Tag Archives: Tommy Ghianuly

Unsung Hero #76

Compo Center Barber Shop is a throwback.

It’s not a salon. Not a “coiffeur.”

It’s exactly what its name says: a barber shop.

And it’s been that way for nearly 60 years.

Tommy Ghianuly

Tommy Ghianuly was one of the first tenants when Compo Shopping Center opened up. Just out of the service, the Bridgeport native was in the right place at the right time.

Westport was booming. Artists, lawyers, commuters — all needed haircuts.

So did their kids.

Tommy was good. He loved to talk, and his customers loved their conversations.

Compo Barbers prospered. Through every trend — crew cuts, long hair, feathered hair, fades, back to short hair — Tommy adapted.

Times changed. He added female barbers. He had to get rid of his shoeshine guys.

The kids of Tommy’s first customers grew up. They married, moved back, and brought their own kids. Now he’s cutting the hair of their kids.

He saw so many stores in the shopping center come and go. McLellan’s. Lenette’s. Westport Record & Tape. Zaro’s. The Ice Cream Parlor.

Yet Compo Barbers — and Gold’s — are still there. And still growing strong.

Compo Center Barber Shop is one of the last vestiges of old Westport. You hear it in the casual conversations that take place in the waiting area. You see it in the warm, loving way Tommy greets all his customers — the ones who have come for 50 years, and the ones who just moved here last week.

You see the old Westport on the walls, too. For decades, Tommy has collected vintage photos. They show it all: the original Main Street. Horse-drawn trolleys. A long-ago blizzard that shut down the trains.

It’s a collection the Westport Historical Society would be proud to own.

Tommy Ghinauly and his rotary phone. On the wall behind him are some of his many historical photos — and those of several generations of customers, posing together.

Above the photos sits a speaker. The music  — curated by longtime customer Dennis Jackson — is classic. There’s Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Tony Bennett. The other day, Frank Sinatra sang “My Way.”

Since 1959, Tommy Ghianuly has been doing it his way. That makes him our Unsung Hero of the Week.

If not the Month, Year or even Decade.

(Hat tip: Chip Stephens)

Tommy’s Phone

I’ve been getting my hair cut at Compo Center Barber Shop for over 30 years. (No jokes, please, about why I need to.)

But until last weekend, I never noticed the phone.

Tommy Ghianuly

Compo Barber Shop’s walls are filled with photos of historic Westport. And a rotary phone sits on the counter.

It’s a throwback — to the days, say, of striped poles and barbers in white uniforms.

“It rings loud,” longtime owner Tom Ghianuly explains. “We can hear it over the clippers and whatnot.”

There’s just one problem: Younger customers can’t use it.

They warily stick their fingers in the dial holes, then push futilely. They have no idea you are supposed to turn the dial all the way, until it goes no further.

That’s okay. There’s no reason to borrow Tommy’s rotary phone.

Even 8-year-olds have cells.

Tom Ghianuly’s 50 Years

Last Saturday, I got what’s left of my hair cut.

Not exactly blog-worthy — except for this:

When Tom Ghianuly — who has been my barber at his Compo shop since I was a teenager, and who cut my father’s hair for even longer — asked what was new, I couldn’t tell him.

I couldn’t mention that the next day, over 100 of his many customers, friends and admirers had planned a surprise dinner in honor of his 50 years in business.

It’s not easy to keep a secret from a barber — especially one as well-connected and curious as Tom — but these guys did.

Tom Ghianuly listens as his friends and fans honor him.

The event was the brainchild of attorney Dick Berkowitz.  He had help from a group that included Jim Schadt, Alan Nevas, Ron Gordon, Les Giegerich and Steve Siegelaub.

It’s a microcosm of Tom’s clients and fans:  a former CEO of Reader’s Digest,a retired US District Court judge, a guy who built half of Westport — all there to honor their longtime, beloved barber.

Giegerich — 96 years old — was almost 50 when Tom started cutting his hair.  Seigelaub was 5.

