Hairy Times: St. Louis-based American Mustache Institute wants to put the 'stache back in style

Inside the Lumière Casino theater last month, Richard Roundtree and his Shaft-inspired moustache appeared on a giant overhead screen. Next was Will Ferrell wearing sunglasses and performing his best impersonation of Robert Goulet. Then Billy Dee Williams as Lando Calrissian in a scene from The Empire Strikes Back: the wind's blowing, his cape's flowing, but his 'stache stays firmly in place. Such clips will play on a loop the entire night.

In one corner of the room a lady is spotted tickling a cutout of Hulk Hogan's mustache. She's leaning against it, posing glassy-eyed for a photograph.

Welcome to the 'Stache Bash, an annual affair hosted by the St. Louis-based American Mustache Institute. Total membership: Eight. If you don't have a mustache, organizers are only too happy to provide one for you.

Members of the American Mustache Institute mean business.
Jennifer Silverberg
Members of the American Mustache Institute mean business.
Aaron Perlut, center, MCed the 2008 Bash.
Tony Zagora
Aaron Perlut, center, MCed the 2008 Bash.

Some 1,000 people have bucked up a $25 cover charge this October night to pay homage to the mustache. At 9:30 p.m., Aaron Perlut, the director of the three-year-old Institute, bounds onstage in floppy yellow shoes and a tuxedo top. Perlut's brother and dad are both wearing lab coats and stethoscopes — the standard uniform, one reckons, for mustacheologists.

"We are a facial-hair advocacy group," he tells the crowd. His deadpan explanation summons a smattering of applause.

Perlut proceeds to invite Joy L. Robinson, a public-relations manager, onto the stage. "On behalf of Just For Men, I'd like to present you with a $5,000 check," she says, a donation that will go to the St. Louis chapter of Challenger Baseball, a league for children and adults with disabilities.

As part of their sponsorship of the 'Stache Bash, Just for Men provided mustache-coloring kits for the faux mustaches that are displayed on tables around the room. They also paid to fly in the Robert Goulet Memorial Mustached American of the Year award winner, Tim Galvin, who began growing his mustache after graduating from a strict Catholic school in 1974 — and hasn't shaved it since.

Voters were especially moved by his life story. During his twenty-plus years of police service, Galvin earned medals of valor after being shot twice, in the face and leg, while working undercover in February 1997. "If I was a cat I would have gone through eight of the nine lives," he says as he accepts the award, a purple crown that he places on top of his head.

A short history of the mustache is in order. Let's begin with last year's Academy Awards ceremony that saw a number of actors with mustaches collect nominations: Daniel Day-Lewis, Josh Brolin, Philip Seymour Hoffman. Things like that get the mustache community plenty excited. These are people who pin Mustache Day proclamations on walls and grab their hearts at the mention of Tom Selleck shaving off his lip sweater.

"We always have this concept of the mustache clock," says Dan Callahan. "Midnight was 1972. Right now, we think we're five minutes to twelve. It's so out of fashion that it's becoming cool to grow one."

The arrival of the English mustache, in 1920s melodramas, started to cast the facial frosting in a villainous light; the top hat and cape only made things worse. Wall Street tycoons wore mustaches, but so did trust-busting Theodore Roosevelt a few years earlier. Adolf Hitler, of course, made the thin mustache infamous after he went goose-stepping around the world.

After a dry spell that lasted until a rich harvest of hair made a comeback in the 1960s, Burt Reynolds arrived as the consummate mustache celebrity. He made them popular for all the right reasons, strutting around as Bo "Bandit" Darville in Smokey and the Bandit.

Rollie Fingers, who spent most of his baseball career with the Oakland Athletics, delighted fans with the curly tips at the end of his mustache. Ex-Cardinal Keith Hernandez is a champion mustache-grower. In fact, in 2007, Hernandez beat out Yankee great Don Mattingly in the AMI sports-mustache competition.

In the African American community, the mustache has had a more stable ride. Martin Luther King Jr. wore one, and years later so did Michael Jordan, even in the clean-shaven 1980s and 1990s.

"Today, you are more likely to see the mustache in rural America than urban America," observes Callahan. "It can be perceived to be redneck."

There is no way anyone at Fleishman-Hillard, the public-relations firm where Aaron Perlut works, could have recognized the significance of the offhand remark Tony Zagora made one day three years ago.

"We should really bring back the mustache," Zagora joked to a few of his colleagues. They were intrigued, but no one more so than Perlut and Callahan. Zagora says his observation came at a time when mustaches were popping up everywhere, most noticeably in movies such as Anchorman.

"The idea developed into something that has kind of steamrolled," he says. "Once we built it up a little more, we thought it could be a cool thing to do for charity and would give us an excuse to grow one."

Perlut remembers organizing a meeting with a few of the guys during lunch at the office a few weeks later. "Every couple of weeks we started talking about putting together an event that would become the first 'Stache Bash," he says.

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