History of the West Park
Neighborhood
Cleveland, Cuyahoga County, Ohio

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Bono's Barbershop
©Gary Swilik 2008

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Thousands of West Park baby-boomers got their first haircut in the "kiddie seat" at Bono's Barbershop. With eight barbers and two shoe-shine men, it was the biggest barbershop on Cleveland's west side. On a busy day you could hear the buzz of electric clippers before you even entered the building.

The number of barbers has dwindled over the years until today only Ralph A. Buongiovanni, son of the shop's founder, remains on duty. When he retires in May, 2008, it will bring an end to Bono's Barbershop after 57 years in business at the corner of West 139th and Lorain Avenue.

The shop was opened in 1951 by the late Ralph "Bono" Buongiovanni, Sr. He chose to use the shortened name of "Bono" on the business rather than his full surname.

"The first part of our name – 'Buono' - means good," explains Ralph's son. "We sure couldn’t use Buongiovanni," he chuckles. "Imagine 12 letters up there on the sign!"

Ralph Sr. is invariably remembered as cheerful and lighthearted. In fact, the specific term the author heard most often is "happy-go-lucky." Ralph was a very well-liked man. His good nature and optimism were doubly appreciated by those who were aware of the heart-breaking tragedy Ralph and his wife lived through in the 1940s. With the permission of the family, that story will be told for the first time later in this article.

Raffale "Ralph" Buongiovanni was born in 1910 in the little village of Coreno Ausonio, Italy, about 75 miles southeast of Rome. His father, Antonio, came to the United States sometime before 1923 seeking greater economic opportunities. Satisfied he could build a better future here, Antonio sent for his family. However he was never able to persuade his wife (Ralph's mother) to leave her home in Italy.

As a result, Antonio eventually returned to Italy to rejoin his wife but his description of the bright employment outlook in the U.S. was not lost on his son Ralph.

In 1926 Ralph boarded the ship SS Conte Rosso in Naples, Italy, and traveled third-class to New York City. He was barely 16 years old when he arrived. He settled in Cleveland in the Italian neighborhood around West 65th and Detroit Avenue.

Apparently Ralph first learned his barbering skills from a friend and fellow Italian immigrant who lived in the same neighborhood. By 1929 he was earning a living with scissors and clippers. In the early 1930s he went to work in a small barber shop at West 140th and Lorain where he met another young barber named Joe Posa.

Joseph Posa was born in 1908 in Ottawa, Illinois, the son of Hungarian immigrants. When he was four years old his mother took Joe and his two sisters to Europe where the grandmother was ill.

They sailed aboard the Carpathia, a voyage that was interrupted when the ship received a distress call from the sinking Titanic. At 4 o'clock in the morning they reached the scene of the disaster and rescued seven-hundred passengers from the icy sea. In later years Joe recalled "seeing all the people in the water."

Joe and his family did finally reach Europe where Joe remained until his older teenage years. Eventually the entire family returned to the United States and rejoined Joe's father who was then living in Cleveland.

"In 1925 when I came here, my father was a barber," Joe remembered. "He had a shop on the southwest corner of West 58th Street and Bridge Avenue. My father wanted me to become a barber, too. He told me scissors and razors are lighter than a shovel and wheel barrel - cleaner, too!" Joe took his father's advice.

"My dad went to barber college in downtown Cleveland," Joe Posa's daughter Veronica Valega, now of North Ridgeville, remembers. "He liked being a barber. For a while he worked in his father's barber shop."

A new job brought Joe Posa to the West Park area. Friends told Joe about a barber who owned a shop at 13960 Lorain Avenue at the northeast corner of West 140th. He needed another barber to handle some of the workload. Joe went to the shop and got the position, proving his skills by giving the owner a shave!

(The shop was an addition to the front of an old frame house. Vee's Freeze custard stand opened in the same storefront during the 1970s. Older residents will also recall the West Park Poultry Market which operated in the back of the building for years. The house and shop was torn down in the early 1980s.)

