Sammy Davis Jr.’s pair has his name sculpted in rolled gold script on the earpieces and cost $300. Sly of the Family Stones likes gold, too, but the bridge is adorned with the symbol of Islam. So far, Elton John has spent $25,000 on a dazzling spectrum ranging from simple rhinestone-encrusted star shapes to a $5,000 extravaganza that spells out his name in 57 battery-operated blinking mini-bulbs.
Whether they suffer from severe myopia or merely a mild sensitivity to sunlight, Dennis Roberts’ customers can eyeball the snazziest spectacles money can buy. As founder and operator of Los Angeles’ seven-year-old Optique Boutique chain, Roberts, 28, is credited by fellow opticians with making the style of a man’s glasses almost as important to his image as the cut of his safari suit. Aside from fitting glasses to the shape of a client’s face, about the only personalizing an optician traditionally bothered to suggest was frame colors (usually neutral) to harmonize with skin tone. But, says Roberts, “nobody took the time to ask, ‘What do you do?’ ‘What do you like?’ ‘What image do you want to project?’ Someone with a $20 haircut who puts himself in a $400 suit and a $10,000 car,” he adds, “shouldn’t ignore what’s sitting in front of his eyes everyday.”
The son of a Beverly Hills surgeon, the nearsighted Roberts was himself fitted with his first pair of glasses at age 3. He still remembers “those awful trips to the optician’s office with the desks and Venetian blinds. They’d start opening drawers, pulling out frames, and you were always left feeling you hadn’t seen everything they had.”
It didn’t occur to Roberts that he might change all that until 1965 when he enrolled in Woodbury College, a Los Angeles business school, and took a job at a nearby optical lab to earn spending money. There he learned to grind lenses, build up inventory, set up new stores and then supervise them—all at a salary of $80 per week.
Roberts quit in 1968 to go it alone. Shunning the typical locale—in or near a medical building—he set up shop on trendy Sunset Strip. He started with a $6,000 bank loan and sold his motorcycle to buy a lens grinding machine. Today, Roberts’ eight Optique Boutiques (five in the Los Angeles area and one each in Las Vegas, San Francisco and Scottsdale, Ariz.) gross well over $1 million annually. Says bachelor Roberts, who drives a Rolls, flies his own plane and owns houses in Beverly Hills, Las Vegas and Palm Springs: “There hasn’t been a down in seven years.”
There isn’t likely to be. This year Roberts will open four more stores in L.A. and San Francisco, and four others (the locations are Roberts’ secret) are planned for early next year. He refuses to get into the lucrative contact lens business because he thinks they are potentially dangerous “foreign objects in the eye.” (Many doctors, of course, disagree.)
Celebrities account for only 2 percent of his total business, but to Roberts, who relies on word of mouth instead of doctors’ referrals, a bespectacled star is a walking advertisement. Who could not be impressed by Elvis Presley’s gold aviator glasses with “EP” on the bridge and lightning bolts at the temples? Elton John is a veritable catalogue of bizarre styles: his newest pair is made of ivory with tiny piano keyboards circling each lens. Many of Roberts’ famous customers seek merely a dash of style—Valerie Harper’s pink-tinted rectangular lenses, Peter Sellers’ hand-tooled gold Zeiss frames, James Garner’s large metal-framed goggles and James Mason’s monocle. Roberts has also become a sort of Edith Head for the eyes, supplying “optical attire” when film or TV roles call for cheaters, such as the three leads in Mod Squad.
Viewing the spectacle revolution he has fomented, Roberts chuckles, “Suddenly all my competitors are taking down their Venetian blinds.”