Skin Deep

She's no doctor, but when the glitterati needed beauty triage during Miami's heyday, Ruth Regina always came through with coif medicine

Ruth Regina's Kane Concourse salon sports the kind of glitzy, Hollywood-French Provincial decor that Morris Lapidus designed for the Fontainebleau Hotel lobby in the Fifties. A curved red velvet loveseat and two white leather chairs surround a mirrored coffee table set with a plaster-of-Paris bust of a classical hero -- the only bald pate in the room. Heads with elaborate coifs and identically painted impertinent faces have been placed in careful rows on shelves along one wall and assembled more haphazardly atop two glass showcases. Outside, at the top of the store's glass faaade, a sculpted sign spells out the owner's name in fancy white script, the i in Regina dotted with a crown.

From a doorway at the back of the shop, Ruth Regina's own platinum head pops out, her shoulder-length hair parted on the side and curled, falling in a glamorous wave over one cheek in the style of a Forties pin-up girl. It's only 10:00 a.m., but Regina, who rose and put on her face hours ago in her bayview apartment at the Jockey Club, is dressed smartly in brown stretch slacks, a white silk blouse, a pink linen jacket, and gold jewelry. A pixieish woman petite even in high heels, she steps with a brisk showgirl's stride to the front of her store, smiling graciously.

"Shall we take the walk of the stars?" she asks with a tinkling laugh and makes a sweeping gesture around the shop, her perfectly manicured fingernails pointing the way.

A row of large photographs that hangs on the walls above the shelves, almost at the ceiling, upstages even the copious display of wigs in the crowded room. Honeymooner Art Carney. Ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his sidekick Charlie McCarthy. Milton Berle, Jack Benny, and Gene Kelly together in one photo. Jack Paar, when he was host of the Tonight Show. As Regina reaches to point with a flourish and name the subjects in her gallery one by one, her silk sleeve slips up, revealing a hand mottled with age spots.

A perky brunette with a cluster of curls piled on top of her head and a perfect stroke of liquid eyeliner painted on the lids of her huge brown eyes appears in almost every picture: a much younger Ruth Regina. In one photo she poses with Judy Garland, who wears a white bathrobe and clings with visible force to Regina's arm. The picture is inscribed, "To darling Ruth, the wonder worker, love, Judy."

Toward the back of the shop, small framed photographs cover one wall next to the open doorway of a small workroom where four women are listening to Spanish-language talk radio while they weave individual hairs into delicate lace wig caps on wooden heads. Each wooden form is marked with a piece of masking tape bearing a client's name. Regina looks over one woman's shoulder, suggests that that more blond hair be added to a streaked page boy. "Mas claar-o," she says loudly, tugging on the wig. The woman nods silently. Regina has been teaching herself Spanish to communicate in the language of her staff of ten, most of whom are natives of Cuba or the Dominican Republic. It seems fair, she says. Having trained all of her craftswomen personally, she hovers over them with maternal concern. When it rains, she sends them home in cabs.

Outside the workroom, the shop owner continues the Walk of Fame, pointing out a picture of a young Elvis Presley ("A fine gentleman, and very nervous"). There's Al Pacino, during the filming of Scarface. Sam Donaldson sporting Seventies' sideburns. A slim Dom DeLuise. Tiny Tim ("He always liked to look pale for some reason"). Frank Sinatra in his salad days.

And the four Beatles sitting in a row on metal chairs, wearing identical velvet-trimmed suits, while Regina powders Ringo's face. Ed Sullivan can just be made out standing in the background.

"I was put under security with them," Regina relates, recalling the Fab Four's historic second Ed Sullivan Show appearance in 1964, broadcast live from the Deauville Hotel. ""We had the police surrounding us. We went from the suite in the Deauville to the stage through the kitchen. Girls were all over us. It seemed like they popped out of the walls. When we were in their suite, we heard this roaring sound outside. It sounded like the ocean in a storm. I looked out the window and it was just girls, girls screaming, 'We love you!'