Soon the shop owner, an older man, decided the steady work was still too much for him and he began to take a couple days off every week. To fill in, he brought in a young Italian boy, Ralph Buongiovanni. Joe remembered Ralph spending some nights sleeping in the back of the shop in the early years.

The shop owner later decided to sell the business entirely. The price was six-hundred dollars; a lot of money at the time but Joe and Ralph pooled their resources and were able to buy it.

Meanwhile, Joe Posa married Esther Dobrosi in 1934 and established a family which would eventually include two daughters and a son. At around the same time, Ralph Buongiovanni met his future wife, Connie Pullo.

Concetta "Connie" Pullo was born in Cleveland in 1911, the daughter of Italian immigrants. When Connie was about four years old her family returned to Italy where Connie's mother soon passed away. Connie and her two sisters were then raised by close relatives in Italy, finally returning to Cleveland in 1920. Connie was living with one of her married sisters on East 114th Street at the time she met Ralph Buongiovanni.

"I believe my parents met at a dance hall on West 25th," says daughter, Linda Buongiovanni Setla, now of Brunswick, Ohio. "They both loved dancing."

Raffale "Ralph" & Concetta "Connie" (Pullo) Buonigiovanni about the time of their marriage.  Location unknown.  Coutesy of Marie Priolisi Rodgers.Ralph Buongiovanni and Connie Pullo (photograph, right) traveled to New York State where they were married sometime in the mid 1930s. Their son Anthony was born at St. John's Hospital in May, 1936.

With families to support, it was more important than ever Joe and Ralph make a success of their barber shop. Unfortunately business fell off during the Great Depression. Rather than retrench, Ralph fought back by opening a second barbershop a few blocks away at the northwest corner of West 136th and Lorain Avenue. (The building is still there, a wood frame house converted to commercial space.)

At this point the history of the partnership gets a bit confusing, obscured by the passage of time.

Cleveland City Directories, which are generally reliable, show both barber shops – the first shop at West 140th and the second one opened by Ralph at West 136th – in business at the same time under the joint name "Bono & Posa, Barbers." Both shops were open under a joint name from about 1936 to the early 1940s when World War II started.

The author is inclined to believe this is correct and the two shops were a joint business venture by the two men. But it's possible the directories are wrong and there was either some kind of temporary split in the partnership or the two shops were only loosely associated with each man running his own branch.

Ralph's son, however, never heard it this way. He was always told his father's shop at West 136th was separate from Joe's shop at West 140th. In fact, Ralph Jr. believes his father and Joe Posa never got together in the shop at West 140th until after World War II.

If this is true, much of what has been written about the Bono-Posa partnership to this point is simply incorrect. However, public and private written records document the partnership as beginning in the early 1930s and including two separate branches for several years prior to the war. The author can only cite the research and leave the reader free to decide.

What is known for certain is that during World War II Ralph closed the shop at West 136th Street, temporarily retired from barbering, and went to work full-time at the bomber plant in Brook Park, Ohio.

"Both my parents worked at the bomber plant during the war," says Ralph's daughter Linda. "I remember my mother telling me my father always wanted to eat as soon as they got home."

Ralph's partner, Joe Posa, also contributed to the war effort by working at the bomber plant during this time. He worked at the plant during day but opened the barber shop at West 140th and Lorain Avenue in the evenings.

"I opened up at 5 p.m. with customers waiting," Joe recalled, "and sometimes worked to nine or ten at night."

It was a hectic schedule but in this way Joe kept the barber shop going through the war years.

With the end of World War II in 1945 and the closing of the bomber plant, Joe resumed full-time hours. Ralph returned to his career as a barber and rejoined Joe in their original shop at West 140th and Lorain. The name on the barbershop window became "Ralph & Joe's."

By this time Ralph, his wife Connie, and their son Anthony were living on West 137th Street in West Park, not far from the shop. Connie's sisters had married as well and the whole crowd would share family events and holidays.

Ralph's niece, Marie Priolisi Rodgers, now of Elyria, Ohio, remembers the good times.

"Uncle Ralph was a true Neapolitan," Marie says enthusiastically. "He was happy-go-lucky, enjoyed eating, music and just getting together with family."

