Exclusive: Elvis Haircut Day commemorates Chaffee Barbershop Museum’s defining role in music history
On this day 64 years ago, the “haircut heard 'round the world” changed music history forever. As a 23-year-old Elvis Presley sat in the barber’s chair at Fort Chaffee barbershop in Fort Smith, Arkansas, his disappearing signature sideburns and pompadour unequivocally confirmed what lie ahead - a two-year tour of duty in the US Army and, much to the dismay of millions of fans around the world, a lengthy postponement of his trailblazing ascent as the young "King of Rock ’n' Roll." In a light-hearted moment with the onlooking press, Elvis jested, “Hair today, gone tomorrow!”
Tomorrow the Chaffee Barbershop Museum’s annual Elvis Haircut Day event is returning after a two-year hiatus to once again commemorate its big moment in music history and, for 2022, the 80th anniversary of Camp Chaffee. The celebration is open to the public and will include free admission to the museum, free G.I. buzz cuts, light refreshments and a new addition, the Elvis Fun Run & Bike Ride. We caught up with Lorie Robertson, Director of Marketing at Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority/Chaffee Crossing, who generously made time for us this week so that we could learn more about this special place and this weekend’s activities. Thank you, Lorie!
AMLP: Tell us about your exciting Elvis Haircut Day event coming up this Saturday at the Chaffee Barbershop Museum. We understand this will be your first event in two years and that new activities will be introduced this year.
Lorie: Admission to the Chaffee Barbershop Museum is free and there will be light refreshments and free G.I. buzz cuts 9 a.m. until noon, courtesy of River Valley Cosmetology Institute students based in nearby Poteau, Oklahoma. The new Fort Smith Coffee Co. is opening a pop-up shop from 7:30 am until noon. They will soon have a permanent home in The Barracks at Chaffee, a $25 million renovation project of 30-plus former military buildings in the heart of the Chaffee Crossing Historic District. Local radio station KTCS 99.9 FM is hosting the first car show in the historic district, Haircuts, Hotrods & Heroes Family Fun Day from 10:00 am until 2:00 pm on Ellis St. Proceeds from the car show benefit Make A Wish Foundation.
Lorie: This year we are also celebrating the 80th anniversary of the opening of Camp Chaffee and we added an Elvis costume Bike Ride and Fun Run (registration is $20 to help with maintenance and repairs to the museum). Pre-registration starts at 7:30 am and the ride/run starts at 8:30 am. Advance registration is available here. One of the sponsors, Phat Tire Bike Shop, is also moving to the Chaffee Crossing Historic District (Barracks at Chaffee) in a former Army barrack that will be adapted as a bike store.
AMLP: You’ve mentioned that proceeds from the inaugural “Elvis Bike Ride and Fun Run” will go towards maintenance and repairs to the museum. Can you talk a little bit more about what repairs the museum is currently in need of and how those who aren’t able to attend this year’s Elvis Haircut Day event might lend their support to help with that or other preservation and interpretation efforts at the museum?
Lorie: The exterior siding on the Chaffee Barbershop Museum is in need of repair as well as some mechanical things like a new heat and air system. We are able to use the likeness of Elvis Presley through an agreement with Elvis Presley Enterprises, however we cannot ever charge admission to the museums. We thought that Elvis costume bike ride and fun run would be a cool way to raise some funds for those projects. We have a 501c3 set up for museum donations, the Chaffee Crossing Historic Preservation Organization. Checks can be mailed to CCHPO, 7020 Taylor Ave., Fort Smith, AR 72916. We also have the capability to accept credit card donations. Call 479.434.6774 for more details.
Lorie: The newspaper camera used to take photos that day, actual television news coverage video and other memorabilia including a letter from the National Archives are on display, among other artifacts. Museum guests experience a 1950s-era barbershop that looks exactly like it did the day that "the King" strolled through the doors.
AMLP: When was the barbershop restored as a museum? Can you provide a brief history as to how that came about? In returning the barbershop to March 25, 1958, a day that changed music history forever, what do you think was (and remains) most important in getting right about interpreting that moment? For historic integrity, for the many visitors (and many Elvis fans) that would come through the door and are yet to visit? Like us! :)
Lorie: In early 2008, attention was drawn to Building #803 in Chaffee Crossing because the building owner, the Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority Public Trust, was evaluating former military buildings on its property and determining whether to keep or demolish them. The pending fate of the former U.S. Army building came to public light as did stories that this building had been the barbershop where Elvis Presley had received his famous first G.I. buzz cut. For years, students at Beard Elementary in Fort Smith had heard about the legend of the barbershop from their teacher, Jan Honeycutt, a life-long Elvis fan. She told the students about that fateful day of Elvis’ buzz cut and the importance of it in Fort Smith history. For one day, the eyes of the entire pop-culture world were focused on Fort Chaffee in Fort Smith, Arkansas. Elvis smooth black locks were the focal point of dreams of millions of young teenage girls and the envy of millions of teenage boys hoping to capture the attention of those girls. Girls cried at the thought the hair being shaved off. Some even sent letters to President Dwight Eisenhower begging him to stop the haircut or “they would just die.”
