HE COPED WITH COUNT DRACULA, STEVE McQUEEN, ERROL FLYNN, JAMES DEAN, ETC.

THE HUMAN RACE

 BARBER AL’S TEACHERS WERE HOLLYWOOD LEGENDS

      My late friend Alfredo (Al) Rios Hernandez had been cutting my hair since I was a freshman at Los Angeles High School. That adds up to more than 60 years. In those days, he was a tall string bean with jet black hair pushing 20; I was a juvenile delinquent with a flattop and a ducktail. I had so much hair in those days, my widow’s peak almost touched the bridge of my nose.    

     Years later when I visited his small one-man shop next-door to Greenblatt’s Delicatessen on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood, I registered my usual complaint to his customers. “See what Al’s done to my hairline!” I’d say, displaying the widow’s peak that was retreating to the back of my head.

     “Know what happened to some of his other regulars?” I’d ask, then reel off: James Dean, Errol Flynn, Bela Lugosi, Louis L’Amour, Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre, John Carradine, Steve McQueen, Cliff Edwards (the voice of Jiminy Cricket)…  

     “They’re all dead!” Bela and Boris

     Some customers would laugh; others would turn back to reading the newspaper or thumbing through “Playboy.” Since Al was not a name dropper, many were unaware of the famous heads he’s trimmed.    In the spring of 1953, he found himself staring into the hypnotic peepers of the man who, as Count Dracula, frayed the nerve-endings of millions of moviegoers — Bela Lugosi.

     “He came in smoking this long, expensive, green cigar and just sat down at my chair,” he said. “I knew it was expensive because it had such a great aroma.

      “He looked up at me with those X-ray eyes — God, I’ll never forget those eyes — and told me to leave it a little bit full at the temples.”

     In those days, the Laurel Barber Shop, located across the street from the once famous Hollywood haunt, Schwab’s drugstore, was a bustling, three-man, $1.50-a-haircut shop. Lugosi was the first movie star Alfredo worked on or, for that matter, talked to. So it was a big moment.

     During the haircut, Lugosi leaned over the arm of the chair and spat green tobacco juice on the floor, then, went back to puffing on his cigar as if nothing had happened.

     Restraining his anger, a speechless Al glared down at the Hollywood Count disgustfully and gave the movie vamp a dose of his own medicine — a double whammy.  

     “What did you want me to do,” hissed Lugosi, “swallow it?” Steve, the porter who was shining Lugosi’s shoes at the time, wiped up the green gunk with a towel.

     “I didn’t like him spitting on the floor,” confessed Al, “but Bela was a bona fide movie star. I didn’t want to lose him as a customer.”

     So Count Dracula, a 50-cent tipper, returned many times to the scene of the perfect crime. “He always came in smoking a cigar, and never failed to spit green tobacco juice on the floor. I never thought of buying a spittoon because his spitting routine never seemed to bother anybody but me.”

     Alfredo remembered finishing that first haircut, holding the mirror in front of Lugosi, wondering if there’d be a reflection.

     Lugosi died in 1956 and, as the story goes, was laid out in his Dracula costume at the Utter McKinley Funeral Parlor in Hollywood.

     Boris Karloff, an old friend, walked up to the open casket, leaned over and said in that eloquent melodramatic voice: “Come now, Bela — you know you’re not dead!” For a moment, the people in the waiting room watched in silence. When Lugosi didn’t stir, everybody broke into hysterical laughter.   

     Al described his customers, and that includes Lugosi and Karloff, as “my friends, my teachers. When I went into this business, I couldn’t speak proper English … or even Spanish.

     “Mr. Karloff had a great grasp of the English language. I’d listen to the way he pronounced words and would repeat them in my mind over and over again. I learned a lot from him.”

     He was the only customer Al ever addressed as “mister.” “He was a real gentleman,” said Al, “very soft spoken, always wore a coat and tie and had wavy hair.”

     As a youngster in South Central Los Angeles, Al grew up watching movies starring Lugosi, Karloff and Lorre. “They scared hell out of us kids,” he said, “so when they showed up at my barber shop, I was pretty apprehensive.”

     The first time he cut Peter Lorre’s hair was just before he began filming the Jules Verne adventure, “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.”   The 1954 movie starred James Mason and Kirk Douglas.    