"We all traditionally celebrated Christmas together," says Marie. "Uncle Ralph played the accordion and taught his son, my cousin Anthony, to play it, too. My father played the accordion and guitar. And another uncle played the mandolin. They would play Italian songs together. After we were done eating, we'd push back the table and dance. When I was a kid I used to watch everyone dance from under the dining room table."

"We used to go to Uncle Ralph's shop to get our haircuts," Marie continues. "We loved sitting in those old barber chairs. Uncle Ralph would twirl us around in the chairs after we were done getting our haircut."

Another niece, Josephine Priolisi Dziedzic, of Cleveland, remembers going to "Uncle Ralph and Aunt Connie's house all the time."

"They were wonderful people," says Josephine. "Ralph was good to everyone. We always played music and danced. Ralph played the accordion just for fun. But he cut my hair only one time because I didn't want it that short again," she chuckles.

Unfortunately a shocking and tragic calamity was soon to befall the youngest member of the Buongiovanni Family.

On December 1, 1945, Ralph and Connie's son Anthony, (photograph, right) then nine years old and a fourth-grader at St. Vincent De Paul parochial school, was shot and wounded on the porch of a neighbor's home. The shooter was a young, mentally-challenged man who fired a rifle at a group of children he felt had been teasing him. Anthony was the unlucky child in the group who was hit.

Anthony was taken to St. John's Hospital in critical condition. After a heart-breaking three weeks during which it seemed he might make it, Anthony died on the morning of December 20, 1945.

"We were making cookies when the news came," says Ralph's niece Marie Rodgers. "My parents took two streetcars to get over to the west side to be with Ralph and Connie."

Anthony Buongiovanni was buried at Calvary Cemetery on Christmas Eve.

"Nothing ever seemed the same after that," Marie continues. "It was just devastating. We all took his death very, very hard, let me tell you. Christmas just died for us for awhile. We didn't have a Christmas tree for five years. Ralph put his accordion away and never picked it up again."

"The death of Anthony affected the whole family," Marie's sister Joseph Dziedzic agrees. "Ralph and Connie barely made it through that."

"My mother never got over it," says Ralph and Connie's daughter, Linda Setla. "She had the bullet in a little jewelry box on her dresser and Anthony's first communion picture on the wall over the bed. I finally made her get rid of the bullet. I watched her throw it away."

"Several times when I was growing up," Linda goes on, "my brother Ralph got a play gun set from people as a Christmas gift. My mother didn't scold the people who gave the gift, and she appreciated the thought, but she would make certain my brother didn't keep it. She just didn't want to see him playing with it."

Ralph Jr. is philosophical about the death of his brother Anthony. "He was in the wrong place at the wrong time," he shakes his head sadly.

The pain of so tragically losing their first son never completely left them but Ralph and Connie did go on and there were still many good times ahead. Their second son Ralph joined the family in 1946. Daughter Linda was born in 1947. The family moved to a new house on Emery Avenue, between West 140th and West 143rd.

And, in spite of what many believe, Ralph even played the accordion again. "I kind of conned him into it," Ralph Jr. admits with a smile. "In fact, I still have the accordion."

Joe Posa and Ralph continued in their barbershop at West 140th and Lorain. By 1950, they had four barbers squeezed into the little shop: partners Joe and Ralph, along with employees Harry Early and Bill Kushner. With the need for more space, Ralph began searching for a way to expand the business.

Fortunately the corner lot at West 139th, on the other side of Lorain Avenue, was available. Since the 1920s it had been the site of Frank M. Bach's plumbing company, a wood-frame structure. The plumbing business closed in the late 1940s.

"The lot across the street where the plumber's shanty used to be was auctioned off," Joe Posa later remembered. "Ralph bought it and built a new barbershop. I just went in as a partner in the business."

Barber Harry Early, now of Parma Heights, Ohio, also has memories of this period. "After barber college I went to work at Reininger's shop on the tenth floor of the Terminal Tower," says Harry. "I then went to work for Ralph Buongiovanni, Sr. in November, 1950, just before the big snowstorm. Ralph had a very small shop (at West 140th) but owned a parcel of land across Lorain Avenue and said his new shop would be built in the spring."

