Show Business

Ruth Regina, wigmaker and stylist to the stars, is closing up shop

 

During Miami Beach’s show-biz heyday, Ruth Regina got the Beatles, Elvis, Jackie Gleason and other performers camera ready.

cdolen@MiamiHerald.com

Ruth Regina’s life has been devoted to making celebrities and ordinary folks look flawless, or close to it. Wigs, hairpieces and makeup are the petite Pygmalion’s toolkit, and her artistry has worked its magic on everyone from former President Herbert Hoover to celebrity cover girls Jennifer Lopez, Kate Winslet and Cher.

An eighth-generation wigmaker, she began learning the family trade from her father, Joseph Rozini, at his shop in Chicago’s Stevens Building when she was only 7. And after years of gracefully dodging questions about her age, Regina now fesses up: She’s 96.

During a career that coincided with the glory days of showbiz glamor in South Florida, she applied makeup to the faces of presidents and all four of the Beatles; got Gene Kelly to guide her through a dance he did with Judy Garland in 1942’s For Me and My Gal; hobnobbed with Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Elvis and other stars.

As the hair and makeup guru on the Miami Beach-based Jackie Gleason Show from 1964 to 1970, she transformed The Great One from Ralph Kramden to Reginald Van Gleason III to Joe the Bartender.

She’s tiny and dynamic, her once-dark long hair now an artfully styled pale blond. Regina smiles when she’s given a compliment on her pretty dark-hazel eyes.

“They have little flecks of gold in them,” she says. “Someone once told me, ‘You have stars in your eyes.’ 

And in her makeup chair? So many stars.

For more than three decades, she has shown up five days a week at her eponymous Kane Concourse shop on Miami Beach’s Bay Harbor Islands. It’s a cozy, elegant, pretty-in-pink place where the shelves hold wigs made of the finest virgin Italian hair and the walls are practically papered with autographed photos of Regina alongside a mind-boggling array of her famous clients.

The store is her third in South Florida. After she and her parents moved to Miami Beach in 1948, she set up shop in Mario’s Salon on Lincoln Road in 1950, then opened her own place on Collins Avenue at 74th Street in 1955. Since 1979, the Kane Concourse shop has been her home away from home. But by the middle of this month, that chapter of Regina’s glamorous life will come to a close.

In February, her landlord informed her he had other plans for the space, and as she had no lease, she had no recourse. So she and her staff, including stylist Maria McDonald, who has worked with Regina for 55 years, are packing up all those exquisite wigs and shutting down, albeit reluctantly.

“It did upset me. … I’m an organizer. I like to pace myself,” she says. “But the little angel on my shoulder says, ‘You know, that happened for a good reason.’ 

The youngest of four daughters of Ukranian-born Joseph Rozinsky (he changed the name to “Rozini”) and his wife Frieda, Regina got into her showbiz work through disparate clientele: sexy burlesque stars and TV personalities.

“My first customers were exotic dancers. Lili St. Cyr needed a black wig for a movie, so I took it over there in a box. The head of the wig and makeup department asked me to help on the movie,” she remembers.

She made wigs for “daredevil” WTVJ newswoman Lee Dickens, then got signed to style former Miss America Bess Myerson for the nationally televised quiz show The Big Payoff. She learned to “sculpt” faces from the best television makeup artists at the New York networks, joined the union and started getting recommendations that led to TV and movie gigs.

She became the envy of thousands of screaming teens when she made up the Beatles before their 1964 Ed Sullivan Show appearance at the Deauville Hotel. Later, she got all the political bigwigs, including Richard Nixon, camera-ready before the 1972 Republican and Democratic national conventions on Miami Beach.

“I try to analyze what happened,” she says of her career path. “I think it was having a little talent, taking advantage of opportunities and having some luck.”

The Gleason job, for instance, came a couple of years after she first worked on a week’s worth of his shows that aired from Palm Beach. Actress and voluptuous pinup Jayne Mansfield was a guest on one, but she didn’t show up for rehearsal earlier in the day, finally breezing in around 7 p.m. for a show that would go on live in an hour. She wasn’t anything like camera-ready and kept roaming around her dressing room.

