Bikers preen pooches into haute dogs

In this month’s Macon Magazine, with photos by the luminous Maryann Bates:

Like an heiress settling in for her weekly spa ministrations, Georgia, a white Standard Poodle, stands stock-still and holds her muzzle high while the clippers skim her coat, forming the round “rosettes” on her knobby hips. Because of its density, a poodle’s fur lends itself to shaping and sculpting, so when the primping is complete, Georgia looks like a fantastical topiary at Versailles — a bouquet of pompoms on stems. Just add a diamond-studded collar and Westminster ribbon.

“This cut is called the ‘Continental’ and gets used a lot in shows,” said the man with the clippers, Larry Hulsey, after rewarding Georgia with a gluten-free treat at Showtime Pet Grooming in north Macon.

If you assume this lace doily of a dog will be claimed by an equally froufrou Cotton Belt socialite, guess again. A sort of in-house floor-model as well as pampered pet, Georgia belongs to Hulsey, who at first glance looks more like a coonhound or Rottweiler kind of guy. He operates Showtime as a family enterprise with his 27-year-old son, Kyle.

Meticulous, detail-oriented perfectionists who insist on the “scissor finish,” the Hulseys take pride in their award-winning work, but they also represent a different breed of canine aesthetician. They wear leather and ride motorcycles to work, and with their “long-haired country boy” ponytails; mellow, porch-swing manners; and Middle Georgia drawls, these alpha-dog groomers might have stepped off the cover of an Allman Brothers album. Where tattoos meet Shih-Tzus, Showtime is perhaps the South’s only biker-operated beauty parlor for dogs and academy for aspiring pet beauticians.

“Hairdressing and Harleys run in our family, going back several generations,” Hulsey said. “We just brought dogs into it.”

The consistently fun and incongruous visuals that arise at the salon on Forsyth Road – tough guys tenderly tying bows around the topknots of teacup yappers – have proved an effective selling point, both to the midstate’s gentry and its animal-loving hipsters.

“The first time I went there, I was intrigued by all of these Harleys parked out front and these guys with long hair behind the counter,” said Lisa Love, who was the director of the Georgia Music Hall of Fame and now works in music and film promotion development for the state. She regularly hauls Cooley, her family’s rambunctious West Highland White Terrier, to Showtime from her new home in Atlanta. “At first, I didn’t get that these guys were the groomers. They were super-friendly, though, and when I picked Cooley up, he was drop-dead handsome with the best Westie cut he’d ever had in his life. When I realized these bikers were the talent behind Showtime, I was sold, lock, stock and barrel.”

However, there is more to Showtime than the novelty of its proprietors, who bring a trained skill set and unusual comfort level to highstrung clients – not just the dogs, but their owners as well. The Hulseys serve as the region’s only “Certified Master of All Breeds” stylists.

“My Shih-Tzus require more grooming than most because of their undercoat and overcoat, and they used to be very apprehensive about those appointments,” said state senator and Macon politico Miriam Paris, “but they actually enjoy going to Showtime. They’re excited in the car and can’t wait to jump out and go in. I think it’s because these guys genuinely care about dogs, and the dogs instinctively pick up on that feeling; they sense the love. I’ve never seen an angry, uncooperative dog there, which is unusual. It’s always a friendly, tip-top, professional environment, and, believe me, I wouldn’t settle for anything less for Sebastian and Lily.”

Larry Hulsey grew up in Macon, where his mother was a stylist at Four Seasons. He was working in construction when he noticed that his dog, KISS, a “party mix” cocker spaniel named after the fire-breathing rock band, seemed sluggish. “The groomer didn’t clip his toenails, and one of this nails was growing into the pad of his paw, so he was in pain,” Hulsey said. “I shaved him all the way down at home to get a better look at what was going on and realized how much weight he’d gained. Turned out he had a thyroid condition.”

