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NBC deals salon unkindest cut of all

After 23 years, stylist Scott Thompson and his shop get the boot from their studio home.

By Bob Pool

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

September 27, 2007

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Scott Thompson didn't make the cut when NBC programmers began making their long-range TV plans.

For 23 years Thompson has been a hair stylist and barber at Universal Studios, tending to everyone from mogul Lew Wasserman to the youngest mail room clerk.

But on Friday he's being evicted from his tiny salon at the corner of Universal's sprawling Stage One to make way for a state-of-the-art digital television studio that could become home to "The Tonight Show" in 2009 when Conan O'Brien takes over from Jay Leno.

Thompson's 600-square-foot Stage One Salon, which formerly served as Jack Benny's dressing room when the late comedian's television show was produced at the sound stage, is lined with actors' autographed photos.

And it's filled with memories.

Like the first time Universal chieftain Wasserman came for a haircut and Thompson was so nervous he could barely hold his scissors. And the time Madonna called Thompson to her trailer and there sat John F. Kennedy Jr., who was visiting the singer as she performed in the 1990 movie "Dick Tracy" being filmed there.

And the time a film executive's wife and mistress showed up at the same time.

"I had the wife sitting in one chair getting her hair done and the mistress sitting in the other. The husband had recommended that both of them come and paid for them both," Thompson said. "I steered the conversation way, way away. I knew the whole story but didn't say a word. I wanted to keep them both as clients."

Thompson explained away his jitters by telling Wasserman that his hand was shaking because he'd slammed his car door on it. On subsequent visits to the shop, the legendary studio head slyly reminded Thompson to take care when he closed the car door.

The photos on the walls offer a history of the hairdos in Hollywood.

There are TV stars Lucy Lawless and Delta Burke as well as film veteran Barbara Stanwyck and singer Barry Manilow in a very 1980s hairdo.

There is even a head shot of Lassie. "It was just a quick blow dry," Thompson said.

There was a touch of nervousness -- and of awe -- when Thompson, who says he is over 50, set up shop on Stage One in 1984. Located next to the studio's main gate, the storied sound stage has been used for the taping and filming of hundreds of TV shows and movies. Most recently it's been home to "Desperate Housewives."

"They were doing 'Murder, She Wrote' on my first day here. It was pretty exciting the first month or so," he said. "Angela Lansbury would be walking next to you on the way to the commissary. Peter Falk came in the shop a couple of times. But after a while, a customer sitting in the chair is a customer. It becomes more of a family."

The shop itself has changed little over the years. It still has the same fluorescent lights on the ceiling and faded linoleum tiles on the floor from Jack Benny's day.

Benny's old bathroom has been turned into a closet-size hair tinting room.

"The lighting is so poor you have to go outside in the daylight with the client to look at the color. They never did much to update the shop. But it worked for us," said Thompson, who rents the space from NBC Universal for about $1,000 a month.

Thompson had spent about five years in a private Studio City hair salon when he was invited to work at the Stage One shop. Prior to his arrival, it had been operated for about 10 years as a barbershop catering to men working at the studio. The shop was seen as a boon to workers who did not have time to leave the lot for a haircut.

That's what attracted longtime customers such as Larry Fina, a television engineer who has worked for 27 years at the studio. He always scheduled his haircuts for his meal break.

"I have a half-hour lunch as a union man, so there's not time to leave the lot," Fina explained. "It's very convenient. I wouldn't say it's like a therapy session, but it is a therapy session."

Sarah Symonds, an author and radio show host who obtains a studio pass to have her hair styled by Thompson, agreed.

Her latest book, "Having an Affair? A Handbook for the 'Other Woman,' " includes him in its dedication: "To my darling hairdresser, Scott Thompson, the man with the sharpest scissors in Hollywood. You were right: blondes really do have more fun. Thank you for my look, as well as our laughter and quasi-psychotherapy salon sessions. We'll always be friends -- you know too much."

Symonds, from London, said her five years of studio salon visits have offered the allure of the old and the new Hollywood. "You experience the history as well as the present, from Jack Benny to Teri Hatcher or whoever is working here," she said.

She described the shuttering of the Stage One Salon as a reflection of the entertainment industry. "When you're wanted, you're in. And it's so fickle that when you're not, you're out in two minutes," Symonds said.

The shop closure will also affect hairstylist Marisa Rose and manicurist D.J. Bosco.

Bosco said a series of ownership changes has reshaped the Universal Studios culture, making the lot "more corporate, more businesslike," where some workers are leery of taking a half-hour break to get a manicure or pedicure.

NBC Universal officials said the planned renovation and expansion of Stage One will convert it into a modern broadcast facility. Although the relocation of "The Tonight Show" from its Burbank studio to Universal Studios has been widely rumored on and off the lot, no decision has been made.

"It will be built for a live audience. But it's not been decided officially what shows will be there," NBC Universal spokeswoman Hilary Smith said Wednesday from New York.

As for Thompson, he's resigned to his fate. He said Universal officials could not find an alternate spot for him on the lot.

"I'm hoping we get some kind of call from the governor and it's going to be like 'It's a Wonderful Life' at the end and all our clients are standing out there saying, 'Oh God! You get to stay!' " he said.

"But I don't think that's going to happen."

bob.pool@latimes.com