The regulars at Maddison Avenue Salon and Spa could easily dismiss beauty parlor movies like Shampoo and Steel Magnolias as mere documentaries, because. as they knew, no cinematic fantasy about the hair trade could ever compare in richness and texture with the real life frenetic screwball comedy that unfolded at Rino Pirro’s Locke Street salon, 6 days a week. Rino’s sudden and unexpected death in his sleep on June 30th threw his family and the thousands of customers who considered Rino their family into grief and disbelief. Thousands of messages of condolence flooded social media as word of Rino’s passing swept through Hamilton and beyond over the July long weekend. Two themes ran through the various social media tributes: Rino’s incredible capacity for kindness, and the uncanny knack he had to make each person feel that they were his special friend.
How many times over a 40 year career did someone in Rino’s company hear the simple words, “let me cut your hair?” Like the time Rino was vacationing in Nantuckett and came across a Hamilton lawyer and his wife and ended up cutting the wife’s hair on the beach. Rino could often be spotted standing in front of his shop having a smoke and if he saw someone he knew, (which was almost always) he would invite them in for a haircut. Inside the shop Rino occupied first chair, which as one long-time patron observed, meant you had to get past Rino to get to one of the many other hairdressers in the shop, and “everybody got a bit of him.” Such was Rino’s flamboyant personality and magnetism.
For Rino it was always about hairdressing. Born in 1960 as Pelllegrino Pirro, he left St. Thomas More RCSS at age 17 to learn hairdressing with Albert Snow. His high school principal Vincenza Travale recalled Rino as a student for whom “academics were not his strong suit, but what I knew then was that if he found something he could be passionate about he would do well.” And do well he did. Branching out on his own Rino soon opened his own salon TIFF Coiffeurs on George Street and later started up Maddison Avenue, named after Rino’s daughter, first on James South and then in the 1990s onto Locke Street where the shop quickly became THE Hamilton destination.
It was around 1990 that Rino became hairdresser to the on-air staff at CHCH. A typical chaotic newsroom scene would see Rino chasing an anchorperson around with a comb and spray bottle. Matt Hayes remembered, “He used to scare the hell out of people in the control room at CHCH, he would be spritzing and combing anchors hair while the opening credits were running.” Almost from the beginning Rino was part of the CHCH family, or perhaps it was vice-versa. The salon was the crossroads of Hamilton, everybody was there. Sometimes reporters were known to phone the salon to get phone numbers of people they were trying to track down.
It is hard to describe the atmosphere inside Rino’s shop on a typical day. More than one friend said Rino was Warren Beatty in Shampoo. There was a lot of joking and a lot of it was “raunchy” to quote the spa website; but as one regular put it, “(Rino) could be inappropriate but in such a funny, funny way.” As Matt Hayes put it, “when it came to political correctness when you went into Rino’s shop it was 1962, he was the Howard Stern of hair.” Another regular said of the shop, “the salon was loud, it was profane, it was politically incorrect but it was the place everyone wanted to be. Everyone wanted to be part of his scene.” But such racy chatter was taboo every fifth week when former principal Travale came in for her appointment. “I knew about the offbeat jokes,” said Vincie, “but not when I was there, instead then the conversation was subdued, you could tell they were trying to behave. Rino was very sweet, very touching, very concerned about people.” Aside from that Travale who said she “loved Rino dearly as a student,” expressed pride at how successful he had become. “The joy in education is to see the potential in a student. For me it was a joy to see how this student built a community that was so welcoming to people. He was excellent at his profession—top notch.”
Everyone who spoke to the Bay Observer talked about Rino’s magnetism and generosity. One of Rino’s great talents was hooking up his clients with people that could help them with any problem. When Matt Hayes was selling his home Rino offered to take over the whole process and organize an auction. Said Matt, “when I was selling my house I looked at all the upgrades and repairs that had been recommended by Rino over the years. He would say, “I’ve got the guy and he would call him while you were in the chair and he would say …’Fix him up and give him a great price.’ The last time I saw him in the shop he was on the phone to an auto auction trying to get a car for somebody.” Remembered another client, “He was a master networker. If somebody was trying to buy or sell a car or needed tires Rino would jump on the phone and call somebody and hand you the phone. If you needed a gas line hooked up, new tires, and, oh yes…granite– Rino knew somebody—he’d call them in the middle of a haircut. He was always on the phone networking.” Another customer put it this way, “He was notorious for taking forever to cut someone’s hair because he would be on the phone doing deals. What should have taken 20 minutes would end up being 90 minutes, but when you settled in that chair, you knew it was going to be the best 90 minutes you were going to have that week.”
For Sunni Genesco, Rino’s helpfulness went way beyond home improvement or car repairs, (although he did lend assistance when the timing chain went on her car). “When I was single he would always try to set me up on dates and I would end up going out with guys I didn’t really have anything in common with; so I said to Rino, ‘unless you can find me a Steve Martin forget it.’ And one day I went in to the shop… and he said, ‘I found Steve Martin’…and a year later I married him. He is the only guy I know who could cut your hair and sell tires and a car at the same time… ” Andrew Sloan remembered his friend fondly, and again, helpful. “Every time he would come to my condo he would clean up the kitchen.”
Vito Sgro, a Locke Street regular for breakfast would see Rino outside his shop every day. When Vito was running for mayor, Rino “said come into the shop… and he introduced me to everybody in the shop. He didn’t have to do that– he was very kind. He made you feel welcome. He was part of the cool group but instead of being a snob he invited everybody in.”
While the rich and famous were regulars in the shop there was also a welcome for the not famous and even the infamous. The constant was the always cheerful, always helpful Rino. Rino was so popular that at Christmas time his customers would bring him bottles of wine and when it was all over there was enough wine to stock his cellar for the year. One regular remembered, “I never saw him in a bad mood. People trusted him because he never said mean things. Rino’s energy was so high it was a contagious. People wanted to be near him. He was a man in a world where people were there for you. He possessed the old school values of loyalty and taking care of people.”
For Vincenza Travale her prize pupil, was authentic. “There was nothing disingenuous, he was the real deal. He was kindness.” Matt Hayes summed up the view of many. “As much as you went in for the haircut people went there for the show. Whenever you were with Rino you tapped into his manic energy. Every time I would leave the shop he would say, I love you buddy.” Of Rino’s friendship which so many prized, Sunni Genesco said, “He had thousands of best friends…and each of us wanted to believe it was us.”