(In this installment, Che Underground: The Blog examines a Wallflower’s journey to hair theater. If you’d like your story told, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org!)
The last time I saw you was around 1985, when you were playing guitar with San Diego’s original Wallflowers. How did you get from rock-‘n’-roll in Poway, Calif., to ownership of one of LA’s best-known barber shops, Sweeney Todd’s?
Hmmmm … I’m not sure I can draw any correlation between my experience in the Wallflowers and my career in the tonsorial arts except to say that I probably cut hair a lot better than I played guitar! But seriously, I guess if there was anything to compare, it would have to be that like the guitar you’re constantly honing your chops (pun intended!) There’s always some new technique or some new flourish to add to your bag of tricks if you keep your eyes and ears open.
I moved to LA in 1995, shortly after marrying Elvia, who was actually from here. I was a cook when I met her in Austin, Texas. In short I had grown tired of the hot kitchens and long hours that one has to endure in that line of work. I started thinking about a career change but wasn’t exactly sure what it would be. A little while after I moved to LA, I began my quest for a place to get my ears lowered. If you’ve moved around like I have you know what a daunting task this can be.
I got lucky when I was immediately referred to Andy’s Barber Shop by one of Elvia’s friends. A well-worn barber shop that I could tell had seen better days with a couple of equally well-worn barbers manning the shears. Danny Rivas, was one of the well-worn barbers and had owned the place since 1970. (It was founded in 1947.) He was my “man of the chair cloth” from the get-go. Whenever I was in his chair I would drill him about barbering. How did you get into this? How do you like it? How do I learn to do this? All in all he spoke very highly of his profession.
I would also have to say that Elvia was my biggest supporter on this. She wanted this to happen as much as I did, maybe even more! Letting my fingers do the walking, I found a school in downtown LA, American Barber College, gave ‘em a call and in October of 1997 I began my education. By the end of the year I was finished with school and just needed to take my barber’s exam. It was at this point I thought I would be a good idea to talk to Danny about working in his shop. He had no idea that I was going to school this whole time so he was pretty surprised when I made my inquiry. A month later, license and implements in hand, I began working at Andy’s!
Now when you’re the new barber in the shop you get a lot of down time. I would watch Danny work his magic and try and mimic his style. Everything from how he ran a comb through the patron’s hair to his easy way of moving around the chair. I probably made him nervous as hell, studying him so intensely!
When it comes to personalities and hitting a rhythm, how does playing in a band resemble overseeing a group of barbers?
There’s definitely a similar dynamic to guys working in a barber shop as there is to guys playing in a band together. The only difference is that in most cases you don’t have to be with your bandmates five days a week, eight hours a day, year after year like you do in a shop. My shop is less than 500 square feet, so it’s pretty close quarters for three guys. If you’re having a bad day, it can feel like the shop walls are closing in on you! I have to say I haven’t had that kind of day in a while because I have a really solid bunch of barbers now, but there was a time …
This is also my first foray into being the head of anything, so I wasn’t totally prepared for the headaches of the daily management of a group of guys as well as for the shop itself. I’ve had to learn my boss man/management skills, through the school of hard knocks of learning by doing. I have different barbers and they all have very different needs, personalities, et al. We have a common bond though, and that is our absolute love and pride for the barbering tradition. We are also all avid music lovers. We can have our little differences now and again, but at the end of the day it all gets mended over an ice-cold bottle of beer and a conversation about Wynonie Harris or the Stooges.
It can be very trying at times, and sometimes I think it’s a miracle that I still have a hairline, but it’s all worth it especially when I see that my guys are as proud of the shop as I am or when a new face walks through the door tells me how happy he is to have found us. It’s crazy to think what my young and very immature self would have done or said if you told him that years from now he was gonna have some beautiful, old barber shop and he would work with a great group of guys that would be proud to work in that shop. I think I would have fainted!
Tell us about the birth of Sweeney Todd’s. Its mission and aesthetic is dedicated to a classic American male bonding activity: an honest haircut. What work have you put in to create the atmosphere at Sweeney Todd’s?
The aesthetic of the shop has evolved slowly, but its core has remained the same throughout the years. I like to think of the shop stopping its evolution sometime in the early ‘60s. I tried to picture a barber shop that my dad might have taken me to when I was a kid. That was essentially my vision when I started fixing the place up five years ago.
Everything that’s “nailed to the floors,” so to speak, is original to the shop from the remodel it received some time in the early ‘50s: the linoleum floors, the barber chairs, the backbar, some of its fixtures and so on. I’ve obviously added things like an old TV set and a 1940s cigarette machine to add a little ambiance.
Another touch I added which to me is probably the icing on the cake, is the music. I play the kind of stuff that I imagine would be playing in the background of one of those shops my dad would take me to. A little radio tuned to some Top 40 station playing the likes of Jack Jones or Nelson Riddle or something equally as square.
I also have the music piped out onto the sidewalk so that folks passing by will be drawn into my time warp as well. I remember one time a friend had given me some old “airchecks” (radio demo recordings) from the early ‘60s that I’d dutifully played one Saturday afternoon. An older gentleman happened to be walking by just as an old commercial was playing. He stopped to look in. His jaw dropped as though he were having an out of body experience. When people look in and get that completely dumbfounded expression on the faces that to me is like, “Mission accomplished!”
Sweeney Todd’s Barber Shop is located at 4639 Hollywood Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90027.