After a lifetime of running JB French Dry Cleaners in Los Angeles, Bernie Barton has seen more than his share
“The best thing I can do for my universe, in this dimension at this time, is to be honest and truthful and do it
100 percent,” he said.
At a young age, he learned about integrity, diligence and attention to detail from his parents, Jack and Rose,
who originally opened the family cleaning business in 1945 on Western Avenue near downtown L.A.
“They used to have machines they called
cuffer machines,” Bernie recalled. “When a
man came in with his pants to get fixed — everybody wore the cuffs and there was lint
in the cuffs — they had this machine where
they put your pants leg in and brushes that
were in the inside would literally take away
the thread that tacked up your cuffs so it was flat. It would be cleaned, of course, then my
mother would tack each pair of pants. Each
pair of pants! Are you crazy? I can’t even
imagine what the labor was. She would also
sew on every button by hand. Now, they’ve
got button machines… takes two seconds.”
Of course, Bernie knows there was a method to his mother’s madness. She had a good reason for all the effort. “She said, ‘I want my customers to know that I care.’ I just never forgot that,” he said.
While he may have grown up around the family business, young Bernie did not have much interest in it. As a
teenager, he worked selling shoes. Later, he tried his hand at the National Guard. Neither pursuit managed to capture his interest so he accepted his father’s request to join the family business in the 1960s.
“Fast forward to 1963, I opened my first 700-sq.-ft. store in West Hollywood,” he recalled. “All I knew was what
my dad had taught me. Don’t get me wrong. I drove a cab at night or I wouldn’t have been able to pay rent.”
One thing helped the business in the beginning: its ideal location. “I picked my first location across from the Santa Palm Car Wash,” he noted. “My dad said, ‘Why are you doing that?’ I told him: ‘People have to get their cars washed every day. That’s my billboard. I don’t need advertising. I don’t need coupons.’ When your car was washed and finished, it was pointing towards my store.”
The business also improved when Bernie met future wife, Shelly. The couple enjoyed a whirlwind romance. “We met each other on a Sunday and got married five days later. Five days later!” Bernie exclaimed. “My wife was in a public relations firm. She would put out all of these parties for people like Glenn Ford. Of course, I would get their business.”
Bernie indeed got a lot of their business, but his penchant for profanity often kept him from getting invites. “One of her clients was the Osmonds, so when Marie was getting married the first time, Shelly went to the wedding. I couldn’t come because I swore too much. Unbelievable!” he laughed. “She threw parties for the Osmonds, Danny Thomas, Pat Boone, Andy Williams… these were my original people.”
Both in his store and on his website, Bernie likes to display numerous autographed pictures of various celebrities he’s met and cleaned for over the years. “This is my history. This is my life,” he explained. “The pictures are signed to Bernie. The pictures are signed to JB.”
The list is as long as it is impressive, including: Elizabeth Taylor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jerry Lewis, Dean
Martin, Ray Charles, William Shatner, Bette Davis, Rock Hudson, Johnny Carson, Burt Reynolds, Michael Caine,
Frank Sinatra and countless more.
One of Bernie’s favorites, however, was also one of his first.
“I grew up hugging and kissing to Johnny Mathis,” he said, recalling
dances from his younger days where he would kiss his dates as one
of the singer’s hit songs such as “Wonderful” played. “Then, five or
six years later, you are at his door picking up his clothes, dude. He
was the greatest guy. We would pick up about 20 pairs of white pants
a week and at least 25 shirts in seven days. He’d change about three
times a day.”
When you offer star service to Hollywood stars and other famous clients,
it can garner a bit of publicity. It can also mean some extra work. In 1991,
some 4,200 guests were invited to witness the dedication of the $56.8 million Reagan Presidential Library in Los Angeles, including honoree Ronald Reagan, former presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon, as well as
George Bush, the current president at the time.
Bernie put his employees on 24-hour notice surrounding the event to handle
the garment needs of the many famous guests who were staying at the Century
City J.W. Marriott, which was one of 19 hotel accounts handled by JB French
at the time.
Some of those accounts were smaller (about 100 rooms) while others were quite large (closer to 1,000 rooms).
Occasionally handling such high volume prompted Bernie to seek out a 20,000 sq. ft. production facility that had
once served as Army barracks.
During its heyday, the plant boasted 14 presses, two big shirt units, six washers, eight dryers, two 80-lb.
drycleaning machines and a 50-lb. drycleaning machine to service over a million garments annually.
The economic turndown may have slowed things a bit, but the large production facility continues to run, though
not always at peak capacity.
“It depends on the season,” Bernie said. “When we get to the Oscars, forget about it.” Every time the Academy Awards roll around, it means a lot of delicate pieces will be coming in, which is why JB
French was featured in an article in People magazine in 2008 on “What Would the Dry-Cleaning Bill Be?” In it, Bernie broke down the cleaning costs for four expensive gowns worn by actresses Marion Cotillard, Penelope Cruz, Keri Russell and Katherine Heigl during the Oscars.
The tabs ranged from $375 for Heigl’s Escada gown to $750 for Cotillard’s Gaultier Paris gown, a scaled,
mermaid-inspired dress which he described as a cleaner’s nightmare. “A train like that would take three people to steam, and it has to be cleaned inside out or you’ll flatten the ruffle on the outside,” Bernie said.
Certainly, the article earned some positive publicity for the industry, but it was hardly the first time JB French
was featured prominently in publicity that reached a big audience.
A year earlier, TV Land’s “Back to the Grind”television show aired
an episode featuring Sherman Hemsley, who played the famous
fictional drycleaner George Jefferson in “The Jeffersons.” The
premise was to have him work at a real cleaners: JB French.
“He was the most wonderful man in the world,” Bernie recalled.
“He literally spent a few days with us as a worker. He got into
the truck. He took care of customers. He went to the front and
talked to customers whether they were filming or not.”
During the episode, Hemsley did everything from sew buttons
to fold shirts. He also tried his hand at pressing, packaging and
taking measurements for hemming. He walked away feeling
quite impressed. “This whole experience in the drycleaners is
very special to me because I learned so much about it, just the
whole operation,” he noted. “It’s just amazing the work that
goes into it. It’s really a great experience.”
For Bernie, the experience of working in the industry has also been
great, but there have been quite a few hard days, too. Less than ten
years ago, he and Shelly lost their 23-year-old son, Justin. Bernie still
keeps him fresh in his memory, especially the time when his son helped
a man he idolized: Elton John.
The singer was a customer at the time he opened his Red Piano tour at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas and he
didn’t trust his extravagant wardrobe to be transported by just anybody. “Justin drove all of his wardrobe to Vegas,” Bernie said, adding. “Let me put it this way, when the trucks came back I had to repress like, say, 150 garments. They were all Versace.”
Once the million dollar wardrobe had been delivered for the show and Justin headed back home through the
rain, John’s assistants checked up on him to make sure he was all right.
The memory was not forgotten by either party. When Justin passed away, the singer’s music was played during
the ceremony. Elton John also passed along his condolences. “They sent flowers that looked like a horse,” Bernie added.
Unfortunately, over five years later, Bernie was grief-stricken again when Shelly died of cancer. Their five-day
courtship had turned into a lifelong marriage with no regrets. “We had a thousand divorces, but we never spent a night apart in 38 years,” Bernie said.
Since the loss of his family, Bernie has picked up the pieces and moved on. After a half century in the industry,
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