Hairpiece-maker Ernie Casper has covered the heads of actor Burt Reynolds, golfer Chi Chi Rodrguez and late baseball owner Charles O. Finley. Now he wants to show you something.
By David Murray
"Chicago Tonight" news anchor Phil Ponce has a hairpiece, but nobody knows it.
As a matter of fact, Ponce doesn't know it.
That's because Ponce's partial--a clump of curly black hair--is sitting in Ernest E. Casper's Hair Replacement shop on North Cicero Avenue. Casper plans to make an unannounced and uninvited visit to WTTW's studios to show Ponce how to fill a thin patch Casper has spotted on the back of his head.
Perhaps it seems an odd idea, making a hairpiece for someone who may not even know he needs one.
But this practice has been a part of Casper's unique sales strategy throughout the 35 years he has been in the hairpiece business.
Casper is not the busiest hairpiece maker in Chicago, and he doesn't even say he's the best--although at one time he might have claimed to be both.
But when it comes to selling hairpieces, nobody does it quite like Ernie.
Step 1: Get your hairpieces on the heads of famous men
Casper's list of one-time celebrity clients is a Who's Who of Bald Big Shots: actor Burt Reynolds, pro golfer Chi Chi Rodriguez, baseball owner Charles O. Finley, radio host Wally Phillips and baseball legend Brooks Robinson.
"How do you think I got all these guys?" he asks. "Do you think they came to me?"
No, he landed them the same way he plans to get Ponce: He carried his hairpiece-filled suitcase to movie sets, theater productions and even to major league baseball's spring training in Florida--usually offering to make celebs a hairpiece for free.
He used the ritzy names to sell to regular Joes, reasoning, "If I told people I made a hairpiece for Schmegeggie down the street, nobody would buy from me."
But Burt! Now you're talking.
Casper's star client list is exceeded in length only by that of celebrities he has tried and failed to get his hairpieces on, among them baseball star Joe Garagiola, actor Rod Steiger and hockey great Bobby Hull.
"I've had a lot of losers," he concedes. But to stay in the wig biz for this long, he had to have his share of winners too.
Step 2: Be your own best customer
Casper says his secrets are his price--$899 is his flat rate, as opposed to other hairpiece makers, many of whom charge more than $1,000 and up to $2,000, Casper says--and his hustle. When he started out, he carried his suitcase full of hairpieces into every workplace he could get into.
"I'd go into a car dealership, talk to the owner, and five minutes later I've got a hairpiece on him and maybe three or four other salesmen," he remembers.
He's still hustling today.
In his own hairpiece, the 75-year-old Casper looks about 55, and a little like the late Sonny Bono; without it, he looks like a smallish Robert Duvall. And he doesn't tape it on, so he's always in and out of it--so much so that he loses hairpieces often (a waiter at a restaurant recently chased Casper to the cash register, holding the thing as one would hold a dead squirrel).
Demonstrating the difference his own hairpiece makes--at the YMCA where he works out and nearly everywhere else he goes--is one way Casper starts conversations with potential customers, before luring them into his office with a promise of a free haircut.
Step 3: Make the sensitive sale
There are no windows in Ernie Casper's double storefront at 6033 N. Cicero Ave., and that's probably for the best, considering the business he's in.
"When you come in to buy a hairpiece, you're scared," Casper says. "Your hands are sweating."
Casper's first goal in closing a hairpiece sale is making sure the customer never has to utter the unhappy words, "I need a hairpiece." Casper welcomes the man warmly, ushers him back to a barber's chair--free haircuts are another sales technique--and after singing and whistling his way through a haircut, he eventually gets around to saying, "I'd like to show you something."
Before the customer knows it, his bald scalp is covered in one of the many dozens of differently shaped, sized and colored hairpieces that Casper keeps in stock.
