Posted on September 10, 2014
On September 7, 2014, 200 guests gathered at Sola Salons in Denver, CO to honor Polly Sanders-Peterson as she celebrates 50 years – Yeah, 50! – Behind the Chair, as well as 70 years of age. In addition, at the event Polly launched an exciting new beauty school scholarship that will be offered through Emily Griffith Technical College’s Cosmetology program. Before we got the ‘70s and ‘80s music bumping, we had a chance to catch up with the disco queen herself, asking Polly to reflect on the hair industry through the decades. – Jamie Siebrase
When Polly moved to Colorado from Arkansas, she was twelve-years-old, her father had recently died, and her mother was in the care of a state mental ward because, back then, that’s how epilepsy was treated. “It made me feel like an orphan,” Polly recalls of being sent to Denver to be raised by an older sibling who had five children. But, then again, the short and spunky stylist and pastor has never been the type to let life get her down.
Polly didn’t get upset when, during her senior year at East High School, her guidance councilor announced he’d figured out what to do with every, single student except her! “I was barely a C student, and I didn’t have good enough grades to go to college,” Polly recalls. She told her counselor not to worry because – dun, dun, dun – she was going to be an actress. “That’ll get you a nickel and a cup of coffee,” was the advisor’s unamused response. Polly might not have had the grades, but her counselor saw something else that was quite special: imagination. “I’m short and I had all that massive long hair curl,” Polly says of her younger self before explaining, “We didn’t have relaxers, I couldn’t afford to go to a hair salon, so I’d just throw up my hair.”
It was Polly’s guidance counselor who noticed the creativity in what Polly was doing with her hair, and when a beauty school scholarship came across his desk he insisted Polly fill it out. “I was the first African American to win that scholarship,” says Polly, who, in 1963, was also the first African American to attend the now-defunct Denver-based Hollywood Beauty College. “When I started in ’63,” recalls Polly, “We had uniforms, and we looked just like nurses!” Transitioning to regular street clothes was a huge change for Polly, and for all hairdressers working in the industry.
Another huge change was being able to cut men’s hair in the salon. “Men’s hair was for barbering, and we had to fight really hard to change the rules,” Polly says. Another fight – one that wouldn’t be resolved for a few more decades – was putting black and ethnic hair care on the white-driven, corporate radar. “You have to remember what was going on in the late ‘60s in Denver, and in the country,” Polly says, noting that despite some rebuttal from the black community, she was mostly styling white hair when she started out. “We didn’t have black hair magazines or good black hair products for African American clients when I started,” says Polly.
Now, the stylist is glad to announce that there are natural and healthier products for black and ethnic hair, and today she’s renowned for her expertise in multicultural hair. Polly was the first African American woman to own a salon in the Cherry Creek neighborhood in Denver, thanks to Paul Garcia, a former boss who knew she wanted to open her own shop but didn’t yet have the financial means. When Garcia was ready to sell his place, he gave Polly a call, and asked how much money she had. “I had $10,000 dollars, so Paul said he’d take $5,000 and I could use the rest to buy products and supplies, with the understanding that I’d pay him back later,” Polly says.
That brings us to the 1970s, one of Polly’s favorite decades – Probably because the petite and mild-mannered hairdresser was an animal on the dance floor, earning herself a reputation as the disco queen after dancing with John Travolta at a Mexican disco. “I saw two white guys sitting at a table,” Polly says. “One was moving around so I asked him to dance, and all of a sudden he just broke on me and started moving!” When Polly got back to the table, her husband told her that she’d been jiving with Travolta, but Polly didn’t believe her husband until the next morning, when the Saturday Night Fever star waved to her on the beach.
That story exemplifies what the decade was all about: Great styles, great music, and happiness. “I love disco because it was a way to have some fun after you worked hard,” Polly says, adding, “You could just dance until you dropped, and you didn’t have to dance with anybody – You could just dance!” Polly also adored the ‘80s for its diversity and distinctness. “Oh, it was so much fun with the up-dos, backcombing, the flips and bobs,” Polly says, remembering the era as a time when people dressed up for parties and events in the city.
And, then there is the new millennium, which brought another big change for the little stylist. Polly joined Sola Salons Cherry Creek in 2004, after a failed business deal left her all but destitute. In her darkest hour, Polly got whisper of a new concept coming to Denver. She met the owners, and picked out Suite 140 because it was close to the laundry room (“Honey,” she says, “I had no idea it was $400 dollars per week!”). “That’s the power of belief,” Polly continues. The Sola Salon Studios owners Matt Briger and Stratton Smith convinced Polly that if she could start from scratch once, she could do it again. And so Polly rebuilt her empire. In fifty years, have you ever gotten sick of hair? – That’s what I want to know. “Never,” exclaims Polly. “You know why? Because I love people. The key thing I needed all my life,” continues Polly, “was love.” And, through five fantastic decades of hairdressing, that’s exactly what Polly found. Polly's Salon Studio
Polly and the co-founder of Sola Salon Studios, Stratton Smith
Pictures from Polly's Party