The hunt for one of the most important resources in one’s life — a good barber — leads a fledgling screenwriter to befriend some of Los Angeles’ most influential power players…
by: Alan Swyer
When I first arrived in Southern California, I was confronted by two unfamiliar cultures. First was Los Angeles itself, meaning that in addition to palm trees, strip malls, and left turns on red lights, I had entered a world where day and night people with no visible means of support populated gyms, coffee shops, and Pilates studios, plus more yoga classes than Mumbai. Compounding my sense of estrangement was the alternate universe known as the movie business, where as a fledgling screenwriter I quickly had to learn about development deals, the difference between an option and a sale, that a “Yes” was nowhere near as definitive as a “Yes-yes,” and that there was no such thing as a bad meeting — just an absence of follow-through, which meant that the second only to a “Yes-yes” was a rapid “No,” which at least provided clarity plus the impetus to move on.
Even more important, once I had settled into a tiny apartment in Silverlake, was my need to find the kind of resources I came to think of as maintenance: a doctor, a dentist, and a dry cleaner, not to mention places to shop, eat, ride my bike, and, when the spirit moved me, shoot baskets.
Bit by bit, thanks to referrals from people I met, plus scouring every list I could find, I was able to fill almost all of my needs with resources which, if not ideal, at least seemed satisfactory. There remained, however, one exception.
What I had trouble finding was an appropriate barber shop, hair salon, or, to use a term from once-upon-a-Theme, tonsorial parlor. The first place I tried was far too trendy. The second, way beyond my price range. The third, so filled with people waiting for a haircut that I finally gave up. It was only when I read about a shop in a most unlikely area — Beverly Hills — that I found a spot that exceeded my hopes.
Located above a men’s shop whose clientele seemed exclusively geriatric, and reputed to have been favored by old-time gangster Mickey Cohen and his minions, the moment I stepped in I felt that I had entered a time warp. Indeed, had it not been for a flat screen color television, plus a credit card machine, I could have easily imagined that I had been transported back to the time of Eisenhower, Ozzie & Harriet, and Sputniks. The barbers seemed to have been there forever, the manicurists almost as long, and the two Black men who managed the shop were similarly far from young. As for the customers, very few had either a full head of hair or an urgency to leave. Instead, as I would come to learn, for the most part they were exemplars of an old joke they often repeated when discussing the final chapter of their lives: I married you for better or worse, but not for lunch!
Though it was clear I lowered the average age in the barber shop by thirty — or perhaps even forty — years, I instantly felt comfortable. But as an anomalous figure, it was not on my first, or second, or even third visit that I was fully accepted, instead of being viewed as an interloper or an oddity.
Only as time went by did I get a firm sense of who-was-who, and what-was-what. The first person to embrace me was the haircutting equivalent of Henny Youngman, capable of wearing all but the dead down with a non-stop series of corny jokes that ultimately became the joke itself. That was Harry Gelbart, whose son Larry, I learned, was justly celebrated for writing A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, Tootsie, and The TV version of MASH.
Next to accept me were Donnie and Lee, the two Black managers who, thanks to the passing of time, had assumed responsibility far beyond their original duties of shining shoes and sweeping up. Their present tasks, as I subsequently learned, included serving as in-house bookies, taking bets on horse races and key sporting events.
Then there was the blond manicurist, who was known playfully, though never to her face, as Pocahontas. She, I discovered, supplemented her income with a different kind of activity. After getting his nails done by her, every so often an old-timer would hobble down the store’s back staircase, with the manicurist following a couple of minutes later. Some time thereafter, the old fellow would clamber back to the shop with a mischievous smile on my face, again followed by the manicurist. When I finally asked Donnie what gives, he responded with a laugh. “Her van’s parked in the alley behind,” Donnie explained, allowing Harry Gelbart to seize the moment. “Why is a blowjob like Eggs Benedict?” questioned the barber. “I give up,” I replied. “Because they’re two things no Jewish guy ever gets at home!” bellowed Harry.
