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December 22, 2014

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The hairstylist who got lucky

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April Corbin

Michael French stands in front of the wall of photos at his beauty salon, located on Eastern Avenue, just south of Tropicana Avenue.

Michael French stares at the photos lining the walls of his beauty salon, his mind swimming with dozens of stories — some too funny not to tell, others too risqué to share. Many of the photos are black and white; some are faded. "A lot of these people are dead," French tells me.

French is a self-described "stylist to the stars," the personal barber of entertainer Danny Thomas for 30 years, whose expertise with the clippers led to hobnobbing with the likes of Joey Bishop, Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra, as well as cameos in films like Pretty Woman (he was the maitre d'). He harkens to a time when the mob ran Vegas and the word "star" referred to the debonair and posh, not reality-television contestants and snapshots of Paris Hilton's thong. French is a sliver of classic Vegas, now relegated to an understated beauty salon in an otherwise non-descript strip mall on Eastern Avenue, just south of Tropicana Avenue.

He doesn't cater to celebrities anymore, though comedian Shecky Greene still comes by regularly. French's clientele now consists mostly of locals. Today, there's a quiet man who stares straight ahead and a man with his arm in a sling, here to freshen up his haircut before an important meeting. "There are just no places like this anymore," the latter tells me. French's customers come to him for a decent haircut, the old-school barbershop feel and his stories. French has a lot of those.

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Michael French with comedian Shecky Greene

There's the one where French tells Milton Berle to stop giving him instructions — "I don't tell you how to tell jokes; don't tell me how to do hair!" Or the one where Sammy Davis Jr. pokes fun at himself and French's then-young son — "I finally met someone shorter than me." Even Sinatra appears in one, intimidating everyone but French with his star power. "He was great," French says of Ol' Blue Eyes.

What kept the hairstylist (don't call him a hairdresser) calm back then is still present now: A solid sense of humor and the ability to let negativity roll off his shoulders. When I ask him if he was sad when classic Vegas buildings like the Sands, where Thomas often performed, were razed to make room for the corporate-owned mega-resorts, he says simply, "No," then jokes, "I feel better than the buildings."

Really, the only emotional subject is Danny Thomas himself. Thomas, who died of heart failure in 1991, is the only one French says he still wishes he could see. Three decades of working for the entertainer, who also founded St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital, brought them immeasurably close. One memorable story has French taking the blame for a gun Thomas tried to take onto an airplane. Another involves French helping cover up an incident when Thomas shot his own thumb off with said gun. "I still think about him every day," French says.

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Michael French, center, with Danny Thomas and Bob Hope

French's 2003 book, Hair's To You, often reads like a collection of stories about Thomas, with a few details of French's own life thrown in. French was born in London and has been married to his wife, Veronica Patricia (whom he lovingly calls Pudding), for decades. He will not tell you specific years or dates for either, instead joking that he doesn't know the dates himself. He prefers to leave his age a mystery, the answer hidden somewhere among his wrinkles, thin white hair and brief references to serving in England's Air Force in the mid- to late-1950s.

French and friend Kevin Goodman say they are considering repurposing Hair's to You with a new title, one that emphasizes the plethora of insider history into Thomas' life. That is the interesting stuff, French knows, and he's happy to oblige questions and ramble on with stories for hours.

As he writes in his book: "I am a hairstylist who just got lucky."

— Originally published on LasVegasWeekly.com

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