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
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
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.
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
"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
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
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.
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."
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.
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.
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."
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
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.
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."
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."
Josephine Priolisi Dziedzic, of Cleveland, remembers going to "Uncle
Ralph and Aunt Connie's house all the time."
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.
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."
Buongiovanni was buried at Calvary Cemetery on Christmas Eve.
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.
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
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
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."
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
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."
have particular memories of Ralph Buongiovanni, Sr.
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
"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
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
"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."
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.
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."
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
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
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
By the 1980s the
crew at Bono's was down to three barbers: Ralph Sr., his son Ralph, and
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.
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.
partner, Joe Posa, attended Ralph's funeral. He died a mere 18 days
later on February 19th, 1990 at the age of 81.
Buongiovanni, Ralph's wife, lived to age 93 enjoying many years with
her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She passed away
December 14, 2004.
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.
reluctantly retired in August, 2006, after nearly 56 years working with
the Buongiovanni Family. He's glad to share his thoughts on his
"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."
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.
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
Photo Gallery. 2007
Click an image to view the full picture and
Photos by Gary Swilik
Paper matchbook cover.