I have often wondered, gazing at the last vestiges of retro kitsch straddling Enmore Road, just what the story was behind Marie Louise’s salon, its tin-pressed lilac and candy-pink front a beguiling enticement to pressed-nose window-gazing.
Turns out, its a lollapalooza, a tale that ties itself into pretty bows and tangles of twine to hold up wayward pants slung low on skinny hips. It’s a story of spirit – of strength of character; of ghostly ephemera that quiver in shafts of light; and rum, knocked back with a grizzle on a cold night.
Shrouded in legacy and sticky dust, time has stood still for this 50s beauty queen, a landmark for the retro, vintage and rockabilly subculture of the inner west. An accidental museum, while the doors were closed and the shop shut the window display was occasionally tweaked, a foil wig added, a chintzy ornament repositioned, all by an invisible hand.
So, needless to say, when the doors opened for two days, “stickybeaks and instagrammers welcome”, my usual view was reversed
and I gazed curiously back at myself.
The Marie Louise salon was run by siblings, Nola and George Mezher, who started working in the salon in the late 1950s. Both were hairdressers and became public figures in the early 1980s with their almost half-million-dollar Lotto win, their lucky numbers the Saints’ birthdays.
George and Nola used their money to set up the Our Lady of Snows on the corner of Pitt Street and Eddy Avenue, on the fringe of Belmore Park in the city, a refuge for a straggly mass of lost souls, and a soup kitchen with table service. They divided their time between the salon and cooking, serving, shopping and cleaning for Our Lady. Well, their lady really, and the beloved lady of hundreds of Sydney’s homeless community.
Nola died in 2009, and since then George has tended the window display. Until now. Today it’s all for sale, a dollar here, a dollar there. I wish I knew if George was OK with this dismantling of his work, enamoured hands clutching at relics of the past to be cherished long into the future. I also wonder where George is.
Back in the day, live models perched in the bug-eyed window seats, chugging plonk and smoking durries. A rabble of grannies smeared in Fanci-full rinse hooted with delight at gossip that writhed and squirmed in its own deliciousness, while the acrid scent of perm solution, hairspray and hot air would accost passers-by in an exotic fug, chemical warfare in slingbacks.
Today, the only thing missing are the customers, replaced by wide-eyed hipsters, dreamers of dreams and urban scavengers, all curiously quiet in this one-time den of raucous insalubrity. And while the stickybeaks stream through the doors to glimpse this cornucopia of kitsch sentimentality it is upstairs and out the back that I find treasure.
Light streams into the space causing the shadows to sigh and slide. It gives the impression of being watched, a curious trick of illumination in a space long dark. Dust mites sprinkle the air, shafts of sunlight catch on insipid remains, and scraps of a lost life twinkle deliriously in their revelation.
In mulish contrast to the frenetic wonderland of the salon, the living quarters remain stark and simple, a utilitarian space with little adornment save for the light, the hero of the show… (and a dedication to pastel hues)
In the steeped quiet of this solitary space I can taste the resigned loneliness that coats the walls and floor. Windows are lid-less eyes that peer myopically into an unknown world that canters ahead and unseats this old rider, leaving him legs akimbo and alone.
I don’t know when these walls lost their people: the bed is a little rumpled and the phone directory is open on a pizza joint that no longer exists. There is post from a couple of years ago and a mobile phone cover that cost $4.99 from Paddy’s.
But in this empty space George’s spirit courses through the air, surfing waves of light. Wherever he is, today he and Nola are remembered.
In 1983, George and Nola were awarded the Order of Australia for their services to the community, after establishing 14 suburban refuges throughout Sydney. Their dedication to others was astounding – a way of giving back to a country that had been good to them they said.
Clutching three lolly-bright 50s melamine ice-cream dishes as if they might be ripped from my grip at any second by a rabid collector or a counter-culture revolutionary intent on wearing them as earrings, I cannot shake the feeling that Nola and George are watching on benevolently, seeing their generosity appreciated even in their absence.
To George and Nola: thank you.