The barber shop Ralph built at 13901 Lorain Avenue was designed from the ground up to be a real haircut emporium! "My dad even helped do some of the electrical and brick work," recalls Ralph Jr.

In 1951 "Ralph & Joe's" moved into the new building. In addition to a modern brick shop with plenty of space, there was a paved lot with off-street parking and a full basement with a lunch room. Ralph even included a hatch in the floor, still there today, so hair clippings could be swept down a chute to a trash can in the basement.

Within a few years seven barbers were at work in the new shop and business was brisk in the 1950s era of short, neatly-trimmed hair.

Most of the barbers brown-bagged their lunch and ate in the shop. It was simpler than ordering for such a large crew and they could easily be summoned back to their stations if needed. Eventually a simple electric bell system was rigged up between the shop and the basement lunchroom, allowing Ralph to call for extra help with the push of a button.

In 1954, Ralph & Joe's air-conditioned barbershop was a popular place, not only for a haircut, but to get together with other fans and watch the Cleveland Indians battle the New York Giants in the World Series.  Unfortunately the Indians lost four straight games and the title went to New York.

For the patrons at Ralph & Joe's, the World Series was particularly up-close-and-personal that year because one of the Indians' star players, Mike "The Big Bear" Garcia, was a regular customer at the shop.

"I remember one time Mike was in the shop in 1954," Ralph's daughter Linda fondly recalls. "My brother and I were just little but he was so nice to us. He was a regular customer and buddies with my dad. He gave my brother a Louisville Slugger bat and signed pictures for us."

In addition to Mike Garcia, barber Harry Early remembers Cleveland Indians players George Strickland and Ray Fosse coming in for hair cuts. Cleveland Brown's Hall-of-Famer Dante Lavelli was also a customer.

Joseph P. Sardelle, now of Middleburgh Heights, Ohio, was a barber at the shop during the 1950s and shares similar memories

"Two of our customers were Cleveland Indians Tito Francona and Mike Garcia," says Joe. "Mike was a real nice guy. When business was slow we'd throw the ball around out back in the parking lot. Mike would sometimes join in and play catch. Sometimes he got a bit too fast for us amateurs and I'd have to tell him to slow down," he laughs.

Of course, most of the shop patrons were not sports stars and many of them have now moved out to the suburbs.

"It's like old home week when I go to Parma Heights City Hall," says Harry Early, "where I see many of our former customers. There's Martin Zanotti, Sr. and also his son, Martin Zanotti Jr., now mayor of Parma Heights. Also Law Director C. Anthony Stavole and Robert Verdile, Director of Economic Development."

In 1955, Ralph and Joe's Barbershop lost one of the two original partners when Joe Posa left to go into business for himself.

"My dad opened his own shop in Olmsted Falls," says Joe's daughter Veronica. "It was called simply 'Joe's Barber Shop,' located at Stearns and Bagley Roads at the side of a grocery store. It used to be the Corner Food store but I think there's a big IGA there now. The original building may be still be there, too."

Old city directories show the exact address of Joe Posa's shop was 27087 Bagley Road, not far from the Posa residence in Olmsted Falls. Joe successfully operated the one-man business for the next fifteen years, retiring in 1970 at age 62.

Meanwhile, back in West Park, the former "Ralph & Joe's" officially became "Bono's Barber Shop," under sole ownership of Ralph Buongiovanni. He soon increased the number of barbers to eight making it necessary for two barbers to share one sink.

"I think it was the biggest shop on the west side," says barber Joe Sardelle. "The average shop in those days had one or two barbers at most. At Bono's we had eight!

This period, when Bono's advertised "8 Barbers At All Times," is best-remembered by most West Park baby-boomers. The author fondly recalls childhood visits to Bono's during this time, the crowded, brightly-lit shop, the lively conversation and booming laughter, the loud hum of electric clippers, the smell of shoe polish, leather, Bay Rum and Butch Wax. There was a sense just being in the shop made you part of something very masculine and very adult.

