TERRE HAUTE — Though it has no rules, this is a club. A hair club. For men.
And like the Mafia, once you’re in, getting out is complicated. Behind almost every mustache is a man with a traumatic story about the time he shaved it off.
Gary Hiddle shocked his young son when he bared his previously hairy upper lip.
Memories of that moment, nearly 25 years ago, are still fresh.
Gary’s wife, Janet, recounted the events: “He decided to shave it off, and when my son came home from school, he said, ‘Where’s dad?’ And I said, ‘Right there.’ And my son said, ‘No, my dad has a mustache.’”
That son, Jason Hiddle, now 33, recalled, “I had no idea who that stranger was in my house, and I literally hid from him.”
Thus, “ever since, [Gary’s] never shaved it off,” Janet said.
Because of his persistence, the 65-year-old Eli Lilly retiree is now at the front edge of a new wave of mustache popularity.
In January, Esquire magazine declared, “The mustache is empowering, it’s attention-grabbing, and it’s back.” In April, some Florida Marlins and Arizona Diamondbacks players sported lip hair to mark their hot streaks, with D-backs outfielder Eric Byrnes proclaiming 2008 “The Year of the ’Stache.” (Of course, when their performances waned, they shaved, but never mind.) Last month, pop culture authors Jon Chattman and Rich Tarantino released “The Book of Bert,” a tongue-in-cheek historical tribute to the mustache.
Now, the fifth-annual Moustache (alternate spelling) May has grown into an online hit for Nashville, Tenn., co-founders Daniel Box and Michael Eades. They ask participants worldwide to refrain from top-lip shaving all month long, and post pictures of their progress on the Web site, www.moustachemay.com.
“The beautiful facial hair configuration of the mustache,” as Box called it, gained pop-culture hipness through wearers Jason Lee (star of TV’s “My Name is Earl”) and Sasha Baron Cohen in the wacky 2006 film “Borat.”
When newcomers join committed mustache wearers, such as Hiddle, the style enjoys a revival.
“Mustaches never really went out of style. They just have peaks and valleys,” said Chattman, whose “The Book of Bert” spun out of an inside joke with a friend about actor Burt Reynolds’ famed ’stache. “I think we’re at a definite peak. Mustaches are the Duran Duran of a man’s face — they never really go away, and every once in a while, they’re a big hit again.”
Terre Haute businessman Rick Braden discovered how unpopular his hairless upper lip could be.
“One of my daughters said she’d never seen me without a mustache, so I cut it off,” Braden recalled, “and when I picked her up at school, she said, ‘You’d better grow it back.’ So I did.”
That’s the only time Braden, now 58, has removed a mustache he started at age 20.
“It’s just something I’ve had for years, and people say I wouldn’t look right without it,” Braden said, chuckling, “not that I look right with it.”
Gary Hiddle learned from his ill-advised decision. “After I shaved it off, I looked in the mirror and it looked like my upper lip was about six inches wide,” he said.
Terre Haute attorney Tony Tanoos never took that risk. He sprouted a black mustache as a junior at Terre Haute South Vigo High School and has kept it. His sons couldn’t talk him into shaving it, and neither could his high school baseball coach. When Tanoos refused his coach’s order to go clean shaven, he got booted from the squad as a junior. “It was the principle of the thing,” said Tanoos, now 52. He showed up for tryouts mustachioed the next year, and the coach hesitantly gave him a spot on the roster.
“I won out on that one,” he said. “Look at the yearbook in ’72. I’m the only one with [a mustache].”
Tanoos’ ’stache is in its 35th year, and he has no plans to end its streak. “It’s me. I look in the mirror, and that’s what I look like,” he said.
He also hasn’t altered its style. “I’ve never changed the look of it, never longer or shorter. It’s the same,” Tanoos said. “People tell me, ‘You haven’t changed a bit,’ and it’s my mustache.”
A successful mustache often depends on its shape. One of the contemporary literary world’s most distinct mustaches belongs to iconic Sports Illustrated writer Frank Deford, who visited Terre Haute last year to speak at Indiana State University. Before his lecture, Deford — tall and angular, with a swept-back shock of hair, told the Tribune-Star why he chose a pencil-thin mustache more than 30 years ago.
“Most people have much bushier mustaches, when mustaches came in, in the 1960s. I have a pinhead, a very small head. If I had a bushy mustache, it would look silly, it would swallow the lower part of my face up,” Deford explained. “So I went for the pencil mustache, and I guess it sort of became part of me.”
The pencil comes in three varieties (straight across, peaked or crowned), according to the American Mustache Institute (yes, there is one). Other styles include the chevron (the most common), Dali (named for wild artist Salvador Dali), English, fu manchu, handlebar (immortalized by the 1970s Oakland A’s), horseshoe, imperial, lampshade, painter’s brush, pyramidal, toothbrush and walrus.
