Barber Mariano Venticinque Finds the American Dream

American Dreamer

Mariano Venticinque left Sicily in pursuit of the American Dream more than 100 years ago. Barbering helped make that dream come true.

After hearing tales of “beautiful America,” Mariano Venticinque left Calascibetta, the village in Sicily where he grew up, for New York
in 1905. When he arrived he found work as a barber. The going rate for a haircut was 10 cents; a shave cost a nickel. His brother Basil was the next to emigrate, and he spent the next several decades helping Mariano raise a family, which grew to include 15 children—four from his first marriage to Pietrina, who he met and married in Chicago, and 11 from his second marriage to Josephine, a girl willing to cross an ocean, just like he had, from the same small village in Sicily where he’d grown up.

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John Venti, 74, is Mariano’s youngest son. His brother Frankie is 77, and Luigi (his family calls him Louie) is 93. Originally there were nine sons; now just three are left. Mariano opened a barbershop, The White Sanitary, on Pico and Union in downtown Los Angeles. “Now you’ve got the Staples Center and the Convention Center down there,” John says. When Pietrina died suddenly in 1918, Mariano wrote to his parents to ask them to come to the United States and bring someone to help him raise his four small children. The way John tells it, his grandmother knocked on almost every door in Calascibetta. “At one house there were four daughters,” he says. “One of them raised her hand and said, ‘I’ll go to America.’ That was my mother.” The three of them boarded a ship, which took them to Ellis Island. From there they made their way to Los Angeles by train. When Mariano met Josephine, says John, “There was a love spark there, and boom, she raised those four children and 11 of their own.”

Music was important in the Venti family. Both Mariano and Basil played the mandolin, but Basil also played guitar. “When he was young, long before he was famous, Rudolph Valentino used to bring his mandolin into the barbershop and play with them,” says John, whose half-brother Victor was also a talented musician and played upright bass in the Frankie Carle Band. Carle was a big-band leader remembered for Sunrise Serenade, which he wrote with Jack Lawrence. When he wasn’t touring, Victor cut hair at his father’s barbershop.

“Louie plays at least five instruments, including the accordion,” says John, who put an act together with his brother that includes material they “borrowed” from Henny Youngman, an American comedian and violinist whose routine consisted of one-liners like, “Take my wife … please.” Like Youngman’s wife Sadie, Luigi’s wife Barbara, who passed away three years ago, was often the butt of his jokes, yet she good-naturedly laughed along no matter how many times she’d heard his routine. “One of our jokes was me saying to Louie, ‘So, you were in love for 72 years,’ and Louie saying, ‘Yeah, but don’t tell my wife, she’ll kill me.’”

John remembers growing up near the barbershop in the shadow of the Los Angeles Herald, which was part of the Hearst syndicate. “They had a chute where the papers would come down,” he says. “My brothers and I used to go over there on weekends and slide down just like the papers.” Business was good at The White Sanitary (Mariano chose the name because it implied cleanliness) due to its close proximity to the newspaper and the streetcar barn across the street. Then in 1953, the family sold their house in downtown Los Angeles and moved to Alhambra near Pasadena. Basil, who had not only lived with his brother but also worked alongside him for most of his adult life, announced that he was moving to San Francisco, reasoning that Mariano’s sons were all grown up now and could finally support him. So at 61, Basil not only opened his own barbershop in a city nearly 400 miles away but also took a wife for the first time. Their marriage lasted until she died 20 years later. “My uncle sold his shop to the guy who owned the bar next door and moved back to live with us in Alhambra,” says John. Years later, John took Basil back to San Francisco to visit the old neighborhood. When they walked into the bar, sunlight was streaming down through a skylight, illuminating a barber chair that had been roped off. “It was my uncle’s chair,” says John. “The owner of the bar had saved it.”

Luigi, who got his barber’s license in 1939 when he was just 17, still cuts hair every two weeks in Tarzana. John picks him up and drops him off. “About a month ago he had 15 customers stacked up,” John says. “In his prime he could do up to 40 or 50 haircuts a day. He still holds the record for doing 87 haircuts in one day. I think it was Christmas Eve. I’ve seen him do a haircut in 10 minutes. His customers don’t mind because he talks so fast that they think they’ve been in his chair a lot longer.”

Long before anyone even thought to pair the words “celebrity” and “hairdresser,” Luigi and his brother Sammy were catering to a clientele that included some of the biggest names in Hollywood. Sammy owned the barbershop at the Lakeside Country Club in Toluca Lake (Bob Hope was a member) for 40 years. “He did a lot of movie stars, including Gene Autry, Andy Garcia and Joe Pesci,” says John. “Bob Hope brought four Presidents, including Nixon, in for haircuts.” John points out, irrespective of nothing, that Perry Como, a popular singer and television personality who came in as a guest of the club, was a barber before he became a singer.

While working at Paul’s barbershop in Beverly Hills, Luigi cultivated a celebrity clientele of his own. There were musicians like Henry Mancini, André Previn and surf rock guitarist Dick Dale, as well as genuine movie stars like Al Jolson, Bud Abbott, Harrison Ford and Nicolas Cage. He also remembers the mobster Bugsy Siegel coming into the shop and asking for a haircut. Even Ol’ Blue Eyes himself, Frank Sinatra, sat in Luigi’s chair. Through it all, Luigi was nonplussed. “Even the President of the United States has to take off his hat for a barber,” he used to say.

Today, the torch has been passed to Luke O’Connor, the only one of Mariano’s grandsons to go into the beauty business. He and his wife Rona own Lukaro Salon in Beverly Hills
where Rona is a colorist—her clients include Blake Lively and Debra Messing. Luke cuts hair in the salon but also does a lot of TV work. When he was a boy, Luke used to sweep the floors in his Uncle John’s barbershop. “He was the ring bearer at my wedding,” says John, whose sister Pietrina is Luke’s mother.

In 2001, Luigi was profiled by Gregory Orfalea in the Los Angeles Times Magazine. Luigi had been cutting Orfalea’s hair since he was a kid, and the writer went into great detail about Luigi’s unique “four-phase system.” In Phase One, the customer got a basic trim. In Phase Two, the ears were exposed and Luigi took about an inch off the top. Then in Phase Three, Luigi used a straight razor around the ears, “producing an arc of flesh.” Orfalea called Phase Four “total butchery.” You get the idea.

Admittedly, most of Luigi’s remaining customers are a lot older now, but then, so is he. “In one of our comedy routines, I ask Louie, ‘How do your haircuts come out these days?’” says John, “and Louie says, ‘I don’t know, I can’t see them.’” Somewhere Henny Youngman must be smiling. —Marianne Dougherty, editor in chief

 
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