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The Canberra Times
The Canberra Times
Steve Evans

Canberra's hairdresser to prime ministers (and their wives) has died

Franco Calabria who has died at the age of 94 arrived in Australia in 1952 with nothing more than a suit-case - and became one of Canberra's biggest figures.

He cut the hair of Bob Hawke and his wife Hazel, and that of John Gorton and Malcolm Fraser - as well as four generations of "ordinary" people from taxi-drivers to waiters.

"We'd go up to The Lodge to do Paul Keating's hair, and his wife Annita would come into the salon," one of his sons, James, said.

"Dad did opera singer Joan Sutherland's hair, I remember that," the son added.

Ann and Franco Calabria in 2006. Picture by Lynn Mills

Earlier this year, he did the hair of his wife Ann.

"He was at his best with a pair of scissors in his hands, or brushing hair. He was a genius in that regard," James said.

But he was more than a dresser of hair. He was also a great raconteur and a great ambassador for Canberra, the son said.

Brothers Sam, left, and James Calabria at "Franco's" in the Sydney Building. Franco's was previously in the Bailey's Corner building since 1956, established by their father, Franco Calabria. Picture by Karleen Minney

In 1956, he snipped his first tresses at his new salon in a basement at Bailey's Corner, and stayed at the site for 60 years. The business, Franco of Canberra, then moved across the bus interchange into the Sydney Building.

He started as a barber but became a coiffeur (not that he would have used the title). The advent of television, the Queen's visit plus rising incomes widened the market for Franco's skills from men to men and women.

"Dad did a lot of research, looking through European hair magazines and offering new trends for his Canberra clients," James said.

Franco Calabria at his salon in 2000. Picture by Peter Wells

He would go back and forth to Europe to observe new fashions and then bring them back to Canberra. In that sense, he literally changed the look of the city and its people.

In 1960 the salon, with photographs and illustrations from Franco, featured in the magazine Europe Haute Coiffure. Franco demonstrated his skills around the world, including at an international exhibition in Germany.

James said his dad was a great ambassador for Canberra.

Franco Calabria was born in the town of Plati, right on the toe of Italy (across the water from Sicily). He did an apprenticeship as a barber in Turin and then returned to his home town before deciding to seek the better life in Australia. Having found it, aunts and his parents followed.

That better life involved hard work. Before becoming a hairdresser, Franco did harder physical work. "He laid concrete paths. He changed truck tires. He worked in a pub," the son James said.

He met his wife, Ann, at a Saturday night dance in the Albert Hall. She survives him.

James has one brother, Sam, and two sisters Teresa and Lisa. As well as the four children, Franco leaves 11 grandchildren and four great grandchildren. Sam went to work with his father in 1976, James a few years later in 1978.

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