaro, the original singing barber from Rossini’s 1816 comic opera, “The Barber of Seville,” was a crafty Italian with a nose for other people’s business.

Mr. Figaro, Brooklyn’s singing haircutter, is a diminutive Russian with a diva streak. Even when he’s not singing, he’s performing. He delivers each word with an “R”-rolling, throaty emphasis that would do Sir Laurence Olivier proud. His hair is dyed black; the color doesn’t quite cover silver roots.

His legal name is Jerry May, a fact he dismisses.

“No one knows my real name,” he says. “If they did, I’d be in jail!”

Mr. Figaro, 82, set up shop 30 years ago at 1919 Avenue Z 30. Since then, he has carved out a beloved if unorthodox place in the Sheepshead Bay community and beyond. A knowledge of hairstyles as broad as his considerable musical repertoire has attracted a diverse clientele who come as much for the show as for the styling. A few loyal attorneys regularly make the trip out from Manhattan.

Posters of Elvis Presley and Al Jolson vie for wall space with photos of women modeling pixie haircuts. Hair dryers and brushes litter shelves stacked with records that Mr. Figaro plays on request. A Betsy Ross piano is piled high with entertainment periodicals and an assortment of travel magazines.

Most of Sheepshead Bay seems to have been out enjoying the clear, mild Sunday and the shop has been busy. It’s quieter now; only Reiss and his daughter Susan, 56, remain.

Susan takes her turn in the chair.

“I wet your hair, I cut your hair, I dry your hair, and then you look like a lady who come from Hollywood,” Mr. Figaro announces. He spritzes her hair with water. “Let’s go to work.”

Make no mistake; Mr. Figaro isn’t just a singer who started dabbling in another trade to pay the bills. A haircutter of distinction, he was born in the U.S.S.R. in 1927 into a family of barbers. He credits his father with teaching him everything he knows about the craft.

“He gives great haircuts,” Susan says. “My father started coming here first, and he always said I should go too. I thought he wouldn’t be able to cut women’s hair, but he’s actually really good.”

Singing, too, is something he learned from his father. He has never had professional voice training.

Marrying the two passions into one novel career was less a decision than instinct for a man who feels he was born to do both.

“I came out of my mommy singing,” he says.

Mr. Figaro follows in the distinguished footsteps of such singing barbers as Perry Como – and that’s about it. He is unaware of any others that are currently practicing. He posits that the challenges of the profession are too great for just any aspiring singer to pick up a pair of shears.

“It’s a difficult job,” he says. “A complicated job, but a happy one.”

This happy job has also been his ticket to a varied and fascinating life.

He left Russia with his family when he was a young man. They headed for New York, but Mr. Figaro took a detour. He spent the next several decades living in Iran, Iraq, Israel, Paris, Toronto, Las Vegas, Denver and Los Angeles – a small sampling.

He set up shop in each place. After singing enough songs and snipping enough hair to set some money aside, he moved on.

“It was my passport. I met people, had a lot of fun, had a lot of girlfriends.” He smiles. “There’s no work, there’s no singing, without love-making.”

Mr. Figaro’s roving lifestyle helped him go through a couple of marriages along the way. The third one stuck after he landed in Brooklyn in the 70’s and met another Russian immigrant. He and his wife have three children, none of whom aspire to take over the family business.

For some time, he had a lively side business singing at weddings and other functions. He played accordion, bongos, piano, and was a self-professed virtuoso on the spoons.

He is semi-retired now and works only three days a week. He hasn’t done much performing outside the shop in recent years, as his hands no longer play the way they once did. The piano is for sale. His voice has lost some of its power. But sometimes, the lure of the stage is too much.

“If there is an opportunity to have a microphone, I don’t say no,” he says. “It’s how you feel. How many shots you drink.”

Susan’s hair is finished.

“Lovely!” the barber cries. Her father agrees.

“Two liars,” she says, but she is pleased. Her disheveled cap of hair is now short and sleek.

Mr. Figaro helps the Riesses gather their things. He stands outside under his sign and bids them good night. “Your Singing Stylist Mr. Figaro,” the sign reads.

His customers are not disappointed. He launches into a song from an Italian opera and serenades them out the door.

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