But the hairpiece the customer finds himself looking at is not the best fit Casper can find for him, nor even the second-best fit. Casper says that men always find fault with the first hairpiece they see. So if he gives a new customer the best he's got, "then there's nowhere to go."
Once the customer inevitably rejects the first rug, Casper shows him a second. Now the customer is warming up and ready to rave when he sees Casper's third and final contribution--the one he has had in mind for the customer all along. If he has done his job right, in some cases all that's left for Casper to do is make a few adjustments to the hairpiece and "cut it in"--that is, trim it and style it so it blends perfectly with the customer's hair--and teach the man how to wear and care for the piece properly. (In other cases he has to order the perfect piece from a supplier, and sometimes he needs to replace some of the hair to match the color just right.)
Step 4: Believe you're helping mankind
The hairpiece industry is like a bad hairpiece: The closer you look at it, the worse it looks.
Once painstakingly sewn in Casper's shop, his hairpieces now come from Hong Kong. Casper has never been there to see who does this work and he says he doesn't know how much the tiers make, but he estimates a good piece takes some 80 hours to make. So the wages can't be much; then again, they weren't much two decades ago, when Casper had a back room full of Polish immigrants tying the rugs with tiny needles.
If the economics of the hairpiece business cut into his corporate responsibility, Casper tries to make it up in personal humanity. He tells of making a free hairpiece for a 12-year-old boy who had cancer, which turned out to be terminal. "But he looked so beautiful in that hairpiece," Casper says with great emotion.
Casper also thinks his hairpieces do more than cosmetic wonders for his customers; he says they truly increase self-esteem.
"I'd like to go into an insurance company and take three executives and put hairpieces on their heads," he says. "I would guarantee their income would increase 30 percent in three months."
Why? Not because bosses respect employees with hair--"you'd be surprised how few people notice when a guy gets a hairpiece," Casper says--but because men respect themselves more with hair. "It changes their disposition, it gives them confidence and they feel they're as good as everybody else." The resulting personality change, Casper says, can earn a man a big raise.
His customers don't disagree. Perhaps they're trying to conceal their vanity, but those we spoke with cited professional reasons for getting a hairpiece.
"I got mine to get a job and keep a job," says one 20-year hairpiece wearer. He got his hairpiece when he was on a job search and believed no one was biting because he looked too old. He got the hairpiece and he got the job. Did the hairpiece make the difference?
"I don't know," he admits. "But it made me feel a lot better. I don't like being bald."
"I'm as bald as a hoot owl," says another customer, who has been with Casper for about 30 years and a dozen hairpieces. He's a retired medical professional; he attributes the last 15 years of his practice to the fact that the hairpiece made him look younger. He begged not to be identified, partly because, although his daughter knows he has a hairpiece, his son-in-law and granddaughter don't.
"I swim in it and shower in it," he says. "And if I ever went out of the house without it, half the people on my block would have a heart attack."
Only a few years older than Casper, says he doesn't know what he'll do if his hairpiece man dies before he does. It's not only hair that ties him to Casper.
"Ernie's a character," he says. "But he's as honest as you could make him--and as finicky about hairpieces as anybody I've ever seen."
When the customer's wife died last month, Casper grieved: "He tells me I'm not a customer anymore. He says I'm family."
Casper's customers and employees are his family. A lifelong bachelor who wishes he'd married and had kids, Casper is devoted to two women who have stuck by himeven in the leaner years since he has suffered from a gradual increase in competition from local firms and national outfits such as Hair Club for Men, as well as the advent of surgical hair replacement.
(Then there's the trend toward balding men shaving their heads completely. Not surprisingly, Casper disapproves of this practice, "unless you're as handsome as Michael Jordan.")
At the moment, he's hoping to resurrect his business to its zenith in the golden 1970s, when he landed most of those now-fading stars, when he had a couple of dozen employees tying, washing and cutting hairpieces in and a lobby full of customers learning how to wear them.
"You couldn't touch me," he says, beaming as he recalls those heady days.