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Valley institution cuts out

Jack Morlett operated a barbershop for 48 years and loved it. But now the time has come, he says, to move on.

December 30, 2007|Scott Gold | Times Staff Writer

The walnut groves and dirt roads have long since given up the ghost, as Van Nuys has become the bustling epicenter of a San Fernando Valley now home to nearly 2 million people. At the gritty strip mall below Sherman Way, the faces, the restaurants, the shops, they've all come and gone, several times over.

"Except Jack," said Don Schultz, a 71-year-old retiree who has lived in the area for 32 years. "There's always been Jack."

Jack Morlett has been cutting hair for 48 years, the last 38 of them at the same little storefront off Sepulveda Boulevard, its front window decorated with a timeworn neon sign depicting a pair of snipping shears. Saturday, he finished the last of 200,000 haircuts, give or take, and called it quits, hanging up his clippers for good at 73.

"It's time," he said during a quick break. "My hands are still strong. I love the people; I've always loved working with the people. But I'm tired."

On Monday morning, Jack's Beauty Salon & Barber Shop will open as usual; Morlett sold the business a couple of years back as he began laying the groundwork for his retirement.

The name won't change, at least for now.

But the man himself -- his thick glasses, his walrus mustache, the white mane of hair he seemed to brush as often as he brushed anyone else's -- will be missing.

An institution, in a community where history is defined more by transience than anything else, will fade away.

"It's never going to be the same," said Grazi DeFonte, 61, who has worked alongside Morlett for 20 years, putting her third in line behind two who have worked for him longer.

DeFonte spoke in a pitched voice so she could be heard over the sound of her hair dryer; a bumper sticker at her work station said: "I'm a beautician, not a magician."

"Everyone here knows him," DeFonte said. "He's a great boss. He's a great barber. He's going to be missed."

Morlett was the second of eight children born to a brick mason and a homemaker in Van Nuys; he still lives in the house his father bought south of Victory Boulevard in 1947 for $7,000.

After graduating from Van Nuys High School, he found work as a refrigeration repairman, but the chemicals made him sick. Needing a new line of work, he opened his first shop, near Van Nuys Airport, in 1960.

He moved into a larger space in 1970, then expanded again 20 years ago, adding a beauty salon to what had long been an old-fashioned barbershop, though he never did start cutting or styling women's hair himself.

At the height of business, three years ago or so, there were 14 operators, including a manicurist, working for him.

There is at least one evident way to chart the march of time since Morlett first hung his shingle. Norm Chernin, 61, a title company lawyer and a customer for 25 years, demonstrated by taking off his baseball cap before his cut Saturday to reveal a thinning head of hair.

"The choices are more limited than they once were," he said with a smile.

In the beginning, Morlett said, customers could choose between three cuts: short, medium and flattop. "Now, everybody wants something different," he said.

The price of Morlett's haircuts has gone from $1.25 for a regular cut in 1960 -- $1.75 for a flattop -- to $13 for a regular men's cut today. But his rent has risen at a faster pace, going from $175 per month in 1960 to $2,200 per month today.

There have been a few celebrity customers over the years. John Wooden, the legendary UCLA basketball coach, is a regular.

Then there was the time that John Holmes went in for a cut.

A woman who was waiting to have her hair done learned that Holmes was in the entertainment industry and asked him if he could help her daughter catch a break in show business.

She had no way of knowing that Holmes was one of the biggest stars in one of the Valley's thriving industries: pornography.

Morlett and his regulars had a good laugh Saturday at that one and a hundred other stories. Each customer stopped to thank him and wish him well on the way out.

"Good luck to you, brother," said Mohamed Marhaba, 40, a police officer who has been a customer for 10 years, continuing to drive to the shop even after moving from Van Nuys to Reseda. "It's been a pleasure."

Customers should not despair entirely.

Vic Lopez, whom Morlett hired 40 years ago and who has worked alongside him ever since, has no plans to step down any time soon.

"I'm the kid," said Lopez, 70. "I'm going to stick it out for a few more years."

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scott.gold@latimes.com

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