Franco Insana, Pittsburgh’s blindfolded barber

A photograph from 1974 shows Franco Insana at his best: dressed in a suit and tie, with a comb in his hand.

Flanked by dozens of young women in impeccable white uniforms, the renowned Pittsburgh hairdresser demonstrates his techniques on a ringlet-haired model. She grins, and the students intently observe every move.

Students watch Franco Insana demonstrate hairstyling techniques at one of his beauty academies in 1974.

Mr. Insana was the namesake owner of Franco Beauty Academy, which operated schools Downtown and in Charleroi, Ambridge and New Kensington. With an Italian accent, thick, expressive eyebrows and a virtuosic ability to cut hair blindfolded, Mr. Insana branded himself as a creative force with “exotic” European flair.

“He was almost like a machine, the way his hands moved,” recalled his son, who is also named Franco Insana. “He was competitive in a way, constantly striving to do it better, quicker, smoother.”

The neatly-mustachioed face of the elder Mr. Insana was a fixture in local newspapers. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette archives hold dozens of pictures of him cutting hair, visiting children in hospitals and wielding trophies from hairstyling competitions in New York and Milan.         

Less frequently pictured was Antonina “Nina” Insana, the hairstylist’s wife and the organizational backbone of the family business, which included the beauty schools and several associated hair salons. While her charismatic husband wowed the spectators, Mrs. Insana kept the books.       

Famed Pittsburgh hairdresser Franco Insana gives his daughter Lina her first haircut in 1971.

Lina Insana, the couple’s daughter who now teaches Italian Studies at the University of Pittsburgh, said the three or four competing beauty schools were similarly led by charismatic men. “In the ‘50s and ‘60s, the ‘worker bees’ were women, but at the top, the creative geniuses were all men,” she recalled.

“The person behind the schools really mattered. Their image really mattered; they were a kind of celebrity,” Ms. Insana said. She recalled the persona her father cultivated to set himself apart from the competition.

“He would exaggerate his Italian accent to seem more exotic and interesting and accentuate the fact that he was Italian, from Europe, that he made regular trips to Europe,” she said. “That was part of his celebrity appeal.”

That “celebrity appeal” drew dozens of students clad in white uniforms, many of them young Italian-American women. Beauty school was an appealing vocational path, a cheaper option than four-year college.

“I didn’t grow up saying, ‘I wanna be a hairdresser,’” said Joyce Mollick, who recently retired from the salon business. Before she attended Franco Beauty Academy, she “had never even used a curling iron.”

The few archival images from inside the beauty school document a robust female community, which came to include young gay men during the ‘80s, according to Ms. Insana.

One article in The Pittsburgh Press documented final exams at Franco Beauty Academy in 1985. The photographs show an exam proctor — who sports a voluminous rendition of Princess Diana’s haircut — solemnly advising an aspiring graduate. The young woman, also rocking a delightfully “‘80s” haircut, carefully styles the hair of the model: her own mother.

“It was an environment that I loved,” Ms. Insana said of the beauty school. “Going to proms was easy because I had a whole school willing to do my hair and makeup.”

The hairstyling patriarch died in 1974. His wife took over the business after his passing, but she faced steep challenges as a business-owning widow in a male-dominated industry. What was Franco Beauty Academy, after all, without Franco?

An open house event at the Charleroi beauty school in 1971.

The two Insana children said owners of competing beauty schools saw opportunity in their father’s death.

“When my mother took over, it was really hard for her because her competitors were men, and they were pretty ruthless. One particular competitor ‘let it be known’ in the community that my mother had passed away and that the business was going under,” Ms. Insana said. “The brand was gone, the celebrity was gone. My mom didn’t have that panache, the creativity or appeal.”

The beauty school operation downsized when Mr. Insana first became sick; two of the four academies shuttered close to the time of his death. The last school was sold in 1989.

“I keep getting back to my mom,” said the younger Mr. Insana, reflecting on her quiet demeanor and decision to leave Italy with a blindfolded barber. “My mom took a chance too.”

Marella Gayla is an intern at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and a rising senior at Harvard. You can find her on Twitter @marellagayla.