The Barber of Tarzana

Gregory Orfalea and his wife, Eileen, have three sons who recently hadtheir first Luigi experience and will never forget it

Who is one of the longest-operating barbers in California?

Who once cut Al Jolson's hair?

Who had his barbershop rammed by an arsonist?

Who has been trying to make me stylish for 37 years without success? ("You're not getting any younger. It's time to comb it forward. The Nero look!")

His name is Luigi Venti, 79, of Venti's Elite Barbers in Tarzana. Elite, because when you go under the Venti blade, you become part of a fraternity that stretches back to 1939, the year Luigi--also known as Louie--graduated from barber college, the youngest registered haircutter in Los Angeles. He was 17 years old. The Elite fraternity ranges from actor Harrison Ford to Olympic champion diver Dr. Sammy Lee, who long ago delivered me into the world at St. Vincent's Hospital. It includes anyone who needed to sharpen up, at risk of bloodletting, in the vicinity of the Los Angeles Convention Center (1939-1941), Wilshire and Robertson boulevards (1942-1945), Burton Way and Doheny Drive (1946 to 1962) and Ventura Boulevard and Corbin Avenue (1963 to present).

And it includes my hero, Bud Abbott. One day, when I was a 12-year-old riding a lime-green Schwinn down a phalanx of palms on Oakdale Street in Tarzana, I caught sight of him watering his modest lawn at Redwing Street. Luigi had told me "the great Abbott" lived there, and I always slowed, hoping to see him. That time, I lucked out. Abbott was in a bathrobe, holding the nozzleless, drooping hose like a defanged snake. The "lecturer," Abbott's definition of the comic straight man, looked up. I waved. Bud waved. The nozzle wobbled a little.

I pedaled furiously to the barbershop, where I announced my sighting. Naturally, Luigi was pleased. Did I see the sign, "Hi Neighbor!" on his mailbox? (No, I hadn't.) Well, that was all right. Next time.

Early on, Luigi developed a unique way to cut hair, a process he called "the four-phase system." In Phase One the customer would receive a basic trim, a cleanup of the neck. In Phase Two Louie would begin to cut hair, exposing the ears somewhat, taking about an inch off the top. In Phase Three he would take the straight razor around the ears, producing an arc of flesh. And then came Phase Four. Total butchery. It was in the height of his ecstasy at Phase Four that Louie was known to reveal scalp. A head under the Venti hand at Phase Four had to be ready for anything. It was his Ninth, his Pieta, his "Remembrance of Things Past." Luigi could make a head at Phase Four resemble Dresden after the firebombing. Not a hair on the head remained more than a millimeter long.

For years Louie tried to persuade me to beg off Phase Four. Wouldn't I prefer an Ivy League cut, or the fullness of the Madison Avenue blow-dry? I knew what he was trying to do--avoid the ultimate pain of creating one's best. It's possible, too, he had had it with the wrath of my mother.

My mother spread bad word over Louie. She liked me with short hair, mind you, but Phase Four?

Even when I let my hair grow long for a time in college, I eventually sought out Louie for my traditional Phase Four, a rebellion against the rebellion. "Why are you still going to him?" my mother would croak.

"Why does the Earth orbit the sun? Why do swallows come back to Capistrano? Louie learned the normal cut at barber college. He was done with that early." She would throw her hands up and say that I was crazy. (Now, flying in from the East for family and a cut, I no longer get her frowns when I mention Louie's name. Now my head is Phase Four.)

Luigi could cut me with hedging shears for all I cared. I wanted to hear him play the mandolin or accordion in his shop. I wanted an update on Bud Abbott. I wanted the Mafia jokes, the one-liners coming fast and furious with the whole barbershop his stage, customers part of the act. Let the scissors do their worst as long as time was killed.

*

THE SHOP HASN'T CHANGED MUCH SINCE THE '60S. THERE'S NO chrome here or black lacquer basins; the place, once done up in faint combat green, is now off-white. Photos of Cagney, Sinatra, Wayne and Abbott adorn the top of the store-length mirror that reflects the customers sitting as if facing a firing squad. Bottles of every type of hair lotion populate the faux wood built-ins. Above the maestro hangs a faded framed print of a mandolin banjo and a guitar. Next to it is an old oil of Louie in his black-goggled eyeglass days (the '70s, no doubt). At one time the gold-colored Naugahyde barber chairs showed their stuffing.

There used to be five chairs at Venti's Elite Barbers: Luigi's, separated from the plebeians of the world behind a screen of rippled plastic, toward the back of the store; three empty chairs (a memorial to former customers?); and Don Rio's chair near the window.