"I'll never forget it," she sighs. "I never asked for autographs. But Paul McCartney -- he was so polite -- he said, 'Miss Regina, would you like our autograph?' I looked up at him and said, 'Well, all right, Paul, that would be nice.'"

Next to the Beatles photo hangs a framed piece of Deauville stationery signed by Paul, John, George, and Ringo. The inscription: "To the best make-up artist in the business."

With the help of an assistant, Regina drags a small battered leather trunk from behind a counter. Popping open the metal fasteners, she lifts the lid. First she takes out a packet of letters she received from acclaimed Broadway producer George Abbott, whom she dated briefly in 1971, after the death of her first husband. (She would be widowed two more times.) She peeks at the letters, then puts them aside, reaching instead for three large, dusty scrapbooks.

In one photo she is clad in a fluffy Angora sweater, her hair curled and pulled back in a high ponytail. She poses with a small stuffed horse, which has a ponytail similar to her own attached to its rear end. The photo was taken in 1948; Regina looks to be about twenty.

"I was a mere child," she says, but refuses to reveal her exact age. ("There are some things a lady just does not discuss.")

Ruth and her parents, Joseph and Frieda Rozini, moved to Miami in 1945 from Chicago. Russian-Italian Jews, the Rozinis were wigmakers who immigrated to America and set up shop in the Windy City before Ruth was born. According to family legend, Joseph Rozini came from eight generations of hair-goods manufacturers and wig stylers, extending all the way back to a relative who made hairpieces for members of the French Court. Regina likes to refer to wigmaking as "the second oldest profession."

In Miami the Rozinis opened a small shop on Flagler Street downtown. In 1948, Ruth, who had been learning the business from her parents since the age of seven, went out on her own. Taking her first and middle names as her professional moniker, she opened a wig stand stocked with Rozini hair goods in Mario's Beauty Shop on the 500 block of the then-glamorous Lincoln Road. When Joseph Rozini died three years later, Frieda joined Ruth in Miami Beach. One photo shows an elegant woman with a gray crown of braids, weaving a wig at age 85. She lived to be a hundred.

In the early Fifties, Regina opened her own salon on 74th and Collins, complete with zebra-pattern fabric on the walls and hairdresser's chairs covered in gray vinyl snakeskin.

"Ruth Regina was the premier artist of the time," says long-time Miami Beach publicity czar Charlie Cinnamon. "Everyone knew she was the gal to go to if you needed, shall we say, a better hair day."

As her father had done, Regina began doing hair and makeup for the stage. One scrapbook page contains programs for several local productions from the Fifties: Annie Get Your Gun with Martha Raye and The Play's the Thing with Uta Hagen, both staged at the Cameo Playhouse (now the Cameo Theatre) on Washington Avenue; The Moon is Blue at the Roosevelt Playhouse on 41st Street, starring Kim Hunter.

But it was television that provided the biggest career boost. In 1954, five years after it had taken to the airwaves, local station WTVJ-TV became a CBS affiliate, and Ruth Regina was asked to do hair and makeup for The Big Payoff, a network game show hosted by onetime Miss America Bess Myerson. Once on the network's roster, she was able to travel to New York to study with the top make-up artists at CBS. She trained in character makeup and cosmetic special effects, learning to create lifelike wrinkles, bruises, and and bloody noses. She joined the make-up artists and hairstylists union, Local 798, in 1959. She is still a member.

In 1960 the Miss Universe pageant moved from Long Beach, California, to the Miami Beach Convention Hall. Regina worked on the annual program for fourteen years, encouraging contestants to "walk like a winner." Scrapbook snapshots depict her drying tiara-wearing girls' tears so their mascara wouldn't run on-camera.

Also in 1960, Elvis Presley, fresh out of the service, joined Frank Sinatra on-stage in the Fontainebleau's La Ronde Room (now the Tropigala). Regina did their makeup. "It seemed as if exciting things were always happening," she says, poring over undated clips from old gossip columns. "Interesting things. Unusual things."

