Gene Lato Is Celebrating 60 Years At Central Barber Shop on Hooper

Gene Lato is celebrating 62 years as a barber and 60 years as owner of the Central Barber Shop on Hooper Road.

In fact, Central Barber Shop may be the oldest business in Central, certainly one of the oldest.

Gene hung out his shingle April 1, 1961, in the old car dealership building at the corner of Hooper and Sullivan roads. Julian Robinson started the Kaiser-Frazer car dealership in the 1940’s. By 1961, Mr. Robinson was operating a service station and repair shop in the building.

Gene’s shop looked across the street south toward what was then Central High School. The legendary J.A. Smith was the principal. “Mr. Smith was one of my customers and a super man! He ran the show at Central High School, that’s for sure!  He was a strong disciplinarian.” Gene said.

“Central was totally country then,” he said. “Life was a bit slower. There’s a faster pace now.”

He doesn’t think any of his original customers are still alive. Sixty years will take a toll on your client list!  One thing is certain: Most of the famous and not so famous men in Central over the past 60 years were clients of Mr. Lato. One of them was Rep. Donald Ray Kennard.

In 1961, as Gene Lato looked out the front window of his shop, he also saw Miss Jodie Edwards’ store, a landmark in Central.

Hooper Road was not as busy as it is today but it still had a lot of traffic, and he was amazed at all the trucks that passed by, especially large gravel trucks. Ironically, in all those years, he never saw a major wreck at the intersection.

John Murray had Murray’s Drug Store behind Miss Jodie’s store. He later moved it to the new shopping center across Sullivan Road from the old car dealership.

There weren’t many places to shop in Central in those days. Delmont Village was the closest retail shopping area, and it wasn’t that far. You took Hooper west to Plank Road.

Like so many barbers in the Baton Rouge area, Gene Lato is from Hammond. He graduated from Hammond High in 1956. Inspired by his uncle Phillip Accardo, Gene decided to become a barber. He went to school at Moler Barber College in New Orleans, graduating in 1959.  

In September 1959, he started his apprenticeship at the barber shop next to Hebert’s Store on Scenic Highway in North Baton Rouge. It was located in a rough area called “Dixie.”  He fondly remembers the owner, Mr. Charlie Hebert and his son Bud Hebert. One of the barbers with him there was Joe Guillot.

Gene remembers watching the Esso Refinery across the street as thousands of workers would leave for home every afternoon.  Many were on bicycles.

A friend introduced him to Mary Ann Gurney of Central. They fell in love and were married on June 5, 1959, at St. Gerard Catholic Church on Plank Road, nearly 62 years ago.  After his apprenticeship in Dixie, he opened his business in Central. In all that time, he’s always been on his own and never had a partner.

Gene moved to his current location at 13366 Hooper Road in 1976. It is across Hooper a few doors down from his original location at the corner of Hooper and Sullivan roads.

When he started in the barber business, you had to be in the union, he said.  Barbers closed on Sunday and Wednesday.  Later they changed to Sunday and Monday, in order to have two days off in a row.

Gene said he got into barbering because he liked to be around people, visiting, and cutting hair.

When he started, barbers cut men’s hair. Beauticians cut women’s hair and weren’t allowed to cut men’s hair.  That changed years ago.

The pandemic has been a challenge, Gene said. “They made us close for three months.  We lost 30 to 35 percent of our business.  Most will never come back. When you break the trail people are on everyday, they change their habits.”

Asked if he would do anything differently, Gene said no.  Then, with his wife listening, he smiled and said, “I wish I had gotten into cutting women’s hair too!”

Gene has been cutting hair 62 of his 83 years and plans to continue in the business as long as he can.  “Who knows what tomorrow will bring but for right now I’m in relatively good health and plan to keep working day to day.  I don’t have any hobbies, don’t fish or hunt. This is what I love!”

Editor’s Note: I first met Gene Lato when he was an apprentice barber next to Hebert’s Store on Scenic Highway.  I was 12.  The late Frank Costanza was a barber in Baton Rouge for many years. Gene said Frank’s father used to cut his father’s hair in Hammond. Frank was my barber from 1962 to 1980. His son Ronnie Costanza has been my barber from 1980 to the present.

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