“I said, ‘Miss Mansfield, will you sit down and let me do your makeup? The whole world is waiting to see your beautiful face,’ ” Regina says. She and the star clicked, and Mansfield held the stylist’s pile of rollers, handing them off one at a time.

“At 10 to 8, she walked out. Jackie thought she was a vision. When it was all over and we were saying our goodbyes, I said, ‘If you ever come back to Miami, let me know.’ Two years later, I got the call,” she says.

Charlie Cinnamon, the South Florida publicist whose long career has coincided with much of Regina’s, crossed paths with her many times over the years.

“She wanted to be thought about as stylist to the stars. She was very committed to the world of television and film,” Cinnamon says. “She was very colorful herself and quite beautiful, a serious player in the days of that kind of glamor. She’s very feisty and full of fun and very committed to her work.”

Stories? Regina has dozens of them, but she remains guarded about what she’ll share. She is so accustomed to the kind of discretion that’s vital for those who want to continue working with celebrities that the thrice-widowed Regina demurs when asked for the names of her late husbands. She’ll say only that their first names were Milton, Lou and Morton. A couple of writers have come to her with book proposals, but so far she has turned them down.

“Whether people are living or gone, I’ll not give any information that would betray a confidence,” she says.

She’s happy, though, to talk about how she met creative challenges in her work. Like the time the Gleason staff asked if she could make a wig out of steel wool for a sketch in which the comedian would take found objects to make over a model — again, on live TV. The idea was that Gleason would pull the steel wool stuffing out of a sofa, turn his back to the camera as he fussed with the model, then step aside to reveal a stylish wig.

“I’m thinking, ‘What should I do?’ I went to a hardware store and asked to see the steel wool, and the wheels were turning. So I made a wig, styled it and sprayed it the color of steel wool,” Regina says. “Then I put clumps of steel wool into it with pins, so Jackie could pull them out. I put a red marker on the back of the wig so he’d know which way to put it on the model’s head. It was sensational!”

Another time, she was told that Tonight Show host Jack Paar needed a mustache for a bit, right away. She didn’t have one with her but did have all the tools of her trade, so she snipped a strategically selected chunk from her own hair, went to work with glue and tape, and Paar had his facial hair. Stubbornly, though, he refused to attach it with the spirit gum that Regina recommended, so it jiggled and fell off, making the bit even funnier.

Among Regina’s more whimsical inventions is Wiggles, a line of wigs for dogs. Silly? Maybe, but it got her a 2007 guest appearance (with a variety of four-legged models) on The Late Show With David Letterman.

Celebrities and canines aren’t Regina’s only clients, of course. Women who like the convenience and quick-change options of wigs come to her. So do those who have lost their hair to chemotherapy or struggled with the patchy baldness caused by alopecia areata.

Maura McCarthy, a Wellington-based psychologist, has lived with alopecia since she was a child. She had shopped for wigs or hairpieces in South Florida, New York and Los Angeles, but nothing was comfortable in the Florida heat on her delicate scalp. Then she heard about another of Regina’s inventions, the “Carasette,” a lightweight wig that fits like a headband and allows a woman’s own hair to be blended with the added hair.

“Ruth was so reassuring. She said nothing was a problem, and that she could help me,” McCarthy says. “I had spent so much money and was in pain from all the things I’d tried. … I was so desperate. It wasn’t vanity. It was the heat, and I was doing a lot of different treatments. My head was incredibly sensitive. She got that instantly. Ruth made me feel and look beautiful.”

Now, Regina and her employees are completing their current orders, selling her beautiful wigs at a discount and planning to donate some to charitable groups that can get them to women who need them.

The proprietor isn’t sure what her next move will be — “When I come to it, I’ll know,” she says — but her creative wheels are still turning. She may not have chosen to close up shop, but true to form, she’s making lemonade out of lemons.

“I talk to myself. I say, ‘Tomorrow’s another day,’ ” she says. “I think, ‘What a beautiful life I’ve had. What a blessing it has been.’ 

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