For years Don Rio was "the other barber," the straight man to Louie's comic. He never seemed to be as busy as Louie and often sat in the swivel chair, curled into himself like a vulture, a sly smile resisting the pull of gravity. Don got all of the little kids; his cuts were reliable, no surprises. You can imagine my delight when, at 16, I was elevated to "first chair" behind the ripples.

The Godfather was another fixture in the shop around that time. He would remain nameless, never budging for a haircut, a watermelon-bulge over his belt, meaty hands clasped there, hair combed immaculately with water. He never read the movie magazines strewn on the end tables, never smoked, hardly blinked his eyes. I think Luigi would direct comments to him just to make sure he was alive. It was said that the Godfather had made some dough in the rag business stitching up jeans and swimsuits, and when he found out that my father was in the same business, I got the only nod the man gave in a year.

Years after the Godfather died, I quietly asked Louie why he'd left the rag business. Luigi said cryptically: "He threw someone down the steps."

Don Rio, too, is gone. His place today is taken by Paul Spira. One of the original five chairs has been given away. Two chairs near the window are absent. But Paul is now behind the screen in the once-exalted position (doing the sensitive dye and hairpiece work), and Luigi is on the other side, closer to the window. "I just got promoted," Louie says. "Right out the window."

*

JOHN WAYNE IMPERSONATOR ERMAL WILLIAMSON ENTERS the shop.

"How long have you come to Luigi?" I ask.

"About 25 years."

"Why?"

"I'm waiting for him to get it right."

"One thing about Erm, he's got lots of hair," says Louie, pointing with a comb to a thick white mane. "I used to use a certain hair tonic on him. Now I clean up his neck, take the curls out--the John Wayne special."

"Wayne was bald," cracks Erm. "From 1949 on, he wore a hairpiece."

"Louie," I query, "did you ever do any real Western stars? No offense, Erm."

"I did Jay Silverheels."

"Who?"

"Tonto. I told him, 'Now I'm gonna scalp you.' "

Luigi Venti was born in 1922 above his father's barbershop across from the L.A. Convention Center "by midwife, for $5. My dad took one look at me and wanted his money back."

"My father was a producer," Louie hums along, stropping the razor. "He had 15 kids with two wives. The first wife died, leaving him with four children. The second wife, my mother, had 11 kids. I have a half brother and three half sisters."

Erm: "I had a half sister. The other half was my brother."

Now it's Erm's turn in the chair. His wife, Betty, watches the whole show for free.

"You don't even give me the mirror anymore."

"I'll give ya a mirror when I get done with ya. Say, are you picking me up this evening?"

"Why, are you going to fall down?"

This goes on until Louie slaps the lilac vegetal on Erm's neck, pointing him, sadly, in the direction of Time.

*

A FEW DAYS LATER, SIGNATURE BERET doffed to expose his turtle-like baldness, Luigi takes me next door for a cup of coffee and a letting down of what little hair remains to us both.

"My grandfather worked for peanuts, pennies, as a stonemason in a quarry. Barbering not only made my father more money, it was a way to keep your hands clean. Then he heard about 'beautiful America.' In 1913, he left Palermo on a boat to New York, which was too cold. Chicago was too windy. But California? 'Ah, that's nice. That's like Sicily.' "

Luigi worshiped his father, who taught him to play the mandolin, violin and accordion. He learned how to strop and use the straight razor "the proper way," and how to singe hair with a candle to stop the breakage of ends.

Though Louie was restless as a boy--in love with music that came from his father's shop, happy to spend half of his school career not in class but in choir--he praises his father's hard-working example. "None of my brothers were ever drunks or touched narcotics. My father didn't care what we made or did. He wanted honesty."

In seventh grade, he met Barbara Armiles-Dominguez. He carried her books for her; he walked her back home on Sundays from St. Vincent's at Adams and Figueroa. "We did a lot of walking together," he says, and his eyes still shine after 60 years of marriage. Louie and Barbara danced on the brink of war to Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Henry Busse and the Dorsey Brothers. He proposed to her while sitting in his father's 1933 black Buick.

After barber college, Luigi worked in his father's shop for a time and then joined Lloyd's barbershop at Wilshire and Robertson. Cuts were 50 cents apiece.

