Mel Shapiro, drycleaning innovator
Mel Shapiro, who with his brother, Phillip, created the innovative and legendary Al Phillips The Cleaner in Las Vegas, NV, died Aug. 26. He was 83 years old at the time of his death.
After the war, Mel and Philip moved west to build a business. After much searching, they settled on buying a small, single drycleaners that was for sale in Las Vegas called Al Phillips The Cleaner. Buying the store left them “tapped out,” Mel later recalled with not even enough money to change the sign, so it remained Al Phillips The Cleaner.
Although short of funds, they had plenty of ideas and were willing to work 16-hour days, six days a week to build the business.
Two of their innovative ideas — drive-thru car-hop service and staying open 24 hours a day, seven days a week — helped their business become the dominant cleaners in Las Vegas and perhaps the busiest in the world.
The plant was patronized by celebrities, Jimmy Durante, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Buddy Hackett, Sonny King and Elvis among them. Some became guests for their TV commercials, but the star of those commercials was Mel himself where he put his stand-up comedy background to work.
He became a local celebrity for those commercials with his catchphrase “How do we do it all?” The commercials featured him and brother (often with their pants off) with various Las Vegas celebrities. The two brothers would walk through the plant discussing their low prices and great customer service.
Mel would ask, “How do we do it all?”
“It’s easy when you know your business,” Phil responded.
The convenience of a drive thru along with same day service, tailoring, late hours and being open seven days a week was a winning combination. They not only made enough money to change the sign — while keeping the name — they were able to build design-award winning plants. Customers in the drive-through lanes could see the production equipment through the windows. The equipment itself followed the color scheme of the logo. Their high-rent locations were highly visible . It all paid off as Al Phillips the Cleaner came to dominate the Las Vegas market.
In 1984, the brothers sold the company to the Johnson Group but continued to run the operation. Eventually, the company grew to 14 stores and 300 employees in the Las Vegas Valley.
He was passionate about golf and a longtime member of the Las Vegas Country Club. He loved traveling, good food and his family, living by the saying, “it’s a great life if you have the courage to live it.”
He is survived by his wife, Florence, and three children, David Shapiro, Barbara Owens, and Daniel Shapiro; his daughter-in-law, Lisa Holt; his sister, Florence “Flo Biz” Sokoloff; his grandchildren, Molly and Oliver Owens; his brother and sister-in–law, Patrick and Tricia Leibovici; many nieces and nephews, great-nieces and great-nephews. Phillip died in 1999. He was also preceded in death by another brother, Milton, and his parents, Abraham and Ethel Shapiro.
The family requests memorial contributions to the Cleveland Clinic in Las Vegas, made payable to: “Keep Memory Alive” and note “In memory of Mel Shapiro.”
Harry A. Cissel, Jr., VP at Amato
Harry A. Cissel Jr., vice president of sales at Amato Industries in Silver Spring, MD, from 1972 until his retirement in 2007, died of congestive heart failure at an assisted living facility in Williamsburg, VA. He was 84.
He was born in Columbia, S.C., and raised in Silver Spring, where he was a 1946 graduate of Montgomery Blair High School. After graduation, he served two years in the Marine Corps.
Earlier in his career, he worked in sales at Morris & Eckels and Manhattan Laundry, drycleaning supply firms that had operated in the District of Columbia.
He was past president of the MidAtlantic Association of Cleaners (MAC) and lived in Silver Spring before settling in Williamsburg in 2008.
In 2011, he received the Best of MAC Award for his many years of service to drycleaners in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia.
“He was the first person to call when you had a problem,” said Richard Ehrenreich, who was the MAC executive director at the time. He recalled a time when he had drycleaned a horse blanket and ended up with 600 pounds of customer garments that smelled of horse urine.
“Harry came ‘red lights and siren’ down to my plant and helped us to save the day!” Ehrenreich said. “He was always ready, willing and able to assist any drycleaner in trouble.”
His wife of 55 years, Patricia DeAgro Cissel, died in 2005. Survivors include three children, Debbie Barolet of Bethany Beach, DE, Laurie Padgett of Williamsburg, VA, and Richard Cissel of Grand Ledge, MI; a sister, Joyce Shegogue of Cambridge, MD; eight grandchildren; and two great-grandsons.