- October 1, 2021
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Almost four decades ago, Plinnie Thompson got a call. The person on the other end said he worked for a famous singer who wanted Thompson to style his hair.
Initially, Thompson declined.
“You’re asking me to open my doors on a Monday when I’m closed and you won’t tell me for who,” he recalled telling the caller.
But the next day, a bodyguard showed up in the salon and whispered to Thompson’s business partner, Rudy Roundtree, that the “famous singer” was Michael Jackson. That night, the King of Pop sat down for a wash and style.
By the time they got that first visit, Rudy & Plinnie’s Beauty Center on South Orange Blossom Trail had been open about 10 years. The partners weren’t strangers to celebrity clients, Thompson said. Still, Michael Jackson — and before him, James Brown — was among the most memorable.
From the shop, they watched women line up for hours to get in the door, their children grow, graduations, Easter Sunday celebrations and the deaths of Roundtree , stylist Emma Brown — who was known for her press and curl — and others.
After nearly a half-century, the salon is closing this week.
“I had a good run,” said Thompson, adding that he had clients who routinely visited from as far away as Michigan, Chicago and Miami to get their hair styled in the salon.
“All the surrounding towns — Cocoa, Melbourne, Leesburg, Eustis — it was all ours,” he said. “I have opened the shop in the mornings and had the line as long as the building. … I had a good run. I don’t feel bad.”
When the duo opened their salon in 1972, it took convincing to get the owner to sell. The building, formerly a covered, open-air laundromat, was already on the market for three years with little interest from other buyers. The next hurdle was financing. With little money, Thompson and Roundtree convinced the building’s owner to mortgage it for them.
According to property records, the building didn’t get transferred into their names until 1997. It is now owned by an estate named for Thompson and Roundtree.
Thompson spent Friday in the nearly empty salon seeing the clients who managed to squeeze in one last visit before everything is moved out. At its busiest, the salon had 12 stylists but the shop didn’t use an appointment system. Instead, dozens of clients showed up when the shop opened, took a number and waited, some for several hours, until their number was called.
Cynthia Drayton, who has been coming to the salon for more than two decades, stopped by for an updo. Drayton and Thompson met in 1999 when she was the principal of Orange Center Elementary School. Thompson knew a young woman who wanted to be a school psychologist.He talked to Drayton about it.
To thank Drayton for her help, Thompson offered to style her hair. She had heard about Rudy and Plinnie’s but had never been.
“I had thought about it because everyone said it was the best place to go,” Drayton said. “But I heard you had to get there at 3 a.m. and wait for hours to get your hair done.”
But with Thompson’s offer, she went about six months later.
“He did such a good job, I just kept coming back,” she said, adding that when she was diagnosed with cancer six years ago and chemotherapy took her hair, it was Thompson who cared for it as it grew back past her shoulders.
“It was a community here,” said Christine Smith, known in the shop as “Ms. Chris.”
Smith started working at the shop in 1975 as Roundtree’s assistant while she was in school getting her cosmetology license. Eventually, she became a stylist and worked at the salon for about 40 years.
Every January for at least the past five years, she, the other stylists, Thompson and Roundtree, before his death three years ago, would ask themselves the same question: “Should we give it another year?”
In December 2019, before anyone knew how devastating the coronavirus pandemic would be, Smith retired. Another longtime stylist, Patricia “Ms. Patty” Nicholson, retired just as the pandemic began.
Though he had considered selling the building over the years, Thompson had always told the stylists that he would keep it going as long as they wanted to keep working. But with Smith and Nicholson leaving, and the pandemic forcing his employees and clients — most of whom are between ages 50 and 90 — indoors, he decided now was the time to sell.
After not seeing one another for most of last year, the group, all vaccinated, gathered at the salon to say goodbye. They laughed as they remembered staying in the shop until 4 a.m. some nights just to socialize with clients, talking about everything from travel to politics to education and cooking. Sometimes they would be there so late that clients’ family members would call looking for them.
“I have mixed feelings about this,” Nicholson said. “It’s a sad feeling that it’s going to close. It will be a loss for the community simply because it’s an icon. … But on the other hand, I feel satisfied that we, as a team at this salon, have given this profession the best that could be given.”
Most of the chairs and other station equipment have already been sold and shipped to Haiti where it will be used in another salon. Thompson expects to close on the sale of the building before the end of May. It has not been decided what the building will be transformed into next.
“Rudy and I and the shop were totally blessed,” Thompson said. “I didn’t want a salon where just Rudy and I were blessed. I wanted a salon where the whole shop was totally blessed and that’s the way I worked it.”