George Jung of ‘Blow’ fame returns to South Bay’s Tonsorial Parlor for one more cut
by Ryan McDonald
George Jung surveyed the photographs on the wall. They had been rehung just as they were back in 1968. Did they bring back memories?
“I’m quite familiar with those. I probably snorted coke off of every one of them,” Jung said with laugh.
Jung, the former Manhattan Beach cocaine smuggler and subject of the 2001 film “Blow,” was back in the South Bay Tuesday night, reconnecting with old friends and reminiscing about old times. He sat down in the barber’s chair at the Tonsorial Parlor, formerly on Highland Avenue near 33rd Street and now operating on Grand Avenue in El Segundo.
The reunion unfolded in front of a small film crew working on a forthcoming documentary about Jung and his life. Jung moved to Manhattan Beach from Weymouth, Mass. in the late 1960s. After an initial start smuggling marijuana between here and New England by relying on the South Bay’s burgeoning population of stewardesses, Jung became a U.S. connection for the Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar and the Medellín cartel.
Jung got first got involved in the drug business when he walked into the Tonsorial Parlor for a haircut and met one of its founders, Richard Barile. According to the 1993 book “Blow: How a Small-town Boy Made $100 Million with the Medellín Cocaine Cartel and Lost it All,” Barile opened the Tonsorial Parlor in 1967.
The shop quickly became an epicenter of the burgeoning Southern California drug scene.
Robert Allen, who now cuts hair at Bob Roy Salon and was Barile’s first partner at the Tonsorial Parlor, said that the shop became linked with marijuana because of the perceived link at the time between long hair and the counterculture. As the first unisex salon in the area, it attracted people who would have been out of place in straight-laced barber shops.
“It was the first ‘long hair’ shop in Manhattan Beach. Guys didn’t go to beauty salons. And they didn’t go to barber shops, because there they’d just shave it all off,” Allen said.
Jung left the drug business in the 1980s, but was later drawn back in and arrested by federal agents in a sting operation in Florida. He spent some 20 years in prison before being released in 2014.
Georgette Angelos and Chris Chesson head up G2C Productions, the production company handling the documentary. They said the 2001 Ted Demme film with Johnny Depp was “one of our favorite movies,” but were attracted to the idea of tell a more unvarnished tale.
“Diving in, we found that it was not as true as we thought it to be,” Chesson recalled.
The more they learned about Jung’s story, the more they realized it was compelling enough to just rely on the facts. In October 2016, they went to Sacramento to speak with Jung. Other filmmakers were also seeking the rights to Jung’s life story, and the two had to demonstrate how they would separate themselves from the pack.
“We were competing against other studios. We went up to see George and asked him, ‘Do you want to do it raw and true, or do you want Hollywood to take another stab at it?’” Angelos recalled.
They signed the necessary papers and quit their other jobs that day.
Part of their technique so far has involved bringing Jung to various locations along his journey from Weymouth to Manhattan to Columbia to prison. Sitting in the barber’s chair at the Tonsorial Parlor was one of their first stops.
Current owner Dale Snowberger, who also worked at the Tonsorial Parlor in its early days, gave Jung a trim. (The Tonsorial Parlor relocated from Highland Avenue to its current location in 2014.) Allen, Snowberger and Jung talked about old times, agreeing with Jung’s description of the scene as a “pirate ship.”
“Our generation was a petri dish in many ways. You never knew what was going to happen,” Snowberger said.
The location-based recollection technique of the documentary also revealed how much the area has changed. Earlier this week, Jung, Angelos and Chesson walked along the Strand in north Manhattan Beach. It was Jung’s first time back in the South Bay in almost 25 years, and he was dismayed at how many beach bungalows had been displaced by Modernist monoliths.
Asked what he thought of the area by an Easy Reader reporter, Jung wistfully said “It’s a little pseudo.” Asked to elaborate, Jung laughed, “Look it up, kid.”
The remark was of a piece for Jung, who held court with the familiar ease of a man used to being at the center of attention. His speech was peppered with Milton Berle-esque one-liners. (Checking out his haircut in the mirror, he said, “It’s beautiful. Now can I have a facelift?”) Not too far beneath the humor, though, was the Zen-like reflection of a man who has seen it all, and manages to be light-hearted without romanticizing the darker moments of his life.
Responding to the oft-cited quip that “If you remember the ‘60s, you weren’t really there,” Jung offered his own take.
“You don’t need to remember. Just when when you get to the light at the end of the tunnel, make sure you have a goddamn [expletive]-eating grin on your face,” Jung said.