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Solid as a Rocco

It's been five decades in Winnipeg for 74-year-old Pembina Highway barber who has no plans to put down his scissors

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The iconic image of the Italian barber has been around since 1911 when Mary Pickford co-starred in the silent comedy, The Italian Barber.

More than a century later, audiences are still drawn to Italian barbers. YouTube has close to 1,000 clips of Italian men around the world, grooming guys and dispensing wisdom.

In Winnipeg these days, the Italian barber shop is alive and well -- but its days may be numbered.

"The number of barbers is falling off," said barber Rocco Curatolo, owner of Rocky's Men's Hair Styling & Royal Crown Replacements.

"There are not too many old-timers," said the 74-year-old who has no plans to retire. "Maybe 30 or 40 today."

 

He started his apprenticeship as a barber in Quaglietta, Italy in 1955. When he came to Canada with his family in 1960, there were twice as many barber shops in Winnipeg as there are today, he said.

But the only work the newcomer could get at first was outside his beloved profession.

"I was a dishwasher on the train to Calgary and back," Curatolo recalled. "I was homesick to be away from my family."

After three months, he quit. He got his first job as a barber in Winnipeg working Friday nights and Saturdays at a shop on Isabel Street.

"Haircuts were $1 at the time."

He got his barber's licence and started full time at an Italian barber shop in the CN station on Main Street before opening his own place on Academy Road in 1966. When he moved to Pembina Highway, his clientele followed him.

"I still have customers from Academy Road 51 years ago."

Curatolo credits his customers' loyalty to his ability to read people and communicate with them.

"I'm sincere and appreciate my customers," he said in his shop, the waiting area cluttered with newspapers and copies of National Geographic.

"I can read a person's mind and be compassionate to people," he said. "It's my gift."

It came in handy when he started offering balding clients hairpieces in 1968. Curatolo has a curtain he closes for discreet toupée consultations and fittings.

There's not that much demand for them these days with shaved heads being in vogue, though, he said.

"The hairpieces are slow, but that's OK." They'll be back, he said. Several toupées spill out of boxes beside a framed map of Italy on top of a cabinet.

Curatolo believes shaved, balding heads are a fad that will fade when the damage of UV rays in the summer and cold in the winter start taking a toll on exposed scalps.

He practises what he preaches. The hairpiece he wears protects him from sunburn and keeps him warm when it's 30 below.

"I don't need to wear a hat."

Another trend that cuts Curatolo up is hairstylists posing as old-time barbers but charging boutique prices for a cut and a shave.

"You don't have to charge $50 or $60," said Curatolo. He said he just raised his prices for the first time in six years and now charges $17 for each.

He's been careful with his money and doesn't have to work anymore but just doesn't want to quit.

"I get restless. I don't like to sit around."

On a recent Monday, the day his shop is closed, he and his 14-year-old grandson used a jackhammer and a bag of cement to fix someone's driveway.

"People sit for too long, too much. They're couch potatoes," said Curatolo.

The barber vacations in Italy with his wife but can't stay away from his shop for more than three weeks, he said.

"I will continue to work because of my dedication to my profession," said Curatolo.

"It's an art form."

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 25, 2012 j4

History

Updated on Saturday, August 25, 2012 at 9:38 AM CDT: adds photos

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