A Life's Story
March 27, 2021
Chilly day, chance meeting, charmed life
Mario Zava arrived from Italy with a few dollars and some skills with scissors; before long, the woman he'd eventually marry found him a job, the first step on their long, romantic hairstyling journey
By: Dave Baxter
The story of how Mario Zava came to Canada and, against all odds, met the love of his life and started a successful business sounds like something right out of a feel-good movie where all the stars had to align just perfectly.
"I just love the story of how my mom and dad met, and how they started their business," Franco Zava says.
"It’s a story they would tell me often, and now I tell it to my kids."
Franco’s father, Mario Zava, died peacefully with family by his side on Dec. 5 at the age of 90.
Mario was a fixture in the Winnipeg business and hairstyling community for decades as the owner of Mario’s Beauty Salons, a successful chain that began operating in the early 1950s.
But if not for a chance meeting between two young immigrants at a beauty school back in 1950 things might not have turned out quite like they did.
Mario was just 19 years old when he took the biggest risk of his young life and left his hometown of Godega, Italy, to chase his dreams here in Canada.
Franco says his dad chose to leave Italy because of the poverty that was rampant in his hometown.
"My dad would always tell me the biggest memory from his childhood was that he was just always hungry, because they never had enough to eat," Franco says.
Mario arrived in Winnipeg with no ability to speak English and just $26 to his name, but he had skills as a hairdresser; he had been working since the age of 10 to help support his family.
Franco says his dad arrived in the dead of a Winnipeg winter and, at first, thought he had made a big mistake coming here, but his fortunes began to change when he walked into a beauty school on Portage Avenue.
"He couldn’t speak or read English, but he went out and walked around and saw a sign on a building that had a picture of a woman with a nice hairstyle, so from that he thought it must have something to do with hairstyling," Franco says.
"So he walked in and tried to explain that he was looking for work."
When the school’s manager could not understand what Mario was trying to say, she grabbed someone at the school she thought might be able to translate.
That woman, whose name was Estela, spoke Spanish, as she had recently moved to Winnipeg from Argentina, and she was able to work out what Mario was trying to say.
"And funny enough, the woman who translated for him was my mom," Franco says.
Estela helped Mario get his first hairdressing job in Canada, when he started at the salon in the Bay downtown just days after that first meeting.
"And then he just went at it, and he worked his butt off," Franco says.
While he was working at the Bay, Mario and Estela started a relationship that would last for decades. They married, had a son and started their own hairstyling business.
"He was at the Bay for a little while and my mom had saved up about $1,000 and said to my dad, ‘Maybe you should think about opening your own salon.’"
The couple bought a building at 415 Graham Ave. — less than a block away from the Bay — and transformed it into Mario’s Beauty Salon, the first of several locations they operated over more than 60 years.
Franco says his father started work at the new salon the day after working his last shift at the Bay.
"Saturday was always the big day at the beauty salons," he says. "He worked till closing on Friday at the Bay, and they had everything booked for Saturday, and he went over there the next day and away they went."
Franco says the hairstyling business was very good to his parents and to his family. They were among Polo Park’s first tenants when it opened in 1959.
"To this day, there is a plaque at Polo Park that honours Mario’s as one of the original tenants of the mall," he says.
Over six decades Mario’s Beauty Salons enabled many young hairstylists to get a start in the industry.
One of them was John Derose, who arrived from Italy in the 1950s looking for work as a hairstylist.
"I came here in 1957, and all I wanted was to go to work," he says.
Derose had the good fortune to meet Mario and asked him if he thought he could make it as a stylist here. He has no trouble remembering the answer.
"Mario said to me, "Hairdressing has been incredibly good to me, and I don’t see why it should not be good to you,’" he says. "I will never forget those words."
Derose, 84, would go on to work with Mario for decades.
"We became very close friends, and we were really a lot like family, and he would always say, ‘I trust you, John, because me and you we came from the same background, we came here with nothing, and we understand each other,’" he says.
Derose says he remembers Mario as someone who would always take the time to help train new employees.
Mario also reminded people how lucky they were to live and work in Canada, he says.
"He would say, ‘This country is the land of opportunity, if you come here and want to work hard you can be a success.’"
Franco says his father and his mother, who died in 2005, were the perfect team when it came to running the business and that is why they were so successful for so many years.
"My dad knew hairstyling inside and out, and my mom had this great business sense, so together they were just a great team," he says.
"They were both very ambitious and really wanted to build something together. The business flourished because the work was good, and they took so much pride in what they did and worked to their strengths."
And although Mario was a hard worker, Franco says his father never really felt like he was working.
"He did what he loved his whole life and he always said, ‘If you love what you do it’s not work.’ It was never work because he loved it."
In 2015, after retiring completely from the business, Mario moved to Victoria so he could live closer to Franco, who says he’s thankful they were able to be so close during his final years.
He says he is also thankful that his dad walked into that beauty school on Portage Avenue on that cold winter day back in 1950.
"All the stars truly did align, and he was able to create a great life for himself and for his family here in Canada," he says.