Shave and a haircut

Published in Wisconsin Week, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Aug. 10, 1988, written by Jeff Iseminger

(also published in the Milwaukee Sentinel, Nov. 14, 1988)

Bus Topp has buzzed tops as a barber at University of Wisconsin-Madison for 60 years, surviving both the Depression and the Beatles.

Since 1928, Lewis (Bus, short for Buster) Topp has cut a mountain of hair and shaved acres of face belonging mostly to UW students, faculty and staff. He has rented space as the resident barber in Memorial Union since the building’s opening six decades ago.

Today, at age 84, Topp still runs the Wisconsin Union Barbershop just off the Rathskeller, a renowned watering hole at the Union. His shop barely has room for his single barber chair.

Topp moved there in 1981 from a larger room next door, where he once employed four barbers, a manicurist and a porter. That’s when many men visited their barber every two weeks – a practice the Beatles put on the endangered list in the 1960s.

With the arrival of Beatlemania, hair got so long and barbershop waiting lines so short that Topp made only $5,100 in 1970. “That didn’t buy much salt for my coffee,” Topp said.

The Beatles were almost as bad as the Depression, says Topp, when many people could not afford the 50 cents for a haircut or $2 for a shave or 75 cents for a face massage.

But Topp stuck it out through thick and thin – both hair and business – not for the meager money, but the joy. “Coming here every day is like going to a show,” Topp said with a chuckle. He so enjoys his customers that he returned to work in just six weeks after suffering a stroke last fall.

The feeling is mutual, says Herb Attix, a professor emeritus and a satisfied customer for 10 years. “I enjoy Bus’ conversation,” Attix said. “He has a lot of pithy comments on the university’s history, especially past football coaches.”

A man with a longer view from Topp’s chair is Carl Sauer, who’s sat there off and on for 40 years. “Bus is just a great guy, and I like to listen to him talk,” said Sauer, who retired as a physical plant worker at UW-Madison three years ago. Sauer is a regular golfing partner of Topp’s.

Sauer says Topp treats a freshman in his chair just like a professor or one of the luminaries who’ve dropped by, like the late Wisconsin Gov. Philip F. La Follette. Another well-known customer was Alfred Lunt, who performed in the Union Theater with his wife, Lynn Fontanne, and lived in Wisconsin for several years.

When the athletic department was in the Red Gym next to the Union, Topp saw a parade of players and coaches in his shop. Among the standouts he barbered were two All-American football players at Wisconsin: Elroy “Crazy-legs” Hirsch, who worked at the Rathskeller next door, and fullback Alan “The Horse” Ameche.

A tantalizing head of hair that walked into Topp’s shop one day was owned by Frank Lloyd Wright. But the famous white-maned architect didn’t want a haircut, just a comb for a touch-up before he spoke in the Union.

One day Topp was “called” to the Edgewater Hotel to cut the hair of CBS chairman William Paley. Paley moved his chair so it faced the dresser mirror in his room and sternly said, “I’m going to watch what you do to me.” He watched – and was pleased.

Topp became a barber when he saw the writing on the wall as an 18-year-old cutting and delivering ice in Madison. He realized what the new-fangled electrical refrigeration would do to ice. So after the 1922 winter harvest on Madison’s Lake Wingra, he headed for barber school.

Topp bought his own barbershop in 1925 on University Avenue in Madison. Three years later he applied for the barbershop rental rights in the university’s new union and got the nod to move in.

Topp now gets about four or five customers a day, like UW-Madison senior Chris Vandall, who recently walked in and said he wanted to get a load off his head.

“Well, let’s get to work, son,” Topp said. “How much are we going to eliminate today?” Then, using 60 years of barber-talk skills, Topp quickly learned that he and Vandall had a common bond: Vandall’s father once owned a nightclub, as Topp did for a few years.

Hardly missing a snip of his scissors, Topp bantered with Vandall as well as Union employees passing by his door. He greeted an electrician and told him with enthusiasm, “It’s a great day to be alive.”

Haircut done, Topp deposited the $4.50 he charged Vandall in a cash register of 1942 vintage sitting on a display case from the 1930s that features a 50-year-old bottle of Glover’s Sarcoptic Mange medicine. “It seemed to curtail the dandruff of one of my customers,” Topp explained.


Union barber Bus Topp gets few requests these days for what he calls “one of the greatest things there is: a barbershop shave.” For $4, if you’re a man, he gives you a royal dermatological treatment, with positive psychological overtones.

First, Topp lathers you up to soften those bristly stubs. Then he wraps your head in a steaming hot towel for a minute, thoughtfully leaving you a breathing hole. With the towel off he spreads on more hot lather and strops his straight (as in non-safety) razor on a strip of horsehide hanging behind the chair. With the gleaming razor poised in his hand, he asks with a grin: “Do you bleed easily?”

Not to worry, Bus proceeds to deftly, gently shave away until your face is as slick as a toad’s belly. He massages cleaning cream into your pores and piles on another towel. For the bracing finale he rubs on a splash of bay rum that wakes you from your hot-towel reverie and makes your skin feel like fireworks look.

You step down from the chair, pay the modest tab, shake your barber’s hand and stride away with shoulders squared and a spring in your step, knowing Cary Grant never looked any better.

In these days of styling and perms and blow drying, Bus Topp still offers what he did in 1928 – good talk and a great shave.