John “the Barber” Valente Jr., proud son of John “the Barber” Valente Sr., was down in Margate on Monday morning when the call came.
It was Bobby Rydell. The crooner was in a bind, with a bum leg and a pompadour in bad need of a trim.
Rydell and Valente have known each other since they were in high school, when Valente was just starting out in his dad’s barbershop off 13th and Wharton, and Rydell was just starting out as a teen idol.
This was back in the heyday of South Philadelphia’s nightclub scene, when the big bands and the tenors took the stage at Palumbo’s, and John Sr. played trumpet and cut hair in the dressing rooms. Back then, Jimmy Durante held court in the back room of the barbershop, the same room Rydell would sneak through when the neighborhood girls out front started to swarm.
These days, Valente and Rydell and Carmen Dee, the old band leader from Palumbo’s, and other characters from the old scene have a standing date every Wednesday for a nice veal at Dante & Luigi’s. Valente booked his friend for a Monday haircut at his home. He’d take a trip to the burbs for Rydell — he makes an exception for him. But then, he makes exceptions for everyone.
“They’re not my customers,” he says. “They’re my friends.”
Valente has been making friends at his barbershop since the 1950s, when he started there with his father, who was the barber to the stars. Or at least the stars of South Philadelphia. Eddie Fisher and Frankie Avalon, Joey Bishop and Al Martino. Assorted Phillies. Police commissioners.
“Judges, lawyers, doctors, the Boys,” Valente said. “You know who I mean by the Boys.”
I figured, given the era, that I did. The kind of clients who didn’t want their photos on Valente’s wall of famous customers. The kind of guys who don’t go to Dante & Luigi’s for the meal. In other words: The kind of guys who were in the mob.
“They were gentlemen,” Valente said. “In here.”
He is demure about the rest. Any good barber is part confessor.
The past is present in his shop. Valente, 76, who speaks and moves like a performer, works among ghosts: His father, John Sr., who came to America at 16, chief among them. He came over with his older brother Rocco — who became Rocky Valentine, a famous band leader. They had their first meal in America at Dante & Luigi’s. (I don’t know if they tried the veal.)
John Sr. selected the spot because he liked the view of Columbus Square. He played at the big clubs on the side and had a spot in Durante’s orchestra whenever he came through town. He played his trumpet in the smoke-filled barbershop — his favorite Tommy Dorsey song, “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You” — while his wife, Laura, cooked feasts of sausage and peppers in the kitchen.
“A little man bigger than life,” the papers wrote when he died at age 72 in 1981.
John Jr. was a barber by the time he finished high school. He made a life in the little shop. He has no plans to retire.
“I love my business. I love my people,” he said. “And I’m single, so what the hell.”
Many of the stars on Valente’s wall are gone. He keeps a list of clients who have died in the last quarter-century. He writes the names down on slips of paper that he keeps in the cabinet near his clipper and the photos of his father. There are hundreds. “They’re my friends,” he repeats, “not my customers.”
And the shop hangs on — in fact, it thrives. The neighborhood, and even his view of Columbus Square from the barbershop window, is changing. And Valente embraces it — like so many of the old-school store owners from around my neighborhood, who are by this point paying my salary with the columns I’ve written about them.
No one has to sneak out the back door anymore. But new and old are still streaming through. John had to hire a new barber, Stacy DiDonato, who’s wanted to work there since her father got his hair cut in John’s chair.
“Stacy does the millennials,” John clarified.
The shop was bustling Tuesday. John was at work on an Augustinian priest from St. Rita’s, newly arrived from Chicago, who was taken with the neighborhood vibe. Father Robert Guessetto said he came for the tales of the neighborhood, for the back and forth he hears from John and the regulars.
“Plus,” the priest said, “he cuts Bobby Rydell’s hair. So I’m in good stead.”