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The Barber of Tarzana

Luigi Venti's Shop Recalls the Days When Men Were Men and the Word 'Highlights' Was Nowhere to Be Found

July 08, 2001|GREGORY ORFALEA | 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.

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