A Real Life, Canadian Version of the Barber of Seville
A Real Life, Canadian Version of the Barber of Seville
I often wondered how the “Barber of Seville” could have attained such fame and influence. Despite the operatic portrayal of a character who permits himself the odd self-indulgence, at closer inspection, it becomes easy to appreciate how and why.
A good barber keeps his own counsel, shares his wisdom and treats his customers like a precious marble bust that has to be caressed and sculpted with the deftness and artistry of a Michelangelo.
It helps to have a sense of humour; to cultivate an appreciation for the most eclectic of tastes and views; to stimulate dialogue without crossing boundaries and giving offense, as would priest in a confessional, without passing judgement or giving penance.
Yes, all of that, and for little financial compensation in return for cutting, trimming and shaping your hair, polishing your image and stroking your ego. It’s a skill as well as an art. No flash; just substance.
Alfredo has been doing that in Toronto and North York for… dare I say it … six decades of it at the service of the rich, the famous, the powerful and the rest of us with equal deference and attention. Three generations in my own family. I wanted to know more.
“I came to Canada as a 19-year-old in search of fame and fortune – like everyone else”, he said, while clipping away at my hair almost as if his instruments were guided by an unforeseen panel of experts.
“Post-war Francavilla al Mare wasn’t an especially promising place. I had apprenticed for years so as to earn some spare change while pursuing my life’s dream of being a world-famous musician”, he said half jokingly. I was young.”
“Once in Canada, I began performing at the Church Halls at the usual Italian festivities. I and the group I played with were in demand; even performed regularly at the Brandon Hall, the Italian community’s post-war first “big deal” place. Met lots of “Bingo Players” when they were younger and less well-off than they are today.”
Did you start there in the St. Clair-Dufferin (Dupont to be precise) area, I mused. “No. I worked at Orfus and Dufferin where personalities like Tino Baxa and Dan Iannuzzi were clients. But I moved to Leaside where I had my first brush – pardon the pun – with F & F (fame and fortune). There I was, recently arrived in 1958, standing outside the shop when this strange-looking character in cowboy boots and black hat asked if I would cut his hair.”
“Know who I am – without waiting for an answer – Stompin’ Tom Connors. I am at the Horshoe Tavern tonight”. Who knew English. I barely had enough to say yes and no, but I understood quickly that he was a musician and told him I was one too. “Come see me,” he said. I didn’t have money for a street car ticket much less for a night out at a Tavern. Didn’t go.
“Fast forward twenty years later, same place, after I had returned from Italy. A scraggly-looking, hippy type comes in and says, “listen, I really need to be cleaned up – even if my fans won’t recognize me on stage; can you do it?”
By now my English is a little better; “where are you playing”, I asked, ‘Horseshoe Tavern. I front for Stompin Tom’. Well we hit it off right away. He promised to relay the story. He did, secured an autographed copy of a program for me and members of our salon.”
Did you ever make the jump to “the professional music scene”, I asked curiously. “Almost, he answered. I had a client who knew a performer, a big deal, Eddo-Pany, who gave me an audition shortly after I first met Stompin Tom. He liked my style and my ability to blend in with his other performers; offered me an opportunity right then and there. I thought that this was a great country.”
What did you do, I wondered. “I gathered up my savings, had a friend accompany me to register with the Musicians’ Union; bought an amplifier and showed up for work. Except that I never had an opportunity to familiarize myself with the technology or with the signals that demanded I ‘cut on cue’ (pardon the pun again). After the first piece when I just kept playing and playing, Eddo-Pany took me backstage and fired me on the spot. It wasn’t nice. Now I was in debt and had to re-assess my talents and ambitions.” He went back to Italy, briefly.
Again, back in Leaside, this time an older gentleman asked for a haircut but said “I can’t pay. No money”. “Ok”, Alfredo thought to himself, “I can’t throw the man out.” But the man started to laugh, “I just sold my gardens and land to the City of Toronto”. His name was Rupert Edwards. The park and Botanical gardens southeast of Lawrence and Leslie bear his family name. “Get into business for yourself”, he advised
“Seemed like a good idea. Between gigs in the Italian community and my barber duties, I was able to make ends meet and address my responsibilities as a husband and father. Let my wife take care of raising the kids. Best decision I made. They have turned out wonderfully.”
“I moved west to a shop at Lawrence and Keele, on the understanding that I would eventually get first right of refusal on the business. It was a little more complicated than I expected. The owner turned out to be a “silent partner” who asked what we (my brother and I) were prepared to offer, then demanded double the amount.”
“But the business was good. We paid it off. Athletes like Eddie Shack and more recently, Mark Osborn, became regulars. Entertainers of various degrees of talent would come by. Some of the most successful builders in the Italian community were customers, and of course politicians from all levels of government popped in … sometimes to get a haircut.”
One of them has been a client for 30 years. His children, and now theirs, have followed his footsteps into Alfredo’s chair. Jokingly, I asked if any publishers or writers ever showed up. “Only to get info for their next story”, he answered without skipping a beat.