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150,000 haircuts: Vic Lala looks back at 50 years on LaSalle Street

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They're tearing down the building at 333 S. LaSalle, so the barbershop there is going to have to move. That's not an earth-shattering event, as even the shop's owner, Vic Lala, admits. It's just that there's been a barbershop on that block for well over 50 years. "Things change so much in the city, sometimes you just have to take note," says Lala. "In a few months most people won't even know this place is gone. But you'll still have some guys tell their kids, "I remember when there was a barbershop there."'

The J.R. Lala Barber Shop is fairly straightforward as barbershops go. It offers haircuts, beard trims, shaves, and manicures, but no perms or colorings. The radio's kept low, and it's tuned to an easy-listening station. The place is stocked with Sports Illustrated, Newsweek, and Playboy. And the employees avoid discussing politics.

There are six barbers (all men), one manicurist (a woman), a shoe-shine man, and Lala. He stopped cutting hair when he turned 75, seven years ago, but he still comes in every day and puts on his old green cutting jacket with Vic stenciled on the front. He sits in the back by Frances Martignetti, the manicurist, and lets the time pass.

"When I retired, I didn't enjoy myself for the simple reason I'd get up in the morning and my wife would say where we were going that day. It'd be Old Orchard or some other shopping mall. I'd follow her around like a puppy dog. I got bored out of my mind. When my brother passed away, I came back."

Lala got his start back in 1928. "The Depression was coming, jobs were scarce, and I was 17 years old and just out of high school. My father said, "Well, you better do something.' He was a barber and so was my older brother. So I went along."

He learned his trade at a barber school near Madison and Halsted. "We learned how to cut on the bums that came in off the street. We used to sneak off to the girlie shows at some of the old places on Madison. It's Greektown now. Back then it was all bowery. You cut their hair, and you'd see bugs and stuff. I was cutting this one guy and the razor stuck. The guy started bleeding. He patched it up somehow or other. That's how you learned. These guys were drunk. They didn't complain. There were 20 of us learning. All Italians. I don't know why Italians go into this business. It was either be a barber, run a fruit market, or be a shoemaker."

Lala's family lived in Albany Park, and his father, Sam, and brother, Joe, operated a neighborhood barbershop at 3725 W. Montrose. In 1933 Lala opened a two-chair shop at 5854 W. Montrose. His friend Mike Valentino worked out of the other chair. "Mike's still cutting hair with me, though he's not here today. Put his name down."

"Yeah, don't forget Mike," says Joe Kurtyka, another barber. "Mike's been cutting hair forever. He gave Jesus his first haircut. That was before he had sandals."

Some of Lala's customers say they've been coming to him since they were kids. Arnie Kamen, a commodities trader who still gets a manicure at Lala's every two weeks, says, "Vic used to cut my hair when I was living in Albany Park."

"I did?" Lala says, raising his eyebrows.

"Embellish, Vic," says Kamen. "You gotta embellish to tell a good story."

Lala thinks about it for a moment and then shrugs. "You know, I might have."

"Atta boy, Vic," says Kamen, who's visiting the shop after having lunch with an old high school buddy, Erwin Rabin. "And you cut Erwin's hair too. I lived at Montrose and Hamlin, and Erwin lived at Agatite and Hamlin. Where else would we go for a haircut? Right, Erwin?"

"Vic cut my hair all the time," says Rabin. Then he smiles. "I just met Vic five minutes ago."

In 1945 Joe Lala opened the shop on Lasalle. When Vic got out of the army a year later he joined him. "We were going to go into the liquor business. Joe cased a joint, and while he was there some guy got into a fight and got hit in the head with a bottle. With that he decided we'd go back to the barbershop. But Joe had put down a $1,000 deposit on a place. He mentioned it to a police captain he knew, and the captain said, "I'll get you out of it by telling the liquor-store owner you can't run a tavern 'cause you have a police record.' We got our deposit back. Of course we had to give the captain 300 bucks."

Because his shop is in the middle of the financial district, many of Lala's customers are traders, brokers, bankers, and business executives. "Ed Brennan of Sears was in here today. Pat Arbor, who's the chairman of the Board of Trade, been coming here for years. Lee Stern, who used to own the Sting, comes in here. He's a real good guy. Don't forget I knew him when he was coming up. Bruce Norris used to get me ringside seats for all the big fights at the Stadium. I saw Barney Ross and Sugar Ray Robinson and Jake LaMotta and Rocky Graziano and Joe Louis. One customer, Henry Shatkin, he used to drive a cab to make some money. About 20 years ago he went big. Shatkin invited me to his golf outings at the Green Acres Country Club. He had a hole as big as a sewer cover, and you shot from 160 yards. And the guy who makes it won a Buick Regal. That's the kind of guy Shatkin is--he's a prince.

"All these guys are down-to-earth. They sit in the chair, and when they feel like talking I listen. A good barber doesn't talk--he listens. They tell me some good financial tips. I've played some. But I lost. I stick to cutting hair."

Lala says most of his old customers will follow him when he moves on May 1. "Arbor, Shatkin, and some of the other guys said to me, "We'll keep you in the neighborhood."' They helped me get started at the new place. It's at 320 Financial Place. Just one block west."

For a while Lala sits silent, staring out the window. It's the slow time of the day, just after lunch. Several of the barbers have no customers. The shop's quiet. From the radio comes an old softie, maybe "Delta Dawn," though it's hard to tell with the sound so low.

A trader comes in and sits in Kurtyka's chair. He asks for a beard trim. Lala watches as Kurtyka applies a hot towel to the customer's face. "It's not easy to find guys experienced in this business. It's a different trade to learn how to give a shave and a trim. It's a lost art. If you haven't been in this business for 20 years, you're not going to learn. You look at our guys--Joe, Mike, Walter Choma, Benny Maggio, Ross Baio--they've been in the business for years. This guy over here, Greg Klebaner, he's a Russian guy. He's a prince. I wish I had six guys like him. He comes early, works hard, never says nothing, never complains. Every day he brings a bologna sandwich for lunch. Doesn't even buy a soda. He saved his money, and now he owns a condominium out near Golf Mill. Isn't that right, Greg?"

Klebaner, who came to this country in the mid-80s, smiles and nods.

Lala points to the shoeshine man. "That's Ivy Penilton. He's another hard worker. He comes in early, he sweeps up the floor. He never complains."

Penilton walks over when he hears his name. "I came to Chicago from Mount Pleasant, Mississippi, in 1942. For 30 years I parked cars at Madison and Wells. Pete White taught me how to shine shoes. Pete used to work in George Halas's building. Halas gave him a lifetime pass. Pete could go to any Bears game he wanted. You used to see Pete on the sidelines. Pete told me, "Ivy, the one thing about shining shoes is you got to be fast.' Pete died--I think it was last year."

"Tell him about your daughter, Ivy," says Lala.

"She's studying to be a doctor," says Penilton.

Penilton says he'll follow Lala to the new shop. All the employees will.

The only thing that won't change at the new location is Lala's decision not to start cutting hair again. "Some of the customers want me to get back at it, but no more. I cut hair for 54 years. If you figure it out, that's maybe 150,000 haircuts. That's enough for me."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Robert Drea.

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