By Billie Tekel Elias, author of Pearl’s Party…and you’re invited.
When she died a few years ago, I unearthed many things in my mother’s home that had long been forgotten: the dog tags of our two original toy poodles Simone and Duan, their AKC pedigree papers, their show leads, their framed studio portraits, and the little ceramic “urns” I made in college for their cremated remains. I may have been an only child, but to me these compassionate creatures were my sister and brother.
Mother, or Pearl as everyone knew her, was the doyenne of the 1960s Philadelphia dog world. She was more than a groomer. She was casting, wardrobe, makeup and information central for everyone in Philly who owned a dog. In other words, unless you expected someone at the vet’s to scissor your poodle’s topknot with the mastery of Rodin, she was it! Whose Kerry Blue is coming into heat? Check with Pearl, she’ll know. Her local celebrity earned her a spot on television with her dogs and the exotic paraphernalia she carried in her shop.
In the book that I’ve written about her colorful life, entitled Pearl’s Party…and you’re invited, I describe the layout of her shop, the furnishings and arrangement of products. You’ll also meet her human and canine clientele, with whom she made friends easily. As you will see from the excerpts below, she was a most unusual artistic and entrepreneurial woman who inspired me every day with her gusto and joy of living:
Throughout her life Halloween delighted Pearl and I believe it was her favorite holiday. When she dressed me as a Spanish señorita for my first Halloween, I was a sensation. Several years later she fashioned me into a little black cat, stuffing a black stocking to make my tail and using black eyeliner to paint whiskers on my cheeks and a triangle on the tip of my nose. For herself, she bought special stage makeup to create her witch’s face. She applied putty to her nose to create a wart and black-out to several teeth to give the illusion that they were missing. She wore a long black flowing skirt and topped off her head to toe black attire with a large pointed black hat. (The costume parties got wilder as the years went on….).
Come Halloween, Pearl made a costume for my canine sibling out of a pillow case with a hole cut out for each eye, à la Casper the Friendly Ghost. Because there were no children in our apartment building, trick or treating entailed Pearl driving me and Simone to nearby private homes that would be prepared with candy. As my pet and I walked up the street from house to house, collecting goodies in the dark, Pearl followed alongside in the car, keeping a protective watch.
We even took Simone to the movies with us. She sat on my lap as we watched Walter Lang’s film Can-Can, in which Shirley MacLaine played a character named Simone. Every time Frank Sinatra called out her name, our Simone woofed and sat rapt. Who wouldn’t swoon if Sinatra was talking to them?
As Simone grew, so did her fur. At the time, the only place to get a dog clipped was at the veterinarian and they couldn’t do justice to the stunning coat of a pampered peach-colored pedigree poodle. Pearl invested in a pair of Oster “Animal” clippers that allowed her to shape Simone’s fur just as she had sculpted the clay bust of me several years earlier. She knew about the “puppy cut”, the “saddle cut” and various show clips that included topknots for the heads and pompons for the haunches, special styles just for poodles.
Simone was a walking showpiece for Pearl’s handiwork. Everywhere she took our dog, people inquired, “Who clips her hair?” “Well, I do it myself.” “Oh! You doooo??? Do you think you could cut my dog, too?”
One night, Pearl had a dream. She dreamt of a purple poodle parlor, resembling an old-fashioned ice cream shoppe with a curvy white wrought iron table and matching chairs upholstered in lavender (which she subsequently purchased for $258). After she awoke, she wasted no time in visiting a nearby commercial district in search of a small storefront where she could realize her dream. She found the perfect place at 5913 Old York Road, up the street from a fire house, across the driveway from the Broad Street Trust bank, opposite Adele Rouslin’s antique shop and the Oak Lane Corset shop (which had relocated from the spot she was considering). Her landladies, Freda Segal and Dorothy Kay, granted her a one year lease beginning December 1, 1961 with annual rent of $900. They must have loved having Pearl as a tenant — her rent didn’t increase to $1047 for another ten years. Pearl chose to name her fabulous shop after our fabulous dog, calling it Chez Simone. The French name went right over the heads of half of Philadelphia who couldn’t fathom that the “z” was silent. They kept saying “chezzz” as if it rhymed with “fez.”
Her purple and white business card read “The Area’s First Canine Beauty Salon”, with the tag line, “Ask any dog who’s been here.” It featured a poodle lounging on a chaise longue, holding a cigarette in a decadent cigarette holder. The image gave the impression that you could swap out the dog and insert Pearl.
She distributed wood coins the size of silver dollars which read “Carry this and you’ll never be broke,” entitling the bearer to $1 off their next visit. It was her way of poking fun at a favorite expression, “You can stand on your head and spit wooden nickels.” Without any formal higher education, Pearl was a marketing guru.
What will your pooch be masquerading as this October 31st?
Billie Tekel Elias, author of Pearl’s Party…and you’re invited. I am the author of this entertaining book about the “first woman of dogs” in Philadelphia, over 55 years ago. Pearl was a colorful character whose local celebrity earned her a spot on television with her dogs and some of the exotic paraphernalia she sold in her unique shoppe. In it, I describe the layout of her shop, the furnishings and arrangement of products and accessories. I also describe her clientele: humans and canines. She forged unusual friendships with both.