Frank Vitale, a 90-year-old barber, continues to make the cut


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The life and career path of Frank Vitale has been shaped and influenced by his father, The Beatles, John F. Kennedy and the presidential son who was called John-John as a child.

Growing up in Elliott in a family of eight, Mr. Vitale said his father "always preached about going to school. He also said, if you don't want to go to school, be a barber. You will not be rich but you'll never be out of work."

Mr. Vitale took his father's advice, and is still cutting hair at his family-owned shop 61 years later as he celebrates his 90th birthday. He works 15-18 hours a week at Vitale's Hair Styling for Men and Women, in Building 10 at Foster Plaza in Green Tree. The business has been there since 1982, but it was preceded by shops at four other locations with "Frank's" or "Vitale's" in the name.

Mr. Vitale reports to work wearing a long-sleeved shirt and tie, dress pants and leather lace-up shoes. That's the way he dressed when he opened Frank's Barber Shop in Elliott in 1951, when a man's haircut cost 60 cents.

Mr. Vitale, who now lives in Scott, is slim and trim with the energy and erect carriage of a man two decades younger. He attributes his health and vigor to a lifelong exercise regimen that includes many years of running at the Langley High School field and swimming at the North Side YMCA. In recent years he has switched to vigorous ballroom dancing and square dancing, which he does several times a week.

"I highly recommend dancing," Mr. Vitale said. "I can't do the Viennese waltz, though. It's too fast and has too many turns."

Though Mr. Vitale listened to his father's career advice, he hedged his bets. He went to Conley Trade School for high school, and after serving in the Army Air Corps in World War II, he used the GI Bill to go to barber school and bricklaying school.

"One summer I was working as a bricklayer and I never got a full week's pay," he said. "Either they would run out of bricks or it would rain. And I said to myself, 'this will not work.' Fortunately I was able to open my own barber shop."

By 1961 "the whole barber shop industry was changing," Mr. Vitale said. "The shopping centers and malls were being built and they were open seven days a week. If you're a one man shop, you can't work seven days a week."

So he moved Frank's Barber Shop to the Parkway Center and hired Bob Vennum, who still works for him. But it was still a family business. His wife, Theresa Russo Vitale, worked as the receptionist and their son, Gerald, became a barber and joined the family firm in 1963. The couple's other son, Frank, decided to be a steam fitter.

"When the Beatles happened in the '60s, everything changed," Mr. Vitale said with a chuckle. Crew cuts and short, conservative haircuts were no longer in vogue. Barbers who wanted to continue making a living had to learn how to cut and style the longer hair popularized by the four famous English singers/musicians.

President Kennedy's head of thick, longer hair also influenced trends "and moms wanted the hair of their little boys to look like John-John's," Mr. Vitale said.

In the 1960s Mr. Vitale was one of the first local barbers to learn the Roffler Sculpture Cut, which was achieved with a razor rather than with traditional barber scissors.

By 1982 the shop name had been changed to Vitale's Hair Styling for Men and Women, and the business moved to the current Foster Plaza location.

Gerald Vitale, also of Scott, credits his father for taking note of the fact that more women were working outside the home, so he added hair dressers and moved the business to the office park.

Hairdressers Joan Kingwell and Wendy Cerminara came aboard 22 years ago. They're still there, Ms. Cerminara said, "because Frank Vitale is a true gentleman" and a pleasure to work with. Susie Abbondanza joined the staff a year ago.

Gerald Vitale "took over" the business in 1999 when Frank Vitale reduced his hours to take care of his wife, who had Alzheimer's. Mrs. Vitale died 11 years ago.

"She was a beautiful person and she wasn't just a receptionist," he said of his wife of 57 years. "She was my right-hand man and she made our customers feel like family."

Many customers have been putting their heads in Mr. Vitale's hands for 50 years, "though at my age my customers are dying off," he said. "They may force me into retirement."

Gerald Vitale, 68, says people often ask him when he will retire.

"My father has set the bar high," the younger Mr. Vitale said. "How could I consider retiring when my dad is still working?"

Jerry's wife, Jackie Vitale, says Frank Vitale is "funny, hard-working, loving, caring, honorable, trustworthy and much more. I could not ask for a more loving and caring father-in-law."

Frank Vitale has three grandchildren -- Gina, Gerald Junior and Frankie -- and three great-grandchildren -- Maggie Dugan, 17; Liam Dugan, 15; and Finn Dugan, 12, who are the children of Gina Vitale.

Frank Vitale also has a "new" wife, Priscilla. They met at a dance class, when the instructor partnered the widower and the widow. They've been married for seven years, and they're still dancing regularly.

Mr. Vitale's 90th birthday was Wednesday, and celebrations included "a nice big party" at the family shop which Mr. Vitale describes as "outstanding."

By the way, the bricklaying training was not in vain. Over the years, Mr. Vitale has used his "spare time" to lay the brick for three family homes, including his own, and he laid the brick for a son's family room.

neigh_west - neigh_south

Linda Wilson Fuoco: lfuoco@post-gazette.com or 412-722-0087.


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