If you’ve walked up North Front Street at any time since the Disco Era, you’ve probably at some point been greeted by two fashion-plated gentlemen — longtime Uptown fixtures and Rage Hair Salon owners Joe Perry and Mike McGowan.
Susan Benincasa, who passed away in 2013, was Rage’s third beaming smile. My personal recollection of her, though brief, epitomizes how so many others experienced her. One day several years ago, I was walking up North Front in tears upon receiving bad news. Though we did not know each other more than from seeing each other around, she stood up from her seat outside of the salon, wrapped her arm around my shoulder and encouraged me to sit down to talk. Her offer was genuine and inviting, and I nearly said yes. I thanked her, and declined. I walked on, feeling a charge of warmth from the brief interaction. This story is dedicated to her memory.
Carrie Jones Ross: Where were you born and raised?
Mike McGowan: Kingston, New York.
Joe Perry: Kingston. Susan was born and raised in Kingston as well.
MMG: Kingston High School. I got out a year early — I went to high school for three years and graduated, then straight into hair school at 17 years old. Class of 1975.
JP: Michael is the youngest of the partners. Coleman 1973, Ulster Community College and Richard the First Beauty School. I was the teacher’s pet.
MMG: He was a brownnoser. Susan graduated in 1974, went to BOCES in high school and got her hairdressing license, and she taught cosmetology at BOCES for a year.
CJR: How did you guys all meet?
MMG: I met Susan when I was 13 and she was 16 at a donut shop called Judy Ann’s. I was on my Playboy bicycle, and that’s how I met Susan. She was unbelievable to me. That’s how I met Joey too — they were friends.
JP: I met Susan at Kingston High School when I was transferring to Coleman in 1970. She had just transferred from Coleman to Kingston High School so she could go to BOCES.
CJR: How did the three of you come together?
MMG: Susan had worked for Bob Aiello — he owned a salon we worked in. She was going to BOCES and I was going to Richard’s Beauty School. They recruited me, that’s how I got with them. Then Joey came into the shop one day, and here’s Susan, and then we recruited him to come work with us. And that was in 1976. The three of us became best friends and we were known as “The Three Musketeers.”
CJR: Is it a lot of pressure to live in the same community where you were born and raised?
MMG: No, very proud of my heritage and family.
JP: Not a lot of pressure. You know everyone in town, especially coming from big families like the McGowans and Perrys. Unless you got in a lot of trouble, everyone knew about it. But we never did. It has been great growing up here and living here.
CJR: Who were you guys growing up?
MMG: Always venturous. Hard worker, always fashionable. I love life. Very loyal. Brutally honest.
JP: I was quiet. I have always been a better person working in the background. Even though I am out with the public and work with people all day long, I prefer to work behind the scenes. Since high school I have always done community service.
CJR: Who are you now?
MMG: All that, and a little more intense. I am very comfortable in my own skin.
JP: I am that same person, I am very comfortable with people, but I am still not an on-the-stage person; I am still behind the scenes.
CJR: How did you get into hair?
JP: When I was in Ulster Community College, I was looking for a profession and I have a lot of family who were hairdressers, and I signed up for Richard the First Beauty School. The first day I got there I knew that’s where I wanted to be.
MMG: I love the feel and the touch of it, everything about it. I like the creative side of what you can do with it. I started cutting hair when I was 13, and cutting friends and neighbors and family and I just got good at it. I love making them feel good about themselves. It’s a great feeling to bring someone alive. You can change peoples’ lives. That is very true. I love making people feel good about themselves.
CJR: Who named the salon, and why is it named Rage?
JP: We wanted to have a name that had nothing to do with hair, so we put a bunch of names in a hat. You remember “Rage,” and what is “Rage”? That was the name that Michael put in the hat. Michael’s mother pulled the name out of the hat. That’s the way the three of us worked together, we all agreed.
MMG: And if we keep working, we can drop off the “R” and call it “Age”!
CJR: How long have you been Uptown?
JP: Thirty-eight years, worked at Hair Company from 1976-1986, and then Feb. 4, 1986 we opened our own hair salon and have been here ever since, for 28 years in our own business. We are the longest existing salon in Uptown Kingston.
CJR: How would you characterize Kingston when you were growing up?
MMG: Like you were growing up in a city. Tons of bars, tons of stores, especially Uptown. Woolworth’s, Yallum’s, London’s, Flannigan’s, Fannie Farmer’s, Abrams’ Music Store. 11 Main, which is now Santa Fe, the Dutch Ratskeller.
JP: Uptown was the place, before all the malls came in.
CJR: How would you describe it now?
JP: When the malls came in and IBM started to leave, Uptown really went down. Today you are seeing a revitalization. North Front Street is becoming Restaurant Row. A few years ago it turned around. Our business, the salons and the restaurants always brought people Uptown, even when there were no stores here. Stores like Theresa and Company and Schneider’s stayed, and didn’t leave.
MMG: We have always sent all people to all those people. We are dinosaurs up here and we have always promoted it.
CJR: How has the Uptown vibe changed over the past 30 years of doing business here?
JP: I see a whole new energy with the O-Positive [festival] the past 5-6 years with the artists who have moved here. People like Maria from Boitson’s have started a whole new energy up here. New restaurants. We are fixtures up here. We would have art openings first Saturday of the month to promote artists.
MMG: That’s where I put blinders on, because I always felt so positive here. Our business was always successful — it’s hard not to have a good vibe. We always made it a good vibe.