One newspaper item relates an episode in which singer Billy "Black Magic" Daniels had a vicious argument with his wife in their suite at the Eden Roc. She retaliated by hiding his two toupees several hours before his Saturday-night performance there. The hotel's owner summoned Regina, who rushed over a salt-and-pepper hairpiece she had stashed in a drawer.

Another night she got a call from the Fontainebleau, where Judy Garland, then in the declining days of her career, was scheduled to sing.

"She had a little accident," Regina confides, whispering so that a client who has come in for a fitting won't hear. "She fell down in her dressing room and hit her head. They called me over. She was bleeding, her forehead was all bruised. But I got her fixed up. She could go on with the show. That's why she called me her wonder worker."

The Gigi Room and the Boom Boom Room at the Fontainebleau. The Mona Lisa Room at the Eden Roc. "Those were the places where the celebrities would be found on a Saturday night," says Regina, her eyes sparkling. "I like to dance. I always enjoyed going out and having fun. Always. I was never too tired."

Edna Buchanan first met Regina when Buchanan was a reporter for the Miami News. "Ruth was one of the people that everybody knew. She was in great demand by all the major stars. They loved her," says the police desk virtuoso turned novelist. "She is one of the few people left from those good old days when Miami Beach was a sleepy Southern resort city that closed down in the off-season."

Exuding a rare combination of Old World charm and bubbly all-American congeniality, Regina inspired immediate confidence in her clients. But she was ever the professional. She's still reluctant to reveal the stories behind the smiles in the photos that are so proudly displayed on her walls. When customers ask about them, she prefers to feign amnesia: She can't recall just who wore a toupee, which actress needed a "little more help," what star made a scene backstage.

"Oh really," she laughs, coyly brushing a lock of hair away from her face and breaking into the same girlish grin she wears in the old photos all around her. "I'm not fooling anyone. Of course I remember, and everybody knows it."

In 1962 Regina got a call from CBS's production department in New York. Jackie Gleason and his American Scene Magazine would broadcast several shows live from Palm Beach, featuring the buxom blond actress Jayne Mansfield.

"Ruth was in the dressing room with Floyd Patterson, the boxer," recalls Pete McGovern, who, as Jackie Gleason's personal publicist for 24 years, traveled to Palm Beach with the cast. "He was a black guy, and she was just putting a little powder his face so it wouldn't shine. Mickey Hargitay, Jayne Mansfield's husband, he was a weight lifter, he was sitting on the bed talking with Patterson, and I was in the room, too. All of a sudden I see Patterson's eyes widen. In walks Jayne Mansfield, stark naked in high heels, with that equipment she had. My mouth fell open. But Ruthie didn't look up, she just kept right on going."

Regina recounts her own version of the scene: "Jayne Mansfield's hair was a mess, everything was horrible. She was running around the room, looking for who knows what. Somehow I spoke with her and calmed her down. I said, 'Please be seated, Miss Mansfield. Everyone's waiting to see you.' I got the rollers on her head. I did her makeup and got her dressed. She was a vision.

"The first day I was there I had lunch alone," Regina continues. "I was the new girl on the block. But the next day, after they knew what I had done, they invited me to lunch. They said, 'If we ever come back to Florida, we'd like to work with you. One and a half years later they called," she adds, smiling at the memory. "It's like they say: 'Don't call us, we'll call you.' And they called."

In September 1964, Gleason and an entourage of 97 arrived in Miami on a chartered train dubbed The Great Gleason Express, replete with six full bars. Jackie Gleason and the American Scene Magazine was the first network TV series to be taped in Miami on a permanent basis. And with the Gleason show, Regina was introduced to color television. "My color work was outstanding," she boasts. "I made everybody look beautiful and not too made-up."

She was the first hair and make-up artist to receive an on-screen credit for an East Coast network show. "From then on, everyone who did makeup got one," she adds with pride.

