About five years ago I appeared in a Stonington, ME performance of an original musical. It was both the pinnacle and finale of my theatrical career. The Last Ferryman told the story of the controversy over the construction of the Deer Isle suspension bridge that connects the mainland with Little Deer Isle and Deer Isle. With the opening of the bridge in 1939, a ferry service was no longer necessary – hence the title of the production.
I had stumbled into the cast on a dare from my wife. (Debbie was – and is – on the board of the Opera House which may have given me a slight advantage in the try-outs.) Cast as a member of the chorus, with few speaking lines, I was allowed to choose the local historical character that I wanted to personify. After only a few minutes at the Deer Isle Historical Society, I knew I was destined to play Dr. Benjamin Lake Noyes, the well-known local physician of the era. He was a pillar of the community, known not just for his medical abilities but for his interest in local genealogy.
Growing my character’s mustache for The Last Ferryman
He also had an extraordinary mustache – not extraordinary for the era but extraordinary in its lushness and the way it dominated his face (see photo below). A 2007 article describing Dr. Noyes’ achievements in documenting local genealogy noted that he was “a Renaissance man with intense eyes behind round wire-rimmed glasses and a serious mustache.” (Ed. note: ha!)
My sister said my mustache needed its own ZIP code
To better absorb and reflect his character, I felt that I had to recreate this feature. And recreate it I did. By the end of the summer and the production’s run of eight sell-out performances, strangers were stopping me on Main Street in Stonington to take selfies with my mustache.
My sister announced that it needed its own ZIP code and I was pretty sure that creatures were making plans to hibernate in it. Most important, my wife was begging me to shave it off.
My first attempt at serious facial hair was at once wildly successful and matrimonially threatening. Debbie hated it. And that brings me to the present day. I am growing a protest beard.
This time, I am growing a protest beard
About two months ago, Debbie decided to undertake a bathroom renovation in our house in Maine. This is a home improvement project that she considers essential, yet small, and which I consider unnecessary and disruptive. I am growing a beard to remind her, in a small way, yet on a daily basis, that I disapprove of unilateral decisions that have bilateral consequences.
Why no facial hair before these two episodes?
Now, how could my theatrical mustache and this beard be the first facial hair of my life? How could I have lived through the anti-war protests of the sixties, The Doors, Hair/Jesus Christ Superstar, and college without experimenting with facial hair? Two things. First, I was a late bloomer, beard-wise. Second, my father hated facial hair.
The clean-shaven face as metaphor
I can remember the first day of my adolescence – whenever that occurred. My father appeared with a heavy, double-edged safety razor, a shaving mug, a puck of Williams Mug Shaving Soap, a luxurious badger-hair brush, and an extensive lecture on acne, face washing, shaving supplies and techniques, recreational drugs, and the dangers of premarital sex. From then on, a clean-shaven face was a metaphor for abstinence in all things dangerous to teenage boys.
At the time, of course, a safety razor was not safe at all. It was safe only when compared to a straight edge barber’s blade. Its use involved slipping a double-edged Wilkinson Sword blade out of its protective box and onto the razor head. This was subsequently screwed into place with a cover that determined how much blade was exposed and at what angle it addressed the skin. Too loose, and it lopped off the heads of pimples (a styptic pencil was always handy), too tight and it couldn’t cut a thing (slipped harmlessly over the fuzz). A fresh blade, still too sharp, caused the occasional laceration. A used blade, suddenly too dull, scraped painfully and abrasively. A red rash was worn for the first hours of the day.
My father’s morning ablutions set the tone: “a good shave” was a good day
But my father came by his distaste for facial hair honestly. He spent more than five years in the hot, humid South Pacific during World War II, ruing the absence of a sharp blade and hot water. For the rest of his life, any facial hair and the associated itching, reminded him of more global, unpleasant memories from those years.
His morning ablutions set the tone. “I had a good shave this morning,” was always a promising comment that set his tenor for the day. And “a bad shave,” highlighted by scattered bits of tissue sticking to red drops of blood, heralded an irascible countenance for a few hours. That was a day to stay out of his way.
Now as I reflect on facial hair and the evolution of shaving equipment, it is almost impossible to avoid a good shave with the current multi-blade products. And yet a clean-shaven face in Brooklyn, New York, or Brooklin, Maine, is such a rarity as to be newsworthy. Beards in Brooklyn vary from carefully edged, intentionally Nixonian, 5 o’clock shadows to carefully trimmed (with a number 3 clipper) permanent stubble – frequently edged and frequently rogue; and on to the occasional hip hop Harley owner’s waist-length beard with braids and ribbons. Beards in Brooklin lean toward the mountain man multi-year growth, suitable for protecting the chin from sea spray while offering warmth in the winter and shade in the summer .
Ha ha! The beard has its charms. It has drawn positive comments from family and far-flung friends on Facebook. But when I look at Sam I can think only of a small mouse who would find the beard perfect for making a nest. Sam’s new mannerism of (constantly) stroking his mustache is not especially becoming. And he is obsessed with watching videos of The Most Interesting Man in the World, played by (lookalike) actor Jonathan Goldsmith. Meanwhile, an astute family member pointed out that Sam’s beard most resembles actor and director Andy Garcia‘s “full Santa” look. The bathroom, and all its disruption, will be completed soon. And humid summer days, when beards get itchy, are coming. Who knows how long it will last? Stay tuned. – Debbie
Sam’s 2014 blog post about his beard and mustache for The Last Ferryman
The photo highlights Dr. Noyes’ notable mustache.