Daughter maintains barber’s shop
It’s as if Joe Rotondo never left.
His South Side Hollywood Barber Shop, which he opened in 1938, is just like he left it six years ago when he died at age 92.
Barber scissors on the vestibule sit side by side with other tools of the trade: a shaving brush, clean towels, a razor and electric clippers. The tiled linoleum floor in the 100-year-old building is glossed and polished. Framed newspaper clippings trumpeting his 60th anniversary dot the walls. A small sign says haircuts cost $5. Two barber chairs wait for customers.
His daughter, Marie Senko, and her daughter, Michelle Senko, have maintained the shop — whose barber pole and large bay windows front 12th Street at Carson Street — in Rotondo’s memory. They do so, they said, because they haven’t had the heart to close it.
But times have changed. Property taxes are costing the family money. In the spring, they will likely sell or rent out the building.
“He was the center of our universe,” said Marie Senko, who on a recent afternoon pored over scrapbooks of her father’s life. She grew up in the rooms above the shop, before the family moved to Carrick.
Rotondo, who was born in Messina, Sicily, in 1911, crossed the Atlantic Ocean on a steamship in 1930, eventually settling in Pittsburgh, where he would remain for the rest of his life. He died in 2001.
In his spare time, he wrote love songs in his native Italian. He outlived two wives. His first wife, Rose Zirpoli, died in 1948. His second, Nancy Scamacca, died in 1989. He raised three children.
They miss him terribly.
“I was the barber’s daughter, and that’s how people knew me,” said Marie Senko, an administrative assistant who works for the city in the City-County Building, Downtown. “He taught me valuable lessons about the value of hard work. He shaped who I am today.”
Rotondo chose the shop’s name because he wanted to bring a touch of Hollywood-style glamour to the South Side.
When he opened in 1938, after studying English and becoming a U.S. citizen, many of his customers worked in the steel mills that dotted the banks of the Monongahela River. Back then, the neighborhood was a hive of butcher shops, corner grocers, cobblers, movie houses and taverns, Marie Senko said.
Hollywood Barber Shop was a South Side institution, said Ray Krom, who began going to Rotondo in the early 1940s and continued until the barber’s death. Krom, 78, along with his brother, went to the shop every month. They liked Rotondo, who had the latest neighborhood gossip.
“We went in every month. He used to talk about what was going on, what was happening in his territory. When I had trouble with my heart, he’d say ‘keep hanging in there Ray, you’ll be fine,'” said Krom, who still lives two buildings down from the shop.
After Rotondo died, former customers who hadn’t heard the news kept coming to the shop.
“People still showed up, asking ‘Where’s Joe?'” Krom said.
Rotondo’s life in America was not without hardship. He nearly was killed when a trolley jumped the tracks and crashed into a Bloomfield house where he was staying in the 1930s. The motorman was killed, and several people in the house were injured. The news reached Rotondo’s mother in Sicily, who sent her son money so he could return to Italy, said Michelle Senko.
During World War II, Rotondo’s mother and father in Italy lost everything, and he had to send money to help keep them alive.
Business at the shop fell off during the 1960s.
Through it all, the barber maintained his daily schedule: opening the shop at 9 a.m., closing at 6 p.m.. He was an avid gardener who raised strawberries, plums and grapes that he fermented into wine. And he loved to cook. On weekends, the aroma of his spaghetti and meatballs wafted through the house.
He refused to have a phone installed in his shop. People calling for him would ring up a pay phone outside on the street. For years, a haircut was 25 cents. He didn’t want to raise his prices for fear he’d lose customers. If a customer was sick, he would put his scissors and razor into a paper bag and make house calls.
He loved his new country.
“He worked hard,” said Michelle Senko. “His customers are still looking for him.”