Over the years, Ms. Honeycutt had educated her students about the Elvis story and inspired them to try to save the barbershop. Using business management principles, she taught her students how to operate a “business” by selling snacks to their classmates. The money raised was put into a savings account waiting for an opportunity to invest it in the building. When she heard about the demolition plans for Building #803 in early 2008, Ms. Honeycutt reached out to FCRA to tell them about the class project and offered to donate the money for renovations. Just a few short months later, in August 2008, a ribbon cutting was held to celebrate the official opening of the Chaffee Barbershop Museum and Beard Elementary students were there to present a check for more than $1,200. Elvis fans of all ages attended the ribbon cutting, including some of the former Beard Elementary students who raised money selling candy to their classmates in the hope of salvaging a piece of history they barely understood. Many of the adults attending perhaps relived a moment of their youth; the younger ones perhaps caught from them a glimpse of history that made international news and impacted an entire generation of youth. It was a rare occasion for sure.
From that moment on, additional restoration and renovation projects were initiated and it became very apparent that this building needed to be saved. Only half of the building had been restored at that point, but it was the important half—the barbershop area where Elvis walked into a room crowded with journalists, reporters, and photographers to receive the famous “Haircut heard ‘round the world”. Since that dedication, Elvis fans from all over the world have visited the Barbershop Museum—fans from all 50 United States, Japan, European countries, the American continents, and nations far and wide, all to walk in the footsteps of the King of Rock ’n' Roll whose legend lives on.
In the years that followed, the other half of the building was renovated to became a place where the story of Camp Chaffee, established by the U.S. Army in 1941 as a premier WWII training camp, could be told through photos, videos, and exhibits. Donations of memorabilia from the WWII-era (including WWII German POWs who were held at Camp Chaffee), the Vietnam War, the Cuban Refugee crisis, and Hurricane Katrina and Rita evacuees came pouring in and eventually helped create and establish the Museum of Chaffee History.
Elvis Presley’s G.I. buzzcut has been recognized as an international event and one that people continue to retell and relive to this day. Elvis’ haircut represents a moment in time that was burned into memories thanks to television (which was new) and media storytellers from around the globe. The story of the buzzcut in the Chaffee Barbershop in turn created a unique opportunity to regale the stories of thousands of troops who trained at Chaffee to defend our national freedom, the exact reason Elvis came to Chaffee in the first place. He, like hundreds of thousands of other young American men and women, answered the call of duty to serve their nation in times of war. It was a huge symbolic event, one that represents the sacrifices made by millions of military veterans over the course of American history. Elvis said, “Hair today, gone tomorrow,” but the story of his first military haircut has certainly withstood the test of time.
AMLP: You are in a unique position as marketing director of the place that hosted the “haircut heard around the world.” What has been one of your most memorable experiences relating to the barbershop?
On the day Elvis was scheduled for processing and his buzz cut, school buses showed up with people clamoring to catch a glimpse of the rock and roll star. In particular, there were three teenage girls from the Poteau, OK area who got all dressed up in white button up shirt, poodle skirts and put their hair up in pony tails. They rode in on one of those buses and were photographed or taped waving signs to catch Elvis’ attention. Fast forward to 2013 or 2014 during an Elvis Haircut Day event and one of those “girls” showed up wearing her very same poodle skirt. She was an adorable 60-something lady with that same twinkle in her eye she must have had that day in 1958. Her excitement and enthusiasm had not waned over time. It was special to meet her.
Elvis spent three days at Fort Chaffee before traveling to Fort Hood, Texas for basic training. There are currently plans underway to adapt the barracks he stayed in as the Fort Chaffee Barracks Museum, located near the barbershop museum in the Chaffee Crossing Historic District.
UPDATED May 23, 2022 - After seeing today’s released second official trailer for Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis”, our hopes for the Chaffee Barbershop Museum and the “haircut heard ‘round the world” receiving their big-screen moment has become reality! The second trailer offers us a brief depiction of Elvis Presley's historic moment in the barber’s chair at Fort Chaffee while the original trailer unveiled a first look at Austin Butler in army uniform as Sergeant Presley. We look forward to experiencing this deeply invested cinematic testament to the life and legacy of Elvis Presley and the wonders it will do for introducing and reintroducing him to a global movie-going audience of every generation when it hits theaters next month!