That half-century span spoke volumes about Tom.

So did the presence of the Brooks family — Tom’s longtime landlord at Compo Shopping Center.  How often do landlords fete their tenants?

A few people spoke.  They presented Tom and his wife Carolyn with a weekend at the Ocean House at Watch Hill.

In typical Tom fashion, he never expected anything like this — even after half a century of work, even after seeing the Birchwood Country Club parking lot filled as he and the Berkowitzes drove up.  (Dick had told Tom he’d take him and Carolyn out to dinner.)

“Boy, this place is packed!” Tom said.

He had no idea it was packed for him.

First Selectman Gordon Joseloff praises Tom Ghianuly.

First Selectman Gordon Joseloff was one of the many Westporters already inside.  When the ceremony began, he read a proclamation.  Then he gave a framed copy to Tom, to hang in his shop.

I’m guessing that on Tuesday — when Compo Center Barber Shop reopened — Tom was embarrassed to put the proclamation up.  He’s much more comfortable with the many photos of historic Westport he’s collected, and which line the walls.

But after 5 decades, Tom Ghianuly is a very important part of town history too.

“The End Of An Era” At The Library

The barber shop as community gathering place — a spot where men swap stories, debate issues and tell tales, all under the wise, welcoming eye of the beloved barber — may be a thing of the past.

We’ve still got a few barbers in Westport — though many have morphed into “stylists” — but who has the time to sit around for an hour and yak?

Hold your horses.  A few months ago, 6 long-time Westporters did just that.  They gathered in Tommy Ghianuly’s Compo Barber Shop.  For several hours they talked about this town in the 1950s.

Normally such a gabfest would have less staying power than clipped hair on the floor.  But the oldtimers’ session was recorded for posterity — and arranged by — filmmaker Chuck Tannen.  Now it — and those memories of long-ago Westport — will live forever.

“The End of an Era — Westport in the 1950s” was Chuck’s idea.  He solidified it, appropriately enough, while Tommy was cutting his hair.

Chuck spent his career in journalism.  A year and a half ago he got interested in film.  He took courses at NYU and in San Francisco.  When he heard the Westport Historical Society needed help converting a series of interviews onto DVDs, he swung into action.

One of those DVDs included 3 very interesting residents — Ed See, Leo Nevas and Allen Raymond — talking about our town back in the day.  By the time Chuck delivered his work to the WHS, Ed and Leo had died.

Not longer after, Chuck was telling Tommy — his barber forever, whose walls are plastered with photos of old Westport — that the town’s collective memory was fading fast.  An idea took hold:  invite people to Compo Barbers, to talk about town life in the ’50s.

Which is how First Selectman Gordon Joseloff, former Staples sports star Vince De Pierro, artists Tracy Sugarman and Howard Munce, former disc jockey Ed Baer, and George Marks — who joined the police force in 1947 — came to Tommy’s one Sunday.

They talked.  A 6-man crew recorded them.  Now — 5 months later — the finished product is ready to be shown.

“It’s a reminiscence,” Chuck says.  “Anecdotes about a small town that was friendly and tight.”

The men discuss everything from why artists were attracted to Westport, to the Y’s role as a town center, to the joys of hanging out on Main Street.

“It was the end of an era — a time of innocence,” Chuck explains.  “The war was over.  People wanted to get on with their lives.  It was a quiet period, before all the upheavals of the ’60s.”

Life was not always as pleasant as it seemed.  There was anti-Semitism — particularly in housing.  That came up during the filming — along with the story of how the “Gentleman’s Agreement” was broken.

The 40-minute film premieres at the Westport Library on Tuesday, April 6 (2 p.m.) and Wednesday, April 7 (7 p.m.).  Discussions will follow.  Some of the “stars” will be at both showings.

And after those 2 screenings?  Chuck hopes his film will be shown at the Senior Center; in schools — and to any other audience that remembers, or wishes they knew, what life here was like back then.