Business Still Hair After All These Years

Times Staff Writer

Seventy-five years later, the oldest business in Westwood Village is still on the cutting edge.

Its old acoustic-tile ceiling has given way to an industrial, exposed-duct look. Its ancient Formica-topped cabinets have been resurfaced with sleek new laminate. Its staff has learned to shape the latest spiky “deconstructed” styles.

At Oakley’s Barber Shop, they’ve hung on by shear determination.

In its early days, the shop was popular with movie stars and other celebrities living in Brentwood and other nearby upscale neighborhoods. Regulars included Humphrey Bogart, Gary Cooper, Bing Crosby and Red Skelton.


George Temple, a Santa Monica banker, would sometimes have his starlet daughter Shirley balanced on one knee as he sat in an Oakley’s chair for his biweekly trim.

Later, the shop survived some close shaves of its own. During the longhaired 1960s, customers were few and far between. A gang violence scare in the ‘80s shooed away shoppers, and rival retail areas lured them away during the ‘90s.

But now Larry Oakley is convinced that Westwood is starting to sprout like a bald head soaked in Rogaine. And as the area rebounds, his Gayley Avenue shop is again ready to even-up the sides and take a little off the top.

“Between 1965 and 1975, I went from seven barbers down to two. I had 10 years of no business. I could barely pay the rent,” Oakley said of the era when UCLA students’ hair was long and the intervals between their barbershop visits were even longer.

“The businessmen here in Westwood -- a lot of them USC graduates -- were the ones coming in for haircuts. They supported me when I was going down the tubes. So I keep a USC plaque on the wall by the front door, right next to the one for UCLA. I get a lot of harassment for that.”

Oakley is quick to explain to those sitting in his chrome barber chairs how UCLA is responsible for the barbershop being in Westwood in the first place.


Oakley’s uncle cut hair in the 1920s on Vermont Avenue, across from UCLA’s original campus. Westwood Village developer Edwin Janss, whose company had offered cheap land for the new university site, noticed how UCLA students and faculty members packed Bert Oakley’s shop. “He said, ‘Bert, we’re opening a big shopping center at UCLA. You move your shop over there and we’ll give you six months of free rent.’ He wanted to attract people from the school to the shopping area.”

Oakley’s Barber Shop moved in 1929 to Janss’ eye-catching dome building on Westwood Boulevard. The next year Bert Oakley sent for his brother James, who was cutting hair in Utah. James Oakley packed up his family -- including 3-year-old Larry -- and headed west.

The Oakley brothers moved to a larger shop on Broxton Avenue in 1946, and Larry Oakley began cutting hair there two years later. The Gayley Avenue shop opened in 1957.

One of Larry Oakley’s first customers turned out to be his most famous one.

“I cut Howard Hughes’ hair almost until he died. I was the new guy in the back the first time he walked in, so they sent him back to me. He was in paint-spattered work clothes, kind of like a bum,” Oakley said. It didn’t take long, though, to discover that the dark-haired, mustachioed customer was one of the richest men in the world. “He’d give me $20 for a $1 haircut,” Oakley said, still marveling at the moment.

The eccentric aircraft company owner, who had an aversion to germs, also tipped the shop’s janitor lavishly. “He’d dab himself with one paper towel at a time and then drop it on the floor when he washed his hands back in the bathroom. There would be dozens of them lying there. He’d apologize to the porter for leaving a mess and give him $20,” Oakley said.

Tennis great Jack Kramer, who has been coming in for 55 years, is Oakley’s longest-running customer. Oakley has cut retired UCLA psychology professor Andrew Comrey’s hair for 35 years. “Larry’s a people person. He talks to everyone. He’s got good jokes and some good magazines to read if you have to wait,” said Comrey, 81, of Brentwood. “This is a family-style, old-style barbershop.”


But it stays up-to-date on hairstyles, said recent UCLA graduate Zack Mathews, a 22-year-old musician. Oakley and other barbers in the shop handle it perfectly when he changes his hair’s look. “It’s kind of like jazz musicians improvising,” Mathews said.

Oakley admits to being disappointed that his son and daughter did not become barbers. “I can understand. Barbering is very physical. You have your arms up like this all day long,” he said, holding them around an imaginary head.

So at 77 he is slowly phasing out, cutting the hair of his longtime regulars on Fridays and Saturdays only. Veteran shop stylist Clinton Schudy will eventually take over the shop’s dozen antique chairs, its two spinning barber poles and its tiny tonsorial museum.

A glass case near the front of the shop is filled with vintage shaving brushes and straight razors, ancient hair tonic bottles and the “singe tape” used in the old days to burn off uneven ends of hair for a smooth haircut.

A 1960 price list on display shows that haircuts back then were $2.50. These days they’re $18, although students can get a trim for $12.

By linking barbering’s past with its present, Oakley is grooming Schudy for the job.