When I first shared Arthur Tavani’s fabulous mid-1960s photo album, there were local faces that every South Philadelphian recognized: Singers Bobby Rydell, Fabian and Al Martino; boxer Joey Giardello; comedian Guy Marks.
“So who’s the guy in the white coat standing next to your brother and Jerry Vale? A doctor? A dentist?” I asked Virginia Tavani Romano, Art’s sister.
“That’s John the Barber!” she immediately replied.
(From left: South Philadelphia nightlife writer Art Tavani, singer Jerry Vale, John the
Barber, and Phillies relief pitcher Jack Baldschun in John’s shop around 1964.)
“John the Barber!” shouted out a half-dozen people when I showed the photo at a library slide show.
“John the Barber!” dozens of other people agreed.
“You really need to visit his shop,” Virginia said. “It’s on South 13th Street, near Wharton.”
(John Valente’s fabled South Philadelphia Barber Shop at 1302 S. 13th Street –
where, trust me, there’s always a crowd.)
“He’s still cutting hair?” I croaked.
“No, his son owns it now.”
“What’s his name?”
(WAIT FOR IT….)
“Why, John the Barber,” she said.
(John the Barber, Jr. cuts the hair of longtime customer Pat DiPilla.)
So, on a fall day in 2014, I walked the four blocks from our home to see if John the Barber, Jr. could help me identify more of the hundreds of people in Art Tavani’s star-studded album.
I needn’t have wondered: The shop was covered with photos of famous customers – including the same photo of his dad I’d found in Art’s album.
(Barber/stylist Stacy DiDonato is reflected in the mirrors surrounding John’s shop.
A South Philadelphia neighbor, she has worked there for two years.)
JOHN THE BARBER, SR.
Born in 1909, John Valente, Sr. (yes, he does have a last name) emigrated from Pescara, Italy, at age 16 with his brother Rocco. Their dad had an apartment at 10th and Catharine Streets, and on their first night there he took his sons to Dante and Luigi’s restaurant, which still sits across the street.
Young John met the restaurant owner’s busboy brother that night, and they became lifelong friends. His name? Frank Palumbo, the future owner of famed Palumbo’s restaurant and nightclub.
(Yes, that’s the same photo I found in Art’s circa-1964 album at top left.
John, Jr.’s longtime friend Bobby Rydell inscribed the photo at center.)
A TRADITION BEGINS
John, Sr. opened his first barber shop in a rented space in 1932 and, by 1934, purchased the current shop – then a row house – for $3,500.
(John the Barber, Sr. stands at left in his new shop, circa 1934, in what had been a
row house living room. He and his family lived behind the shop.)
Over 80 years later, its original Art Deco mirrors and cabinets are instantly recognizable.
(John, Jr. and Stacy with customers Pat DiPilla and Nicholas DiDonato.
DiDonato is a lifelong customer – and Stacy’s dad.)
HAIRCUTS OF THE RICH & FAMOUS
But John, Sr. – whose brother Rocco became bandleader Rocky Valentine at Philadelphia’s Latin Casino nightclub – was more than an excellent barber: Around 6 p.m., he would slip into a tuxedo and play trumpet and trombone at legendary nightspots like Palumbo’s, the Latin Casino, and Sciolla’s Supper Club or on WPEN radio’s live music shows.
(Two very different heads of hair: John the Barber, Sr. with comedian
Jimmy Durante and singer Jerry Vale.)
Soon, visiting performers learned of John’s second career, and clambered for his hair-cutting services.
“He was a great musician and an even greater barber,” John, Jr. recalled.
And so a celebrity tradition was born.
(Continued on Thursday, March 17. Click here to read it….)