No Yawns With Jann of Sweden

Jann Eldnor, wearing his recognizable outfit, has operated his barbershop Jann of Sweden in San Marino for decades and isn’t short on stories to tell.
Jann Eldnor, wearing his recognizable outfit, has operated his barbershop Jann of Sweden in San Marino for decades and isn’t short on stories to tell.

As a barber, cowboy, storyteller, Santa Claus and parade rider, Jann Eldnor certainly qualifies as one of the most interesting men in San Marino.
He is not normally called by his surname, but rather Jann of Sweden. It’s how he answers the telephone at his barbershop on Huntington Drive, which essentially doubles as a museum of his adventures, displaying the various knickknacks of Americana he’s collected since he immigrated here 47 years ago.
“Still don’t speak English,” he quipped (rather, he speaks “Swenglish”).
Eldnor, clad in his usual leather vest, plaid button-up, classic blue jeans and iconic cowboy hat, spent a few hours in his shop on the second floor of one of Huntington Drive’s business plazas talking about his life before and after moving here in 1970. His personal highlights included 24 years of riding in the annual Rose Parade in Pasadena as marshal of the Western Group, which was predictably cowboy-themed.
“Oh, but we were fancy cowboys,” Eldnor said. “We had the elegant silver saddles. You had to have a good outfit — we had custom white suits. Mine was fancier; I had red roses on mine.”
This week’s parade was only the second Eldnor hasn’t ridden in since he began. He explained that organizers have gradually been paving way for new groups and riders. Eldnor said it was a bittersweet feeling after so many years and bemoaned having to disappoint so many spectators with his absence.
“It can be good or bad,” he said. “The new people don’t have all the equipment we do. We old timers, we have horses trained for a parade.
“I’ve been on many talk shows and different things,” Eldnor added. “I’ve had my minutes of fame. The Rose Parade made me a well-known face. I have an accent. I speak different. I’m eccentric.”
He wasn’t exaggerating. Eldnor’s life has in many ways paralleled the film “Forrest Gump.” A framed photograph in his shop shows him on “The Tonight Show” when Jay Leno was the host, appearing on an episode that David Copperfield also was a guest.
“They called me and then they picked me up in a limousine and brought me to NBC Studios,” he said. “All of the real estate ladies downstairs were wondering who this was for.”
Another photo shows him riding horseback with President Ronald Reagan in 1988 at Rancheros Visitadores in Santa Barbara.
“It was very special to ride with the president,” Eldnor said. “We had hamburgers afterward. He rode on his Arabian horse and I, my Missouri Fox Trotter. He was a good guy. He never talked politics while riding a horse. He just wanted to be one of the boys.”
His shop also includes a framed poster of the 2008 Swedish documentary, “Jann of Sweden,” which brought the story of its titular character back to his native Scandinavia.
“People I hadn’t seen for 50 years contacted me,” Eldnor said. “In Sweden, I became a big name.”
Eldnor was 26 when he and his wife moved to the United States. He had never been, but his wife had lived here for eight years as a young girl. Eldnor left behind work as an airplane mechanic in the Swedish Air Force, a job he equated to working the pit stop at a car race track.
“I hated it,” he said. “I was a barber. I was used to my hands being so clean and nice.
“I’m like a lot of Swedes,” Eldnor added, explaining his reasons for the move. “I hated the weather. I hated the high taxes. I hated the socialistic government. In Stockholm, it took 10 years to apply to rent an apartment. To open up a simple barbershop could take 20 years waiting on a list to get a business license.”
Eldnor said he’d always been a fan of American television — westerns in particular — and that a customer finally invited him to ride horses around a decade after he moved here and got his barber shop. The prominence Eldnor has earned with his persona and horse (a Fox Trotter named Flash) has earned him places in many parades, including the one commemorating San Marino’s centennial.
Eldnor was clad in a white suit with a striped vest and seated on a silver-studded saddle for that particular ride.
“I looked better than [Henry] Huntington and [Gen. George] Patton on horseback,” he boasted. “[Flash] looked like Mr. Ed. He talked, too, but only in Swedish.”
Eldnor, who had a job on Wilshire Avenue in Los Angeles to start out, acquired his shop after a chance meeting with a Scottish barber on the bus one day. The Scotsman was selling his store so he could return to his home country.
“He told me he had customers, but he had no customers!” Eldnor exclaimed. “I had to build everything up. In a matter of six months, four barbershops closed up and I took over, so I had a lot of luck there. I couldn’t speak English, but I had a personality, so people were interested in me.”
Another reason for business success, Eldnor added, was that he was much more willing to leave his customers’ hair long, as was popular in subcultures at the time. By contrast, Eldnor himself was much cleaner cut then than he is today.
“Then I had short hair,” he said. “I was a real San Marino conservative. I looked like Ross Perot.”
The long flowing hair and handlebar mustache came with the adoption of the cowboy persona.
“After all these years, now I look like I come from Nashville,” he said. “I say, ‘This is what America did to me.’”
Eldnor’s shop carries some history with it. He believes he is only its third owner since 1928, that its sink dates back to 1928 and that its chair goes back even further, to 1886. Nowadays, he works by appointment and around his schedule of driving to Bradbury every day to take care of Flash. (“You’ll never be rich when you own a horse, but I’ve really lived quite well,” he added.)
For the holidays, he mulls an alcoholic beverage from his homeland called “glögg” and happily shares it with his longtime customers. Dating back to when the San Marino Police Department had only three officers on staff, Eldnor said he has cut each of the police chiefs’ hair. (“Except the one we have now,” he joked; Police Chief John Incontro keeps a shaved head.)
Perhaps Eldnor’s favorite story is that he was for years the barber of choice for Christian Gerhartsreiter, who in 2013 was convicted for the 1985 killing of San Marino resident Jonathan Sohus. Gerhartsreiter was a German immigrant who repeatedly changed his name after immigrating, most famously to Chris Rockefeller at one point. He was living in Sohus’ mother’s guesthouse at the time of the murder.
“Rockefeller, he was a young guy, but he acted like he was 40 years old,” Eldnor recalled, adding that he often dated widows or recent divorcees. “Not only for a haircut, but he would hang out here and drink my coffee. He started to meet people.”
When Gerhartsreiter went on trial, local and foreign media often were directed right to Eldnor’s doorstep for backstory and information. He has a stack of newspapers with those stories; he said his favorite headline was “Rockefeller’s barber tells it all.” He also possesses a handful of books chronicling Gerhartsreiter’s life that include quotes (and, of course, photos) of Eldnor.
“He did a lot before he became a Rockefeller,” Eldnor said.
In addition to his riding and barbering, Eldnor continues his parading throughout the year. Riding in the Pasadena Doo Dah Parade helped get him on with the Rose Parade, and from there, he added San Marino’s 4th of July parade, La Cañada Flintridge’s Fiesta Days parade and a variety of others in Hollywood, San Diego, Santa Barbara and Palm Springs to his schedule. He said he also plays the role of Santa Claus for private parties and also at hospitals from time to time.
Either way, you’ll reliably find him at his shop in full regalia, ready to tell a story and, true to form, answering the phone with “Jann of Sweden,” saying “all right” instead of “yes” when answering a question.
“That’s the deal,” he said. “I’m the Swedish Cowboy.”

Leave a Reply