Rick Kogan's Sidewalks
11:49 AM PDT, October 19, 2012
Where exactly to start?
Cesar Juarez has had such a full and interesting life that one might begin telling his story during any of the 64 years he has spent on this planet.
But let's start with the present, or, precisely, one recent late afternoon, as he is standing in the place he works a few days a week, Mr. Barber of Chicago, at 200 E. Walton St..
Some background: Given its tony address, you'd be surprised to find that this is a charmingly old-fashioned barbershop rather than a glitzy salon. And the man who owns it is no slouch in the interesting-life department, either.
Peter Vodovoz came here from his native Russia in 1991 with $1 in his pocket. He learned English, worked in the Drake Hotel's barbershop, opened his own place, got married to a fellow Russian named Stella and lives with her and their daughter, Emily, a 12-year-old student/swimmer with Olympic aspirations, in a northwest suburban house.
He regularly cut the hair of an infamous former Illinois governor. He cuts the hair, or actually shaves the head, of the great Ernie Banks and tends to other notables from the world of sports, show business, politics and entertainment. He has known Juarez for more than 20 years, when both of them manned chairs at the bygone Drake shop.
This is what Vodovoz has to say about Juarez: "He is a wonderful person, a very sweet guy with a lot of charm. He is a fine barber and he sometimes does the card tricks for customers and their children, and they are always amazed."
Juarez was an 11-year-old living in San Luis Potosi, a large city in central Mexico, when his father, Jose, gave him a deck of cards.
"I remember it well," says Juarez. "The deck came with a gold ribbon around it in a box. There was 'AA' on the cards. It was something he got flying on American Airlines.
"My father was a poker player. He would play for money, but he didn't cheat. He told me that he wanted me to learn how to handle cards to protect myself."
During a year in private school in Mexico, Juarez learned card tricks from an older student, and the next year came to Chicago to live with his parents and a brother and sister on the West Side, across the street from the now-shuttered Brach's Candy factory, where his father would work for nearly five decades.
"He would sometimes bring some of his friends from work over to our house and have me do card tricks for them," Juarez says.
He graduated from Austin High School, went to Truman College to study photography and became a successful family portrait photographer. He tended bar at such places as the Chicago Yacht Club, Hacienda del Sol, the Acapulco Lounge and at the Oak Brook Polo Club. Sometimes at these bars, and there were others, he would amuse customers with sleight of hand tricks and by eating glass. "Never the thick glasses but thinner ones," he says. "People are always in awe of tricks and magic."
His hair-cutting career goes further back than does his magic
"When I was 8 I took my mother's scissors and started giving haircuts to all my friends," he says. "I didn't know what I was doing, so all of my friends' mothers would come to the house looking for me — 'See what he did to my son's head! Where is he?!' — and I would hide in the closet until they went away."
He would eventually learn the craft at Pivot Point International and went on to take care of heads (men's and women's) at the Marshall Field store on State Street, the Palmer House barbershop and the Drake.
"That is how I met the judge," he says, referring to the legendary Judge Abraham Lincoln Marovitz. "He had me come to visit his office, and we would have lunch. He was a great man, and I always called him 'Lincoln.'"
He also has a story about TV's Larry King and about giving a haircut to a Playboy Bunny while her Bunny pal acted up lasciviously in the neighboring chair, but those stories you really have to hear in person.
He has two daughters, now 15 and 21, and eventually opened his own shop, Cesar's Scissors, near Belmont and Austin avenues, and ran it for more than a decade. He also worked as a picture framer, a cook, city worker and possibly a few other professions he neglected to mention.
But cards and scissors have always been his main tools.
"Magic and cutting hair are both arts," he says. "You work with your hands, like a sculptor would work. I invent my own cuts, according to a person's bone structure, and I invent my own card moves."
As a fan of magic, I have seen plenty of performers over the decades, and Juarez is a master. You can marvel for yourself by going to youtube.com/cesarjuarezmagic.
A member of the International Brotherhood of Magicians, he has been "retired" for a few years, but that doesn't mean he has stopped working.
He gives private magic performances and also private poker lessons. His business card touts him as a "Texas Hold'em Expert/Specializing in Gambling & Scams with Cards," and he says, "I am not a gambler, but I know how to teach people to protect themselves from other gamblers who will try to cheat."
Almost every day he travels from his home in the Andersonville neighborhood to downtown barbershops and salons, where he offers his services as an expert sharpener for high-end tools. He carries with him a small suitcase filled with scissors and another filled with various stones used to make them sharp.
"He came in here about four months ago," Vodovoz says. "I had not seen him in many years, but I offered him a job. I wanted him in the shop with me."
There is a playful affection and sincere admiration between these two old friends. When they get going, it is like watching a sharp and hilarious comedy team.
"But sometimes we only talk for 5 minutes during the whole day," Juarez says, smiling. "That's why we get along so well together."
Vodovoz laughs and throws his arm around Juarez.
"Tell them about the time …" Vodovoz starts to say, and Juarez, fiddling with the deck of cards in his hands, starts talking again, saying, "Did I tell you about …"
Listen to, among many guests, author Louise Erdrich, photographer Charles Osgood, the Tribune's Ernest Wilkins, WGN weatherman Tom Skilling and director Robert Zemeckis when Rick Kogan hosts "The Afternoon Shift" 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on WBEZ-FM 91.5.
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