Next my feeling was confirmed that instead of simply serving as a place where men of a certain age came for a shave, a haircut, and/or a manicure (with or without benefits), the shop also was a clubhouse of sorts. No matter when I came in for a haircut or a trim, there would always be a bunch of guys cracking jokes, reminiscing, watching sports, placing bets, or simply avoiding being stuck at home in their twilight years.
One such person was an impeccably dressed elderly gentleman for whom a privileged seat was always reserved. With a full head of silver hair — plus an unmistakable force and charisma — that fellow somehow managed to be part of the group, yet not entirely of it. Unlike the others, instead of kibitzing or guffawing, he was often seen speaking quietly on the phone. Plus, in contrast to the rest, he seemed genuinely surprised the first few times I greeted him with a “Hi,” a “Hello,” or a “Nice to see you.”
As weeks turned to months, my screenwriting career upticked considerably when, though hardly a networker, I acquired a new agent thanks to the weekly Saturday morning basketball game I stumbled upon. The result was that my largely autobiographical script about a white kid growing up in a Black neighborhood, which triggered my decision to relocate from the East Coast, was optioned by a studio. That, in turn, led to my being hired to write a screenplay about one of the pioneer rock & rollers.
On a Wednesday afternoon in October, after a lunch in Beverly Hills with one of the producers on the rock & roll project, I did something I’d never done before. Though I’d gotten a haircut only a week before, I popped into the barber shop to say hello and hang out a bit before heading home. As I was greeting the people I’d gotten to know, the elderly silver-haired gentleman in the privileged seat beckoned to him.
“You’re a nice kid,” he informed me. “Tell me your name.”
“From where originally?”
“Jersey,” I replied.
“Born in Newark, went to high school in Elizabeth.”
“And what’re you doing out here?”
“Trying to make it in the movie business,” I replied.
“Tough racket, but you’ll be okay. Know who I am?”
“My name’s Sidney Korshak. Ever need anything, anybody gives you trouble, you let me know. Got it?”
“And don’t forget,” insisted Korshak.
As I started to leave the shop twenty minutes or so later, I was surprised to find Donnie following me. Together we walked through the men’s store below, then out into the street. There, Donnie put an arm around me.
“Know who was talking to you?” asked Donnie.
“Bet your ass!” Donnie replied. “Mr. Korshak is the man. And I mean the man!”
Even my preliminary digging made it clear that Sidney Korshak was indeed The man — as in the most powerful person in both Hollywood and Las Vegas. Labeled by the press an enigma, Korshak had initially come to prominence as a lawyer for the Chicago mob, and had gone on to be considered instrumental in the lives of people as disparate — and well known — as Jimmy Hoffa, Frank Sinatra, and Ronald Reagan.
Though I kept reading more and more fascinating tales about Korshak — some documented, others more in the realm of lore – I recognized, based upon what I’d learned growing up in Mafia-dominated New Jersey, that though the offer was gracious, asking for a favor from someone like Korshak was not to be done blithely. As I understood full well, it was only to be used as a last resort.
As my career continued to progress by fits and starts, so too did my circle of friends increase. From the movie biz, there were some writers, plus a few actors and a couple of directors. From my weekly basketball game, there was a sportswriter, a boxing trainer, and a guy who taught English at UCLA. A proposed film project focusing on Black music provided me with access to Ray Charles, which in addition to evolving into a kinship of sorts also led to bonds with singers such as Solomon Burke, Mable John, Billy Preston, and Floyd Dixon.
Still it was the guys from the barber shop with whom I remained closest. In the Fall I would pick up Donnie every Saturday so that the two of us could watch his grandson play quarterback for Westchester High. In the Spring and Summer, I was the wheel man on trips to Dodger Stadium when Donnie and Lee were given prime seats. Then there were the monthly lunches with Harry Gelbart, during which I was bombarded with jokes both old and new. Later still came a Thursday night poker game, hosted by yet another barber, Jerusalem-born Eli.
When romance entered my life thanks to a pretty screenwriter name Ronni, she too, became familiar with the barber shop crew, whom she referred to as “My West Coast Uncles and Great-Uncles.”
