Neil Scartozzi knows mobsters’ secrets and celebrities’ peccadilloes.
As a barber at the Riviera for the past 38 years, Scartozzi has been a trusted ear for some of Las Vegas’ most famous figures.
Scartozzi was the one who suggested that Tony “the Ant” Spilotro chew a toothpick to throw off cops trying to read his lips. The barber learned to expect calls from Milton Berle, who wanted to know the temperature of the shop and what was playing on the radio before he’d come in. James Caan was so taken with Scartozzi that he brought the barber an autographed picture from “The Godfather” in a display case decorated with 9 mm bullets and a Cohiba cigar.
"I'm like a street shrink,” Scartozzi said.
During his almost four decades at the Riviera’s Celebrity Club Barber Salon, Scartozzi has cut the hair of Frank "Lefty" Rosenthal, George Burns, Robert Redford and Bill Cosby. He shaved Telly Savalas' head for the 1970s television show Kojak and still shaves MC Hammer. Tom Selleck recently stopped in to the shop for a trim.
"Everybody has a Vegas story to tell," said Scartozzi, who will say only that he is in his 60s.
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Scartozzi knew about mobsters before he arrived in Las Vegas in 1971. He started his career at Tommy G's in Detroit, a front for an illegal gambling parlor.
"People used to come in and wait, not for a haircut, but for a seat at one of the tables in the back," Scartozzi said.
Scartozzi earned his barber's license before the Army drafted him to Vietnam in 1967. When he returned two years later, he got a job cutting hair at the mob shop.
His landing in Las Vegas was pure luck.
One day, a customer walked into his barber shop with a newspaper from Las Vegas. Scartozzi thumbed through the classified ads and saw that the MGM Grand – now Bally's – was looking for a barber.
Tired of Michigan winters, he sold every belonging that couldn't fit into a suitcase and moved west.
"They were so impressed that I'd move, they offered me a job," Scartozzi said.
But he had to wait six months before he could begin working because his Michigan barber’s license didn’t transfer to Nevada. He passed the time by going to dealer school to learn baccarat.
Scartozzi talked his way into a job at Howard Hughes' Castaways Casino shortly after graduation. Those were the days when cash still was passed across the table.
"They used to wash the money in a soapy solution, put it on a conveyor belt and dry it," he said. "There were no creases in the bills, and they'd snap as you placed them on the table."
Scartozzi liked dealing so much, he didn't give it up when his barber license came through. He did both jobs.
Living in an apartment on Ida Avenue off Koval Lane, Scartozzi would tape tinfoil to his windows to shut out the sunlight so he could sleep from the time he got off work dealing at 4 a.m. until his 10 a.m. start time at the MGM barber shop.
"I was always going," he said.
By 1975, Scartozzi had built a reputation as a barber. When the Riviera called to ask whether he would take over a barber shop there, Scartozzi quit the MGM and dealing. He couldn't turn down the Riviera — or the chance to own his own business.
"I called it the ‘Tiffany of the Strip,’" Scartozzi said of the hotel. "It was so fabulous back in those days. We had big Texas and Oklahoma oil money. The Rat Pack used to walk the halls."
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Scartozzi looks like Wayne Newton. In fact, he moonlighted as a Wayne Newton impersonator for a short time in the ’80s in the “Legends” show on the Strip.
He epitomizes old Vegas swagger. When he was in his 20s, magazine editors offered him $10,000 to pose for Playgirl, but Scartozzi backed out at the last minute.
He favors cream silk suits with gold brocade stitching. Rings twinkle on his hands. A jeweled Jesus hangs from his neck.
"I'm a religious guy," Scartozzi said. "Jesus helped me get through Vietnam. He helped me get off drugs. He is my savior."
Scartozzi speaks candidly about two drug arrests and time he spent in jail on drug charges. Marijuana and cocaine were the order of the day in Las Vegas during the '70s and '80s, he said.
"When I turned 50, that changed everything," Scartozzi said. "I haven't done a joint or a line in years. I don't drink alcohol anymore. I go out and it's Diet Coke or water and lemon."
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The Celebrity Club looks much like it did decades ago. Mirrors line three walls. Formica covers the cabinets. A swirling barber pole lights up the entry, and soft jazz plays in the background.
Scartozzi uses clippers when he has to, but he prefers to work with shears and a comb.
"I'm an old-school barber,” he said. "There's no talent in using a clipper."
He also has mastered the straight razor shave – a skill that boosts his profits. Scartozzi often sells men on a shave and a haircut.
"It's called a soft hustle," he said. "They come in, and I start telling them about the old-fashioned hot-scraped razor shave. 'You ought to get one. You're on vacation.'"
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The Riviera today has lost much of its luster. The resort is weathered and tired, and the company has fought to climb out of bankruptcy.
The barber shop relies on business from longtime clients and first-time drop-ins. In addition to his celebrity customers, Scartozzi cuts the hair of casino executives and other locals who have been coming to him for years.
A haircut for hotel guests costs $35. For locals, it’s $25. The hot-scraped razor shave costs $30.
"I have a special fondness for my locals," Scartozzi said. "They've helped us through the tough times. I've had clients I've been doing 30, 35 years."
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Scartozzi owns the shop with his ex-wife. They divorced 25 years ago. But she is a master barber, and they still share the business.
They met at the old MGM Grand. Sylvia Scartozzi was a cocktail waitress. "We're still best friends," Neil Scartozzi said. "We just couldn't be married."
Scartozzi has only love for the Riviera, too. He said he’s confident the resort will be restored to its glory one day and help Las Vegas thrive. "What I've always found about Las Vegas is it has resilience,” Scartozzi said. “It always bounces back.
“We've been through Jimmy Carter and 18 percent interest. We've been through 9/11. And we'll weather this storm. You know why? Because we have people who are creative and innovative. They know what needs to be done, and they do it."