Louis Cicero has been Shelter Island’s barber for 55 years. Equal parts town historian, mayor, confessor and known to all as “Louie the Clip,” he also, by the way, has a beautiful head of hair.
Louis and his wife, Anita, have been partners in hair care and life for 37 years. Some couples finish each other’s sentences. Louis and Anita start the same sentence simultaneously, and keep talking until one of them capitulates, letting the other finish.
“We are very grateful to have lived the American Dream,” they said in stereo.
If you need an example of Louis’s place in the community, talk to a Springer, since he has cut the hair of five generations of the family: Harry, Al, Artie, Kevin and now 5-year-old Henry. Recently, the family gathered around Louis’s vintage 1946 chair to celebrate this landmark of Island barbering and community.
The shop has always boasted a great location. Built in 1926 as a bakery and gift shop, it was called the Gingerbread House, the first stop for churchgoers coming down from Our Lady of the Isle after services on Sunday mornings.
In 1946 it became a barbershop and in 1959 Louis arrived as assistant to the new owner. Haircuts were $1.75. Although he’d grown up in East Hampton, he had never stepped foot on the Island before, and had some doubts about the commute.
Unimpressed with the size of “that little wooden boat,” he thought,“Geez, are we going to make it across?”
His parents had been born in Sicily before immigrating to America. His father didn’t become an all-American but he was the 1959 Suffolk County bowling champion. “Nice form,” Louis said, “I could never beat him. Used to use a two-finger ball and went to three fingers.” Something rubbed off since Louis is the longest-playing male member of the Shelter Island Mens Bowling League and Louis’s Clippers have been league champs 10 times.
Louis’s mother, Pauline, worked for 40 years at an East Hampton Italian restaurant, still in operation, owned by a cousin named Sam Nasca. Louis said, “Sam’s was famous. I know about pizzas pretty good; onion, thin crust, the real Italian sausage, nothing but the best. He made his own dough, nothing frozen.”
Louis ran track and played football and baseball for East Hampton High School.
He recalled playing baseball against Hall of Famer and East End legend Carl Yastrzemski, who grew up on a potato farm and played for Bridgehampton. “I played against him in 1956,” said Louis, “He was ‘farm strong’ from throwing all those sacks of potatoes.” The man who would become “Yaz” hit .512 for his career at Bridgehampton High.
Louis’ team? “We got nowhere.”
The biggest difference between today’s high school baseball players and those of his day, said Louis, is “they’re bigger now.”
Louis has three grown sons from a previous marriage, Michael, Steven and David, and four grandchildren. Michael works in banking and lives in Rhode Island. Steven and David live and work in Scotland. David was a professional musician and played with the Pet Shop Boys in the 1990s. He now works for Sky TV.
Over five decades, Louis turned his one-room barbershop into a living, hands-on museum. The collection includes some of Louis’s own sports highlights including a photo of the East Hampton High School Hall of Fame football team of 1952. Louis was a freshman and not one of the larger players. “I got creamed a couple of times,” he said, “I was game.”
The shop walls chronicle the triumphs of the Shelter Island High School teams whose players’ hair he cut, such as the championship basketball team of 1968-69,with Suffolk County scoring champion, Bobby Miller. “Coach Zabel always made them keep their hair short,” Anita said, and Louis added, “so they all came in here together.”
Anita looked wistfully at a photo of the 1982 SIHS boys soccer team. “Their hair was a little longer,” she said.
In the business-end of the room stand two vintage 1940s-era barber chairs and the 1927 cash register from the Crescent Beach hot dog and scallop shop called Strobel’s. This cash register invented the term, “cha-ching.”
Anita was born near Buffalo and studied education at Wittenberg University in Ohio. By the time she graduated, teaching jobs were scarce, so she worked the summer of 1974 as a waitress at Mitchells, a restaurant that occupied the spot that is now Mitchell Park in Greenport.
One day a handsome guy with perfect hair walked in.
Their courtship was unconventional. Louis said, “First date I took you to Sam’s in East Hampton. My mother was there.” Since Anita hurt her back waitressing, many subsequent dates involved Louis taking Anita to see a chiropractor in Silver Beach. “We got to know each other that way,” Anita said. They married in 1977.
In 1984 Louis and Anita built an addition and Anita began her own beauty shop. “I inherited some of the wives of the guys who were coming in,” she said. “For 25 years I had a career with those ladies and, just like the men, they were very interesting people. I wouldn’t trade that for anything. ”
Louis still gives Anita the occasional loving performance appraisal. “You got to keep cutting while you are talking to people,” he said, “When we have our little disagreements, she says, ‘O.K., fire me!’”
About 10 years ago, Louis won a car valued at $45,000, gambling at Mohegan Sun in Connecticut. It was his third time inside a casino. Anita said it must have been a slow news week, because the headline in the Reporter that week was “Islander Clips Casino.” Louis remembers the headline was “Islander Scalps Casino.”
Like all good barbers, Louis knows that people in the chair need to talk. “They tell me their secrets and problems,” he said, “They know I won’t tell anyone.”
In the past decade or so, Louis and Anita have cut back on the eight-hour days on their feet and have done a little traveling. They visited each other’s homelands, Germany and Italy. In Rome, they saw the famous statue of Cicero. “Same nose as my father,” said Louis.
They also spend two or three weeks, several times a year, in the Catskills, at Anita’s parents’ place. Louis’s feelings about that are mixed. “Bear and bobcats, right in the back yard. It’s a nice house up there, but once they had 32 inches of snow in 18 hours. We had to shovel to find my car. Wintertime, they can have it.”
Dancing was one secret to the physical and emotional endurance of their relationship. At Legion functions, fundraisers and school sock hops, Louis and Anita were there. “When there is dancing, we always start it off,” said Louis, “I’ve had a good partner over the years.”
Another secret Louis and Anita were glad to offer: “Live each day well,” in stereo, of course.