Friday, December 21, 2007

Auburn's “Singing Barber”

Auburn's “singing barber,” Philip J. Simone, 92, died peacefully at the Homestead Nursing Home in Penn Yan on Tuesday, December 18, 2007.

The lifelong Auburn resident and active communicant of St. Francis of Assisi Church was well known for singing in his barbershops. Simone had a song in his heart for all 50 of the years he groomed customers in his Genesee Street barbershop on East Hill.

He began barbering 80 years ago when, in the Depression as a 12-year-old, he began to work at Joe Caio's barbershop on the corner of Barber and Washington streets. Three years later, he started his own shop.

“He always wanted to be downtown,” said his son, Philip.

In fact, all three of Simone's barbershops were located on or near Genesee Street. In addition to the East Hill location, he had an earlier barbershop on Market Street and another where the park across from Wegmans is now located.

Simone's likeness, however, is permanently preserved downtown in a mural next to the Colonial Laundromat on Genesee Street. A barber pole painted on the right of the mural calls attention to a figure inside of the barbershop cutting hair - Simone.

He greatly admired singer Perry Como, who started out singing in his own barbershop in Utica. Simone had followed the singer's career after Como sang at the Pavilion in Emerson Park in the 1940s.

In 1983, Simone received an autographed photo from the singer inscribed, “To my friend Phil Simone, from one barber to another. Salute, Perry Como.”

The photo surprised Simone, who hadn't requested it. He suspected that his friend, Frank Nastri Sr., who played golf at the same Florida course as Como, suggested the gift.

Earlier, Simone performed with many “big bands” that played in Auburn and at Owasco Lake during the 1940s.

He met his wife, Antoinette Daloia, at the Pavilion listening to the big bands of Tommy Dorsey and Bunny Berrigan.

“He once had an audition scheduled with Ted Mack,” Philip recalled, “but he didn't go on the audition. He never said why. It was bittersweet, extremely personal.

“He just loved singing. Sometimes to us kids it was an annoyance.”

His repertoire came straight from vaudeville. Such oldies as “When You're Smiling,” “You're Nobody 'Till Somebody Loves You,” “When Your Old Wedding Ring Was New,” and “Alexander's Ragtime Band” peppered his performances.

He never wanted to be paid.

Because Simone's birthday fell on St. Patrick's Day, he “adopted” the Irish. He liked the color green and would often go to events at the Ancient Order of Hibernians and sing. It didn't matter what the occasion was.

He also loved law and politics, so he attended political events and hung around with lawyers and politicians, according to his son.

He had his picture taken with John F. Kennedy and even received an invitation to Kennedy's inauguration. Even though he had to be sensitive to the political leanings of his clientele, he kept that picture above the mirrors in his shop.

Baseball was another of Simone's interests. Besides local baseball, he and his wife always went to Yankees games in New York.

When Simone closed up shop in 1986, he donated the contents, his barber chairs and display shelves, to Auburn prison.

“When he walked away, he walked away from it entirely,” Philip said.

Philip remembered family gatherings. He would play the accordion, his father would sing, and his mother would get up and dance with his dad.

For those that knew him, Philip said, he was always there.

“He sang songs no matter where he was. They asked him to sing.”

Even after Simone developed Alzheimer's and he was living at North Brook Heights Residential Care Home, someone playing a guitar in the lobby called him up to sing.

“I don't think he knows the words,” his son said, but when Simone got up to sing, he didn't miss a beat.

Simone lived at Boyle Center until last November when his condition deteriorated and he was transferred to Homestead in Penn Yan.

His wife also was moved from Auburn to Syracuse with a similar affliction.

“We have fond memories,” he son said. “He lived a wonderful life.”

Article used the notes of Kathleen Barran.

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