"I remember my dad taking me to Bono's on Saturday for a haircut," says Bill Chapo, now of Knoxville, Tennessee. "It was always busy. I bet most of West Park got their hair cut there. Some guys wanted a certain barber so you would have to wait a little longer for his chair to open up. I remember looking forward to the summer haircut, a 'flat top' was the norm for the baseball season."

Other customers have particular memories of Ralph Buongiovanni, Sr.

"He was happy-go-lucky and always smiling," says Ronald Coreno of Parma, Ohio. "I knew Ralph because my father had actually come to America on the same ship with him back in the 1920s."

Father John E. Manning, of St. Vincent DePaul church, grew up in West Park and remembers getting his haircuts from Ralph.

"Before he finished cutting my hair," says Father Manning, "he would stand in front of me, put his hands on my knees, look right into my face, and check my sideburns, making certain everything was even."

Of course with crowds of customers and so many barbers on duty it became necessary to develop a method to determine who was to be served next and which barber had the honors. A simple "Take-A-Number" system was established.

"The barbers worked on commission and in some shops it could get pretty cut-throat," explains Joe Sardelle, "with barbers jumping on customers as soon as they came in the door. Ralph was a good guy and very fair. That's where Ralph's customer-number system came in."

"Some barbers had their regular customers," says Joe, "but if one barber had given five haircuts, and another guy only two, some of us might go down in the basement to the lunchroom for awhile and let the guy with less business catch up. Ralph tried to make certain everyone made about the same money and no one got left out."

You don't see shoe-shine men in barbershops anymore but they were once a familiar sight in larger establishments. At Bono's the shoe-shine station was located along the east wall, opposite the barbers. You climbed up into one of two raised chairs and placed your feet on metal stirrups, putting your shoes at the perfect height for the shoe shine man to get at.

"Everyone wore nice shoes then," explains Joe Sardelle. "Not like today when everyone wears tennis shoes. Our shoe-shine guys did a great job. They produced a fantastic spit-shine!"

"Customers liked their shoe-shine so much," says Ralph Jr., "they'd bring in other shoes and leave them with us to be polished. At one time our men were so busy we had bags of polished shoes lined up under the waiting seats. More bags of shoes, still waiting to be polished, were stacked in the basement."

"Finally our two shoe-shine men told my dad the only way to keep up was to take the shoes home on Saturday and bring them back polished on Monday. Dad was worried about being responsible for all those shoes but he eventually agreed and it worked out."

"Our shoe-shine station went out in the late 1970's," Ralph Jr. smiles, "when the tennis shoe movement came in." Today the old shoe-shine stand collects dust in the shop basement, proud relic of a bygone era.

Bono's marketing efforts consisted of ads in the Yellow Pages and the St. Vincent DePaul church bulletin. They also produced some advertising novelties such as combs, calendars, and matchbooks. One brightly-colored red, white, and blue matchbook, for example, features a smiling bathing-beauty in a "Betty Grable pose."

Bono's also sponsored some St. Vincent DePaul and Ascension baseball teams in the early 1960s. A few of the trophies are still displayed in the back of the shop.

Naturally many youngsters received their very first professional haircut at Bono's. The shop had a special kiddie seat with a painted pony-head. Toddlers could pretend they were the Lone Ranger riding the range, distracting them from the scary electric clippers. That same old kiddie seat still sees occasional duty at Bono's today.

Many barbers worked at Bono's over the years and the author has attempted to gather as many names as possible. In addition to Ralph Buongiovanni, Joe Posa, and Ralph's son, Ralph A. Buongiovanni, there was Harry Early, John Bartholomew, Joe Donofrio, Bill Kushner, John Parente, Joe Sardelle, Frank Sienczak, Walter Sonnenberg, Tony Vento, and Tony Voce.

Some of these barbers went on to work in other shops or even started their own. Joe Sardelle, for instance, worked at Bono's from about 1955 to 1960. Then he and Tony Voce left to open "Tony & Joe's Puritas Park Barber Shop" at Puritas Plaza which operated until 1980. Joe Sardelle is now retired but Tony Voce is still barbering at his own shop in Fairview Park.

