John V. Patti Jr., 86, longtime Howard Street barbershop owner

September 16, 1999|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

For more than 60 years, barber John V. Patti Jr. was known for his 15-minute haircuts and for wielding quite possibly the fastest pair of scissors in a North Howard Street tonsorial parlor.

Mr. Patti, who was known as the "mayor of Howard Street," died Sept. 9 of congestive heart failure at Northwest Hospital Center near his home in Margate, Fla. He was 86.

Mr. Patti, who also maintained a home in Milford Mill, bought his first shop on the west side of Howard Street near Baltimore Street in 1940.

In 1963, he moved across the street to 7 N. Howard St., where his loyal patrons continued getting their hair cut and shoes shined until he retired in 1992.

Through the years, his customers included Baltimore Mayor Theodore R. McKeldin and clothing manufacturing and department store executives. Big band leaders and entertainers such as Gene Krupa, Harry James and Louis Prima used to drop by the shop for a quick trim, facial and shave.

Perhaps Mr. Patti's most notorious customer was gangster Al Capone, who eased into the chair one day in 1929 when Mr. Patti was working at a shop at Washington Boulevard and Paca Street.

"There are some people you never forget, and Al Capone was one of them," he told the Evening Sun in a 1992 interview.

The Chicago gangster was traveling down Baltimore-Washington Boulevard to Florida in his black Lincoln when he decided he needed a haircut and a shave.

"His touring car had a running board and wire wheels. His face had a scar on the side. He was a nice man. He told me not to call him `Sir,' and not to be nervous about cutting his hair or shaving him," he said.

After Mr. Patti applied Jeris, his favorite hair oil, Mr. Capone tipped him with a $5 bill and admonished him "not to spend it all and put it in the bank," he said.

"He always mentioned that story. It was very much a part of his life," his son, WBAL-Radio personality John V. Patti III, said yesterday.

Mr. Patti's Howard Street barbershop refused all attempts at modernity and remained steadfastly anchored in the 1920s. With its enveloping white porcelain barber chairs and shelves lined with talcum powder, Old Bay Rum and hair tonics with names such as Kremel, Lucky Tiger, Brylcreem and Wildroot, the shop bore little resemblance to barber shops of the present.

Bill Burch, who retired after 24 years as a Baltimore City police officer in 1990, said the barbershop was a welcome respite from the daily drudgery of walking a beat.

"It was like a mini-command post or substation, and for those of us on foot patrol it was a place where we could take a break, eat lunch or write a report," said the Randallstown resident.

"It was an old-fashioned place. He had a Coke machine there that dated to the early 1950s, and the radio was always on. He'd turn it up even louder when his son came on to give the news," He said.

Mr. Burch described the amiable barber as a man who was a "philosopher" and a "great talker."

Born in a small village near Palermo, Sicily, Mr. Patti was the son of a shoemaker and immigrated to Baltimore in 1919 with his family, who later settled in Canton. He had little formal education and, after leaving school, became an apprentice barber. He was married in 1940 to Mary D. Caccamise. She died in 1981.

During World War II, he served in the Army as a barber.

He enjoyed watching Orioles games and for years visited a summer house he and his relatives had built at Cape St. Claire.

He was a communicant of St. Charles Borromeo Roman Catholic Church in Pikesville, where a Mass of Christian burial was offered Monday.

In addition to his son, who lives in Ellicott City, Mr. Patti is survived by his wife of eight years, the former Grayce Schlachter; two brothers, Joseph Patti of Hillendale and Vincent Patti of Fallston; a sister, Marie Carneglia of Perry Hall; and three grandchildren.

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