Not surprisingly, when she and I announced that we were about to head to Vermont to get married, the Los Angeles party for us was hosted by Donnie and Lee.
Given the vicissitudes of the movie business, which was known for threats like “You’ll never work again in this town” — and for people in the process of suing each other suddenly teaming up on a new project during a court recess — it was probably inevitable that at some point serious aggravation would enter my life.
My troubles began when my agent helped me get an assignment scripting a true story for which the rights had ostensibly been acquired — a tale in which a twenty-year-old on the run from the cops creates a new identity by posing as a teenager and enrolling in a suburban high school.
Granted a second chance of sorts while hiding in plain sight, the guy — whom I dubbed Jeff when I started writing — brings into play all the tricks he learned while on the other side of the law, though this time to do some good instead of bad.
Once my initial draft was finished, the project seemed to be on the fast track until suddenly everything ground to a halt. The problem, to my dismay, was that rights had been acquired from he journalist who wrote about it, but not from the protagonist himself. As a result, the real guy was threatening to sue.
With the project in limbo, I inquired about the money I was owed for completion of the first draft. When no answer was forthcoming, I asked again. Then again.
“We’ll make it up to you,” my agent, whom I’ll call Arthur Charab for purposes of discretion, promised when I would not relent.
“And until then?”
“Don’t push,” advised Charab, causing me to see red.
“Don’t push?” I asked. “Which one of us gets a weekly check?”
“You’ve got to do things the way we do ’em.” was the agent’s reply.
“Says who?” I protested unwilling to be pushed around or burned.
When calls first by Charab, then by people in upper management, failed to placate me, a lunch was arranged at a Beverly Hills power spot. There, I found myself confronted by three agency honchos.
“We understand you’re upset,” said a bearded guy I’ll call Steve Barron. “And we sympathize.”
“And?” I demanded.
“We’ll find a solution,” answered a bald guy I’ll dub Larry Lattanzio.
“Whoa,” I said.
“Whoa, what?” wondered a heavyset guy we’ll refer to as Marc Shevick.
“Why didn’t you find the solution before you called this get together?” I demanded.
The increasingly heated conversation was interrupted wIn a waiter approached. “You gentlemen ready to order?” he asked.
“Yes,” stated Barron.
“No,” I countered, causing Lattanzio to motion for the waiter to leave. Lattanzio then glared at me.
“Know why I’d advise you to cool it?” he demanded.
“Because,” said the angry agent, “this is a fucking battle you can’t win!”
“Says who?” responded a man approaching the table.
Instantly the three agents turned to see an impeccably dressed elderly gentleman with silver hair.
“Mr. K-Korshak,” stuttered Steve Barron, clearly awed.
Ignoring Barron, Sidney Korshak placed a hand on my shoulder. “These guys bothering you?” he asked.
“W-we like him a lot,” protested Marc Shevick feebly.
“I certainly hope so,” stated Korshak, “because I do.” Once again ignoring the agents, Korshak leaned toward me. “Let me know if you’re satisfied.”
“I will,” I replied, thinking, thanks to my benefactor, about my favorite Ike & Tina song from way back when, I Think It’s Gonna Work Out Fine.
It was no surprise that soon after my son Jonas was born, he was taken to the barber shop so that he could see and be seen. Nor was it surprising that it was there that Jonas got his first haircut, and several after that.
Then, seemingly overnight, everything changed. Lee was the first member of the crew to pass away, followed shortly thereafter by Sidney Korshak. Harry Gelbart was next, then the manicurist known playfully as Pocahontas.
Just a month later, I got a call from Donnie with two pieces of news: he was retiring, and the store, including the barber shop, was closing.
For me, Los Angeles would never again be the same.
Alan Swyer is an award-winning filmmaker whose recent documentaries have dealt with Eastern spirituality in the Western world, the criminal justice system, diabetes, boxing, and singer Billy Vera, plus a new one called “When Houston Had The Blues.” In the realm of music, among his productions is an album of Ray Charles love songs. His novel The Beard was recently published by Harvard Square Editions.