At Lloyd's, and later at Kenny Robert's shop, he cut them all, and cut up with them. There was Andre Previn ("young, good looking, very quiet, decent, particular in dress"); Herb Ellis (Merv Griffin's guitarist); Primo Carnera, the boxer ("very punchy in the chair"); Clete Roberts, the newscaster ("he took me flying, he saw holes in Stalin's stockings"); Sen. James Roosevelt; Donald O'Connor ("he used to like my daughter"); Louis B. Mayer ("very businesslike, always had a lot of people around, his chauffeur was a bodyguard. I was told not to talk to Mr. Mayer about his films"); Al Jolson. In 1942, a skinny Frank Sinatra came in for a shine and a cut: "He was getting diction lessons across the street to get rid of his Hoboken accent--the same place Rita Hayworth went to get rid of her Spanish accent." Many stars brought their children. Louie gave Tony Thomas (Danny's son) his first butch haircut. He clipped Ed Begley Jr., Desi Arnaz Jr., Michael Reagan. He even counts a few true-blue Mafia men among those whose ears he has lowered--Mickey Cohen and Bugsy Siegel. "Whenever one of them got clipped and left, a detective would come in and ask me what the guy said."

Louie opened Venti's Elite Barbers in 1963 in Tarzana. He has survived recessions, long hair, the Vietnam War, even maniacal customers. In 1993, after giving refuge to barbers whose shops had been set afire by an irate teenager, his own store was damaged three nights in a row when a truck, driven by the same kid, rammed through the front glass. (The kid eventually did some time; the fire at one of the other shops spread through an entire shopping center and caused $3.5 million in damage.)

"I've been more careful cutting since then," Louie smiles wanly.

He has a special affection for musicians and still cuts the hair of guitarist Roc Hillman, a former member of Tommy Dorsey's original band. Though Louie finds in music "the international language," he dismisses today's offerings, particularly rap, as "a narcotic chant": "Rap disturbs the mind. They're all gonna be deaf."

Which leads him to his chief concern: violence. "Here you have to pass a test to get a driver's license," he says. "How about with a gun? I hate to say it--bring back the death penalty. Show executions on TV. The best sermon is example. You can talk all you want, but people will be too scared to hurt others if they see someone hung. Look what we have here. Charles Manson gets fed three times a day. He [orchestrated the killing of] the best hairstylist in the United States, Jay Sebring. He's not working. I am! Crime and no punishment.

"In the Army, you work in line. In church, you're in line. We're not in line. The mental attitude of our youth? God help us if there's a war. They'll be shooting each other. If they do it here, imagine what they'll do there!"

And what about the lessons of barbering?

"I learned everybody is the same. It's the avenues that come out of our lives that change people. I remember happy people as children. Then they come back . . . ." His voice trails off, unwilling, perhaps, to acknowledge the dead ends of adulthood. "People are born equally. But when they grow up, some of them have too many humps in the road."

I have known for a long time that I come to Luigi Venti for more than what his scissors do. There is his unfailing humor, certainly, but also a certain sound mindedness, and, for all the stars, a rare equanimity and fellowship. Louie could be talking about a fellow Crespi High School graduate of mine, or Al Jolson, and it's all the same. Everyone has hair, everyone loses hair.

I give him what I find in him--respect for the backdrop that defines the lights, the night sky that Bud Abbott once was for Costello's star shower. The setup man. The barber of the neck the beautiful girl will surround with her creamed hand.

He knows it's time to go and, almost on cue, time to speak one last time of Bud Abbott.

"Once, when he was sick, my wife and I drove to his house to give him his cut," Louie recalls, looking out his window at encroaching buildings. "He asked my wife to come sit next to him while I trimmed away. He was watching something on TV. It was an Abbott and Costello movie, 'Buck Privates.' And as we watched he grew a little astonished as he watched himself driving a car. 'I never drove a car in my life,' Abbott said to me. 'I had epilepsy. But they made me drive the car down a hill. The cameraman ran like he was going to be killed!' "

"What did he tell you about Lou Costello?" I asked.

"Oh, no. [The man who] introduced me to Bud told me, 'Don't talk about Lou. Since Lou died, [Bud] ain't nobody. He laid an egg in every show he did. He was actually mad at Lou Costello for dying!'

"To be honest, Bud Abbott had [little] money when he died. I had to drive him to the bank once to pull out some of his residuals. He gambled, and the government took all his dough in taxes." Luigi pauses. "Look, if they ever looked at me, at any of us, for taxes the way they looked at him . . . ." Here he lifts his wrists as if he could be led away.

I tip Luigi outrageously and he smiles, presenting me once more with his signature plastic flat brush that loops on the index finger. It works and, like Louie, it's found nowhere else. He loads me up with baseball cards "for the boys."

Thus we are joined, wordsmith and hairsmith. We're at war with time still, admirers of the Great Abbott in a world gone mad for power, money and fame. In his store we have all been straight men to Luigi's sainted harlequin. But in the world at large, it is different. In a better world, perhaps, a world of propriety and properness, Louie and I would be the clowns. But in this one, where madness is the norm, we are the straight men, the "lecturers," Bud's cherished "Neighbor!" to all errant shooting stars.

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