     “Sometimes Peter would come in for a butch. Sometimes he’d have me shave his entire head.”   In ‘20,000 Leagues,” Al recalled, he had a standard haircut.

     “When I see him in one of his old movies, produced after 1954, I think to myself, ‘Hey, I cut that hair!'”

     James Dean, he said, “was very withdrawn, almost shy. He’d curl up in the chair and say very little. Not long before he crashed and died in that silver Porsche, I remember him talking about how great it was speeding around in that car.

     “He had a good head of hair. I used to leave about three or four inches and comb it up from the forehead into a kind of pompadour. In ’55, he died in that car with my haircut.”  

     Steve McQueen, said Al, “Was pretty outgoing. What surprised me was he stuttered. He had his favorite car, too — a Lotus sports car; had it painted a special shade of green. He smoked in the barber chair. Smoking did him in.”    

     Western novelist Louis L’Amour Alfredo described as “a big burly, down-to-earth man. He showed me that you don’t have to have a college education to be smart. He didn’t go to college but he was a prolific writer. Whenever he talked, even if it was about the weather, it was like he was telling a story.”

     Al catered to an impressive number of show business customers. Ever since Lugosi, his policy had always been: “Never talk about show business — unless they bring up the subject. I figure actors, writers, directors come in here to get away from all that BS. To relax. And I’ve never asked one of them for an autograph.”

     Every workday, Al would put on a suit and tie, drive to work from East Los Angeles, then change into his barber clothes. Back in the 80s, he was husky 6-footer with thinning white hair and a small, well-trimmed handlebar mustache. He always parked in back of his shop and carried his keys on a heavy chain.

     At quitting time one evening, after he had changed back to his suit and tie and was about to get into his car, a robber threatened him with a knife, demanding his wallet and car keys. “I hit him a good one with my chain. Knocked him down. He looked up at me and said, ‘Now why did you go and do that?’ Then he ran away. That was the only time anyone ever tried to rob me.”

     Al took crap from nobody. I was sitting in his shop waiting for a haircut when a well-known character actor arrived 45 minutes late. The actor blamed the tardiness on his wife.

     “This is the second time you missed an appointment,” said Al. “Find another barber.” That scene was performed right in front of me and another customer. It was very entertaining. The actor looked at the audience, shrugged hopelessly, and exited stage left. Established actors, he found, “aren’t the least bit picayunish about their hair styles.” It’s usually the “young, struggling actors” who are the nitpickers.  

     Errol Flynn, he said, was anything but a nitpicker. Whenever Flynn dropped by Al’s place, he was “usually pretty stewed. Old Errol never told me how he wanted his hair styled. He’d just plop down in the chair and let me snip away. He had a great head of hair — used to tip a dollar.”

     Flynn, he recalled, talked about women as if they were beautiful flowers. “He was like a bumble bee whose main challenge was to pollinate all the flowers in the garden. Believe me, he worked at it. It seems like every time he’d come in for a haircut, he had a new paternity suit going on.”

     Another regular was Joe Pine, one of the first controversial radio and TV talk-show hosts in Los Angeles. “One time he came in, sat down on the chair holding a thirty-eight pistol on his lap under the cloth and warned me: ‘If two guys show up looking for me, duck!’

     “I truly liked Joe. He was a former Marine. Lost a leg in the war. On his talk shows, he was paid to be a bad mouth; made a lot of enemies. I went ahead and gave him a haircut. Lucky for me, the two guys never did show.”  

     During his long career, Al proved to himself, at least, that cutting hair requires talent, wisdom, knowledge and in some situations, chutzpah!

     “Many people in this business picture themselves as great artists,” he said. “They invent fancy titles for themselves and work in swanky places they call studios or salons. But when it comes down to the nitty-gritty, they’re all barbers … just like me.”

Boots LeBaron

Boots’ new book, “THE HUMAN RACE,” is now available on

Amazon in Kindle and paperback. It contains humorous and

inspirational views of life, death, Showbiz, the workplace,

love, courage, religion and everything in between.

  http://www.amazon.com/The-Human-Race-Boots-LeBaron/dp/1494218526/ref=sr_1_1_bnp_1_pap?ie=UTF8&qid=1397433413&sr=8-1&keywords=boots+lebaron#reader_1494218526

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