By Andy Hedden, Special to the Independent
Just ask Sampson. Getting a bad hair cut can have devastating results. Any man worth his salt knows that his hair as much as his clothes make him. I have had good luck and bad when it comes to this. Fortunately for the citizens of Laguna, a great hair cut can be provided right downtown. I’m speaking of Wally’s Barber Shop located on Beach Street. It is an institution that has been providing this service at a reasonable price for over 50 years.
Wally Stark started shearing heads in Laguna in 1946 at a barber shop that used to be along the old Boardwalk Promenade. He later moved to the Hotel Laguna Barber Shop. Wanting his own operation, he opened Wally’s Barber Shop in 1958. It was located off the alley behind the Bank of America, behind what was then Holmes Limited, a men’s clothing store.
In the ‘60s I used to get my hair cut at the Hotel Laguna. There were two barbers working at that time; a really old dude and a guy in his 30s. They reminded me of characters from the “Dennis the Menace” cartoon strip. The old dude made me think of mean Mr. Wilson. The younger barber was the spitting image of Dennis’s dad, thick, funky glasses and all. He was really cool and actually asked you how you wanted your hair to look. Mr. Wilson just did what he pleased.
The shop was a bastion of barber shops past. I can still remember the smell from the glass containers filled with some innocuous blue liquid that stored the barber’s combs. There was a rack displaying True Detective stories that had covers of scantily clad vixens in distress. I wasn’t allowed to look at them in detail. You’d wait for a free chair and step up with no choice of who was going to cut your precious locks. One very important visit I was not so lucky. I was about to enter eighth grade and had hair befitting the ‘60s: long and shaggy. My turn came and I got Mr. Wilson. I asked him to take a little off the top. Before I knew it, I looked like I had just enlisted in the Marines. “That’s not what I wanted,” I said feebly. “That’s how a boy should look,” he replied. My mom was waiting for me in the parking lot. When I came out, I was almost in tears. How would I face the kids at school looking like a shorn dweeb? My mom asked calmly, “Wow, that’s awfully short. Is that what you wanted”? “No,” I somberly replied. She could see I was in great distress. I’ll never know what transpired inside, because I stayed in our old Chevy, but my mom marched into the shop and gave Mr. Wilson a dressing down. He died shortly thereafter; I think my mom to this day feels she was partially responsible. She cut my hair after that.
In the ‘70s, I started going to a “stylist” at Macho Men’s Hair Salon. Macho was located on South Coast Highway. The stylist was a blond babe named Judy, who reminded me of the women I used to see on the covers of the detective magazines in the old Hotel Laguna shop. It was a revelation. I not only got a great cut, but a wash and rinse beforehand. My devotion was not only limited to her coiffure prowess, but the fact that she hovered very close as she worked on me. She cut my hair for many years but eventually moved on. I went through a stable of stylists until I found the woman who has been cutting my hair for over 20 years.
But if you’re talking about barbers, and I mean the real deal, none compare to Rudy Campos, owner Wally’s Barber Shop.
Campos will celebrate his 50th year of service in Laguna next year. He started working for Wally in 1963. Still in the Marine Corps reserves, Rudy tagged along with a Marine buddy who wanted to go to barber college. His friend didn’t finish. As history shows, Rudy clearly had a calling.
He worked briefly as a barber in San Diego before a friend mentioned that a barber in Laguna was looking for a fill in while he took some time off. “I was ready to pack my backpack and head for something new,” he said.
His first hour was eventful. The other relief barber dropped dead of a massive heart attack during Rudy’s first cut on the owner of Klass Appliances, a prominent Laguna merchant. Campos survived the calamity and a two-week gig turned into 49 years. He has been the sole proprietor the last 25 years; Wally left 25 years ago.
Campos lives a stone’s throw from his shop and enjoys the luxury of walking to work, though he owns two vehicles. He has clipped many famous heads, including former Gov. Pete Wilson, who at the time was considering running for president. “It was weird. We were watching a taped telecast of him speaking as I was working on him,” Campos remembered.
I think Campos would say his most famous client is Skipper Carrillo, as iconic in this community as Campos himself. The authority on anything baseball, Skipper has monikers for his friends. He refers to Campos as Reggie Jackson. Campos is the biggest Angels fan to walk the planet. He never cut Jackson’s hair, but the former pro player appeared in his shop one day to pay his respects. And many still do. Thousands of people, young and old, make the pilgrimage to get a trim from arguably one of the most beloved barbers in the world.
A great human being with an infectious personality and million dollar smile, Rudy Campos embodies the legacy of Laguna.
Andy Hedden is a lifelong resident.