Ralph A. Buongiovanni, son of Ralph the founder, joined his father and the crew at Bono's in December, 1964, after graduating from Cleveland Barber College. He met his wife, Jacqueline Butler, in Berea and today they are the parents of an adult son and daughter.

Yes, Bono's Barber Shop was a very successful enterprise but the changing social climate that would eventually impact negatively on the industry began to show up as early as the mid 1960s.

The experience of John Parente, who was a barber at Bono's from about 1965 to 1970, illustrates the problem.

John and his wife Linda, of Cleveland, were born in Italy in the same little town where Ralph Buongiovanni was born. John was even acquainted with the family in Italy. He came to the United States in 1947 at the age of 16.

"My husband was one of the last barbers to be hired at Bono's," says Mrs. Parente. "His was the last chair in the shop. The Beatles had become popular and longer hairstyles were in. Business fell off dramatically. John was treated well by Ralph but there were so few customers he had to leave. He never barbered again although he kept his license for a while."

"Men used to get a hair cut every two weeks whether they needed it or not," explains Ralph Jr.  "Then long hair came in. Pretty soon even older, regular customers began to get in the habit of getting their hair cut less often."

By the 1980s the crew at Bono's was down to three barbers: Ralph Sr., his son Ralph, and Harry Early.

Ralph Sr. began to come in less often and finally retired. In his free time he bowled a bit and took pleasure in fishing. He and wife Connie got to spend time together at their winter home in Florida where Ralph would sometimes charter a boat and enjoy fishing on the ocean.

Ralph Buongiovanni Sr. passed away in Florida on February 1, 1990, at the age of 79. After services at Ascension Church on Puritas Avenue he was buried in Holy Cross Cemetery in Brook Park, Ohio.

Ralph's old partner, Joe Posa, attended Ralph's funeral. He died a mere 18 days later on February 19th, 1990 at the age of 81.

Connie Buongiovanni, Ralph's wife, lived to age 93 enjoying many years with her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She passed away December 14, 2004.

Anthony Buongiovanni, who died so tragically at such a young age, has been moved from his original burial site at Calvary Cemetery and now lies beside his parents at Holy Cross.

Through the 1990s and up until recently, Bono's Barbershop continued to offer the services of two expert barbers: Harry Early, who started way back in 1950, and Ralph Buongiovanni Jr., who succeeded his father as owner.

Harry Early reluctantly retired in August, 2006, after nearly 56 years working with the Buongiovanni Family. He's glad to share his thoughts on his original employer.

"Ralph Sr. was very strict but an excellent manager," Harry fondly recalls. "He was like a father to me even though not much older. He kept adding barbers until he had eight in all. All of them were excellent and we become one of the top shops in the country. I loved the shop and the customers. That's why I stayed 56 years."

Ralph A. Buongiovanni continues as the sole barber in the business his father began so long ago. Cheerful and friendly, always ready with a story or joke, he welcomes customers to the first chair in front of the big window. When he retires in May, 2008, he will be missed, along with the barbershop that became a West Park institution. The old corner just won't seem the same with anything but Bono's Barber Shop on it.


UPDATE (May 2015): Ralph Bono, Jr., retired in May 2008. Most of the equipment and furnishings were sold. Bono's Barber Shop remained empty until 2012 when it was purchased by an adjoining business and demolished to allow for additional parking.


 

Harold James Early, who worked at Bono's Barber Shop for 56 years and was one of the best-known barbers in West Park, passed away on March 20, 2011. He always spoke fondly of his years at Bono's and missed his many loyal customers.

 


Photo Gallery. 2007
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Photos by Gary Swilik

   

   


Paper matchbook cover.


Memories of Bono's Barbershop

  Ralph Bono was one of our neighbors when we lived on West 137th St. in the late 1930s.  He was our family barber for years, even after we moved to the Puritas Road. area. My father brought both my brother and later my son to his shop for their first haircuts.

     ---  Carol Nichols Henninger, Brook Park, OH. Nov. 13, 2009

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Created by: Charles C. Chaney
12 May 2015