Hulsey was dismayed by the lack of standardization, regulation, and certification in the pet grooming industry. “Anybody with a set of clippers can hang out a shingle and start charging to work on animals,” he said, shaking his head. So he relocated temporarily to Knoxville to study at the Concord School of Pet Grooming, which is accredited by the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, and then he trained his son. They since have won numerous grooming and styling competitions and seldom place outside the top three.

“There’s so much more to it than just cutting hair,” Hulsey said. “In addition to the cosmetic benefits, there are health issues we’re trying to address with a total-body cleaning. One of our customers joked that it doesn’t cost as much for him to get his hair trimmed, and I said, ‘Well, do they also clip your nails, clean out your ears, remove the plaque from your teeth, and relieve your anal glands while they’re at it?’”

Hulsey opened Showtime in 2009 and added the School of Pet Grooming a year later, as a way to elevate industry standards statewide. Currently training one student, the academy has applied for status as a nonpublic, post-secondary educational institution. Instead of a clinical-seeming, clanging kennel atmosphere, Showtime looks like a Romper Room for dogs, with brightly painted wooden enclosures and a “Tiki Bar” recovery area. Spa music, and the occasional Bob Marley tune, help calm the clientele. Recently, Jana London joined the staff and added the “Bow Wow Bakery” with homemade treats (reportedly tasty enough for people, too) and a pet boutique with a variety of accessories and snugglies. One tee announces: “Karma is a Bitch.”

“We haven’t had any requests yet for the kind of feather hair extensions that are popular with people these days, but if we do, I’m prepared,” said London, who used to work as a hairstylist for people.

Hulsey was not quite sure what to expect when he set up shop during an economic downturn, in the heart of Georgia.

“I was worried there might not be a big diversity of breeds around here to get really creative with,” Hulsey said, “but I was wrong.”
Among his favorites is the Bedlington terrier, whose sheep-like appearance can be exaggerated dramatically with a “lamb cut.” As if on cue, a Bedlington prances gamely into the lobby of Showtime, looking like an odd, ambiguous bundle of wool.

This sort of inter-species drag is popular. “We can groom them to look like lions, peacocks, camels, whatever,” Hulsey said. “Look at this – now talk about a lot of work,” he added, pointing to a photo of a dog primped and dyed to look like a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle.

“I like for Cookie to get the ‘lion cut’ to make her look like a little lion,” said model and media personality Tosha Walden, of the Pomeranian that often accompanies her during interviews and fashion shows. “It’s important to me that Cookie looks perfect as she attends different functions, and the Showtime folks are perfectionists. Dogs leave there ready to strut around Westminster. Being a fashionista myself, I’ve rubbed off on Cookie, and her little wardrobe is quite extensive for a dog, so we both just adore the selection of outfits Showtime has to offer.”

Her husband, music impresario Alan Walden, and their son, Christian, have three miniature schnauzers who also go for regular preenings. “As a family, we are serious ‘dawg people,’ and so are they,” Alan Walden said. “Our dogs enjoy being there so much that they’re kind of reluctant to come to me to go home.”

Showtime’s specialized services include “hand stripping,” a razor technique used on schnauzers for the show ring (the effect is similar to flat-ironing). “Boy, you can really tell when a schnauzer hasn’t been cut correctly because a lot of people won’t scissor the hair to blend it,” Hulsey said.

What about cats? Hulsey rolls his eyes and lets out a low whistle. “We have the training to groom cats, but they pretty much have to grow up accustomed to a show environment, and most cats around here aren’t – owners may get them groomed once a year, if that,” he said. “Cats are ten times more difficult to groom than dogs and ten times more dangerous. But we’ve never encountered a dog we couldn’t groom.”

“Pawdicures” with shea butter and a variety of spa treatments, including aromatherapy mud masques with lavender, mint, and chamomile soothe and detoxify itchy, scaly skin and remove “tear stains” from beards. As London massages a creamy concoction all over a well-fed Chihuahua named Bella, the dog’s plump body slackens and her eyes grow heavy-lidded with bliss. Finally, Bella gazes up at the humans around her with melting gratitude.

“Now that’s the kind of face we like to see,” Hulsey said. “Another satisfied customer.”