29 September 2023

Canberra celebrates the life of Mr Franco, always a cut above the rest

| Sally Hopman
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Three men

Happy times: The always dapper Mr Franco with his sons Sam and James Calabria. Photo: Calabria Family.

There were few things that Franco Calabria was more generous with than life lessons.

Just ask his wife Ann, their sons Sam and James, daughters Teresa and Lisa, members of his extended family or the thousands of people who got to know him as the Canberra hairdresser – be they a life-long customer from around the corner, a taxi driver or a former prime minister.

Everyone knew Mr Franco.

He was held in such high regard by the community that a requiem mass for him at St Christopher’s Cathedral, Manuka, on 20 September, was standing room only.

“We were shocked to see so many people there,” his son James said. “You don’t usually see so many people at the funeral of a man who is 94. But that’s what made him special.

“He always seemed a lot younger than he was. At the service, there were people in their 20s right up until their 90s. He would have loved that.”

James said the family was overwhelmed by the love shown for Mr Franco after his death on 8 September.

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He said the family wanted to celebrate the life of the man, not mourn his loss.

“He wouldn’t want people to be sad,” he said. “Because he did everything he could possibly have done in his life.

“The last life lesson he left us was beautiful, he was in my arms, and he died with dignity.”

Delivering the eulogy at his father’s funeral, Sam Calabria said it had been a constant source of strength for his family knowing the impact Franco had on other people.

Born in Plati, in the toe of Italy in 1929, Franco learned what was to be his lifelong trade from his uncle who owned a hairdressing salon.

In 1952, he boarded a ship for Australia ‘“without a clue, and not a penny in his pocket”, Sam said, adding that what he did bring with him was a “passion for music, dance and the scissors and comb which he had first held in his hands as a child in Plati”.

Man and woman

Franco Calabria and his wife Ann on their wedding day in 1958. Photo: Calabria Family.

His first stop in Australia, as a farmer in Griffith, was not a huge success. He was advised instead – “better if you go to Canberra”.

His first job here was as a concreter and by 1954, when his parents arrived in Australia, he had saved enough to buy a home – for all of them.

Always an enterprising young man, Franco started organising community dances, installing his mother on the door to collect the money. This led to another of his passions – playing the drums and singing in the Carlton Lounge Trio which played all the Canberra venues back in the 1960s.

But his real passion, as a hairdresser, came to the fore in 1956. After riding his bike around the streets of Canberra at night, doing haircuts, he saved enough to open the Modern Continental Hair Salon in the city.

That same year, opportunity knocked again, Sam said in his father’s eulogy.

“One Sunday afternoon after band practice, Franco dropped into the Catholic youth dance held at the Soldiers Club in Manuka. There he met a young woman named Ann. Ann was looking for someone who was tall, good looking and who could dance – two out of three isn’t bad,” Sam said.

The couple married in 1958 and Franco changed the direction of the salon to unisex where it became, in 1961, Franco of Canberra – and a legend with scissors was born.

Women on steps of TAA plane

With curlers still in their hair, cleverly disguised with tulle nets, Mr Franco organises his staff members to fly to a hairdressing competition. Photo: Calabria Family.

“Franco’s was quickly becoming the place to go for Canberrans, politicians and visitors alike,” Sam said. “Franco’s clients included Sir John Gorton, Malcom Fraser, Bob Hawke, Paul Keating …”.

Although their father held many records, Sam and his brother James held one they were most proud of.

“We still hold the Australian record for the most times a person can be sacked by one employer. Franco, James and I travelled together to work every day. If James and I were not in the car by 7:55 am we were sacked, and Franco would leave without us. If we didn’t make it by bus to be in the salon by 9 am sharp on the same day, we were sacked again.”

Their sister Theresa joined them in the salon in the 1980s. The family moved to the suburb of Griffith, where the fourth child Lisa was born and Franco remained until his death.

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