The Gleason show's cast and crew spent every Friday and Saturday rehearsing and finally taping the show at the Miami Beach Auditorium. (After Gleason's death in 1987, the auditorium was renamed the Jackie Gleason Theater of the Performing Arts). Off-stage, they were a gang.

"Down there everybody was like family," says Pete McGovern. Like other crew members from out of town, McGovern spent 39 weeks each year here from 1964 until 1970. "We partied together, we played softball together, and Ruth fit right in. She'd always come along. We'd go to the Roney Plaza, or the Embers. We'd eat at Wolfie's or go down to Joe's Stone Crab.

"Ruth was fantastic, she was the best we had," McGovern goes on, speaking by phone from his home in Westport, Connecticut. "Jack Haley came down to do a show, and he was crazy about her. Edgar Bergen, Groucho Marx . . . everybody loved her. Ruth was a great one to pal around. But she was very painstaking in her work. She couldn't be rushed. She did everything just right. Ruth was and is one of the best gals around."

Regina walks over to a poster-size photo of herself arm-in-arm with Gleason. As she recounts how he sent her flowers each week after the program -- along with the ones he sent to each of the show's featured June Taylor dancers -- her eyes begin to mist. Once, she remembers, Gleason even offered to pay for golf lessons for her at his club.

"Jackie really appreciated people who did a great job for him," she asserts, pooh-poohing the actor's reputation as a cruel egomaniac. "He was under a lot of pressure, facing millions of people each week. If you had people who goofed and didn't come through as he would have liked, naturally he'd be upset. But I worked with Jackie very closely -- I was head of a department. I was on Jackie's first page, his last page, and in between."

She recalls one night when the production crew assembled in front of the camera and did the Gleason Glide -- the Great One's trademark stage move. Arising from the loveseat, she jumps into the air and lands, one foot in front of the other, arms flung open toward her audience of wig-wearing mannequins.

"And awaaaaay we go!"
Gleason's program (called The Jackie Gleason Show after 1966) was canceled in 1970, but the plucky hairstylist endured. With the hippie era, fashion had forsaken high-maintenance hairdos for the natural look. Regina flowed with the times.

"Quick goatee and moustache now available in Dade County," reads one early-Seventies Miami Herald headline pasted into the third scrapbook in the pile.

"Ruth was a great promoter," confirms publicist Cinnamon. "She would see what was going on and see how she could get her business into the mix."

Regina walks to the salon area in the back of her shop, where there's a snakeskin-print stylist's chair and a bubble-top hair dryer. She brought them with her when she moved from Collins Avenue to Kane Concourse, just west of the Bal Harbour Shops, in 1982.

Behind the chair, where Regina and veteran assistant Maria McDonald cut and style clients' wigs, hangs a framed certificate, a souvenir from a job she did in 1972. It reads "With deep gratitude for your outstanding contribution to the success of the Republican Convention." Signed Richard M. Nixon.

The telephone rings for the sixth time in an hour. "We did it then and we're still doing it," Regina says into the receiver. "We will match your hair to perfection, and we will give you exactly what you want."

When she returns to the front of the shop with a cup of decaffeinated coffee and takes a seat on one of the white leather chairs, her perpetual smile fades for just a moment. She looks around the room at her pictures, her melancholy expression bringing out wrinkles around her eyes and mouth that hadn't seemed to be there before.

"With all this and all that I didn't discover a cure for cancer," she shrugs. She straightens, puts on her smile once again. "I just make people look good. But it's been a pretty good life so far. The most important thing is that tomorrow's another day. Who knows who I'm going to meet and what I'm going to do for them? In walks an heiress, a couple of stars, a princess. How could life be dull? Why should I give it all up? To play cards?"

The buzzer rings. In walks the postman. "I knew I'd find a movie star in here today!" he exclaims. He takes a package from his pouch, and holds out his clipboard. "Here you go, Miss Regina, could you autograph this for me please?"

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