Jason Hiddle, who followed his dad’s lead and grew his own mustache, accidentally converted his ’stache to a toothbrush-style once.
“I got rid of it once because I made a bad mistake shaving,” said Jason, a Web specialist at ISU. “Trying to make up for it, I ended up looking like Adolf Hitler, so I didn’t want to keep it like that.”
Indeed, thanks to that reviled German dictator, the compact, square toothbrush ’stache — once popularized by Charlie Chaplin — is virtually extinct. “You can’t even wear that any more, because Adolf Hitler kind of owns that,” said Eades of Moustache May.
The Selleck factor
Still, wearing a mustache of any dimension expresses a rebellious streak, Chattman said.
“I kind of think, deep down, people who have mustaches know they’re silly,” he said. “You just kind of know that you’re rubbing people the wrong way.”
Take Chattman’s wife, for example. “She hates it,” he said.
By contrast, Rick Burger — business relations manager for Duke Energy in Terre Haute — figures his wife wouldn’t want him to give up a mustache he’s worn since 1975. “She doesn’t want me to [shave it off], I don’t think,” Burger said.
Female approval, or lack thereof, can determine whether a guy reaches for a razor. “Some chicks dig the mustache,” Chattman said, “and some don’t.”
Chattman’s dad once deleted his mustache, “and my mom yelled at him,” so he grew it back. Likewise, Chattman’s book profiles 25 famous wearers, including ladies’ men like actors Burt Reynolds and Tom Selleck. It worked for them, the author insisted.
“Look at Tom Selleck. Would he have scored all those babes back in the day if he didn’t have a mustache?” Chattman said.
There’s also a youthfulness factor to consider. “I can definitely verify I look much older with a mustache, by seven or eight years,” said Moustache May’s Daniel Box, 29. “When I shave it off, I look like a little boy.”
Burger has considered that widely held theory. “I think [shaving it] would make me look younger,” he said. “If so, I’d have it off tomorrow.”
If twenty- or thirtysomething guys choose to wear a mustache, it’s usually part of a beard or goatee, said barber Joe Korenski. He trims “very few” pure mustaches in his Joe’s Hair Center on South Seventh Street in Terre Haute.
After seeing all kinds of facial hair in dugouts and lockerrooms, Deford can attest to the rarity of the simple mustache. “A lot of the ballplayers have those hideous little goatees, those little chin hairs. They look like Amish, or something,” he said.
Once all of the potential impact of a mustache is weighed, the choice boils down to the individual, Deford said.
“One thing you can do is dress the way you want to, and for a man that means do with your hair or your facial hair what you want to,” Deford said. “This just seems to fit me.”
Mark Bennett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (812) 231-4377.
Famous mustache wearers: Groucho Marx, Alex Trebek, Cheech Marin, Robert Goulet, Jesse Ventura, Jesse Jackson, Adolf Hitler, Wilford Brimley, Frank Zappa, Edgar Allan Poe, Gene Shalit, Dr. Phil McGraw, John Oates, Salvador Dali, Jimi Hendrix, Geraldo Rivera, Josef Stalin, Burt Reynolds, Charles Bronson, Tom Selleck, Rollie Fingers, Goose Gossage, Sonny Bono and Keith Hernandez. The last U.S. president to wear a mustache in office was William Howard Taft.
Its heyday: “The 1970s were really the glory era for the mustache,” said Aaron Perlut, founder of the American Mustache Institute. It got plenty of exposure during the decade from Walter Cronkite to porn stars.
Recent revival: “It’s amazing to see how many films had mustached characters in the past year,” Perlut said, including Daniel Day Lewis in “There Will Be Blood,” Josh Brolin in “No Country for Old Men,” and Philip Seymour Hoffman in “Charlie Wilson’s War.”
When to try it: MoustacheMay.com founders annually invite the clean-shaven to experiment by spending May with a mustache. “A mustache is definitely a sign of masculinity,” said Daniel Box, “and when you shave it off, it definitely takes you down a notch to a more youthful look.”
Facial discrimination: The Mustache Institute, founded in 2006, acted as a mediator in a dispute between a teen ordered to shave off his mustache and his Texas high school. Also, corporate America, Perlut said, often considers mustachioed job seekers “unprofessional” or “slackers.” “We’re trying to change that,” he said.
Take it from a pro: “I think just about every guy’s had one at one time or another,” said Joe Korenski, who’s been barbering in Terre Haute for 43 years. “But when you’re young, they’re too thin. And when you’re old, they’re too gray.”