The House of Cottrell (Part I)

The untold story of bitterness and betrayal in black Dallas' royal family

The jerry curl is dead.
Once the royal crown of black hair styles, coveted by men and women alike, the curl is now a dinosaur, found mostly in rural outposts of the South.

A combination of chemicals in a clear gel base, the curl was an innovative perm that transformed the tightly woven kinks of natural Negroid hair into lilting, falling curls. Back in the '70s--the age of the Afro and hot combs--the curl kit revolutionized black hair care.

If you had a curl, you had it going on. Michael Jackson wore one. Football players sported them. Scores of musicians--including Lionel Richie, Rick James, and Freddie Jackson--flaunted them on stage.

Everybody wanted one.
The problem? The curl's perming process was thought to be so complicated that you could only get it done in beauty and barber shops, and beauticians charged heavily for the toils of providing it: $200-$300. Add in the cost of maintaining a curl, which meant applying a bevy of oils and sprays every day, and the jerry curl remained out of most people's reach.

Then two brothers named Comer and Jim Cottrell made a simple discovery that led to a stunning opportunity. The brothers, originally from Mobile, Alabama, owned the fledgling Pro-Line Corp. in Los Angeles, which manufactured hair-care products--most notably an oil sheen--for black consumers.

"I sold products to a woman--a beautician--who made a lot of money putting the curl in people's hair, and she was no genius," Jim Cottrell remembers. "I thought if she could do it, anybody could do it."

"We looked at the curl process," says Comer Cottrell, now Pro-Line's chief executive officer, "and saw it really was a simple process, and people could do it themselves. It was no secret."

The brothers hired a chemist and, after months of experimentation, introduced in 1979 a do-it-yourself product, the Curly Kit.

There had never been a product quite like it. The company, which would soon relocate to Dallas, couldn't keep up with demand. The kits, which Pro-Line priced at $8, were whisked off the shelves as soon as they arrived, and the Cottrell brothers became instant multimillionaires.

The new mass-marketed kit forced beauticians to drastically cut their prices for a curl to about $35. Other companies hastened to provide their own version of the Curly Kit. One company introduced the Jeri Curl, and the hairdo became known generically on the street as the "jerry curl." Everywhere you turned, someone was wearing one.

Its popularity eventually faded, however. Michael Jackson's hair, gleaming with the oils and chemicals needed to maintain a curl, caught fire while he was filming a video. Then Eddie Murphy's Coming to America parodied the hairdo. And eventually, black athletes embraced the bald look.

"All of that helped to destroy the curl," Comer Cottrell recalls.
Soon, in many black communities, particularly in large urban areas, the curl became synonymous with a lack of sophistication. Folks refused to wear it. Sales of curl kits dropped so drastically in the late 1980s that most companies simply stopped making them. Pro-Line continued to sell a few kits to retailers, mostly out of a sense of obligation to consumers in the South who still liked it.

"We were the first, and we are the last," Comer Cottrell says.
Now the company relies more and more on its other products--relaxers, sheens, and hair dressings--but it was the Curly Kit that put Pro-Line and the Cottrells on the map. Without the jerry curl, Comer Cottrell would not be who he is today, and he knows it.

The jerry curl is dead. Long live the jerry curl.

What a difference a score makes. Twenty years ago, Comer Cottrell had it made, and it looked so easy. He was making loads of money, building a corporation that would revolutionize the black hair-care market in the United States. Pro-Line, based in Dallas since 1980, would become synonymous with community involvement; few black-owned companies would achieve such a high public profile.

The son of a kindhearted Alabama washerwoman, Comer was the epitome of the hometown boy who makes good--and remembers his roots. His partnership with his brother Jim made Pro-Line a family affair. The Cottrell boys, self-made millionaires, were heroes in the black Catholic neighborhoods that dot the southern side of Mobile.

A generous, proud man, Comer seemed the consummate business opportunist, compiling a list of firsts as long as an arm. He became the first black to acquire an ownership interest in the Texas Rangers, and he was embraced by Dallas' all-white business community--even gaining entrance into the city's high society. He became the first African-American to sit on the board of a bank in Dallas, the first to sit on the board of the powerful and exclusive Dallas Citizens Council. He hobnobs with the rich, famous, and powerful all over the world, and counts Texas Gov. George W. Bush and the Rev. Jesse Jackson--as well as celebrities Barry White and Melvin Van Peebles--among his intimate friends.

He helped build Pro-Line into the largest black-owned manufacturer in the Southwest, and the third largest manufacturer of ethnic beauty aids in the country. A pioneer in many ways, he politely nudged open doors for other blacks and gave Dallas one of its first victories in declaring itself a business town open to minorities.

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