Gene Montemurro, the beloved New Kensington cobbler who retired after 66 years is now immortalized in a documentary produced by the Allegheny-Kiski Valley Historical Society and videographer John Bailey.
An armed robbery and some family health issues caused Montemurro to close Gene’s Shoe Service along Fifth Avenue in 2015. He has been honored before, but the documentary gives some historical heft to the cobbler’s story.
“Just watching the documentary and hearing his story makes it more real, although I’ve heard bits and pieces of his story,” said his daughter, Joanne Nicastro, 68, of Lower Burrell. “We are proud of him.”
“Hey Gene” reverberated around the society’s museum Saturday as family and friends greeted Montemurro, 89, for the premiere of “The Gene Montemurro Story.”
“He’s done a lot of good things for the community,” Bailey said. “Sixty-six years in business should be commemorated. Why not talk to a guy whose history is worth it.”
Montemurro said he was humbled by the documentary as he sat with his family, including his brother Mario Montemurro, 88, of Arnold.
Montemurro exemplifies the immigrant experience, arriving in the United States in the mid-1940s. He first worked in a barbershop then as a shoeshine boy in New Kensington.
After many shoeshines — earning 15 cents a shine, although customers usually gave him a quarter — Montemurro saved up $700 and bought a shoe repair business in 1949 and never stopped.
The 25-minute documentary shows Montemurro at his beast of an industrial sewing machine, which is currently housed at the museum.
In the documentary, Montemurro said one of his secrets to happiness is to forget about things that make him mad.
“My secret is to love everybody the same,” he said.
During Saturday’s event, Montemurro said, “Today is a different life. If you talk to someone, it’s by phone. Anything people want, they call up and get it delivered. It’s a throw-away society.”
So much has changed, he lamented. As he was the last cobbler in New Kensington, Montemurro said when he began his business, there were about 36 shoe repair shops in New Kensington and Arnold.
“There was a tailor, a barber and shoe repair shop on almost every block,” he said. Just like any family business, Montemurro’s children and extended family worked at the shoe repair shop.
His niece, Val Montemurro of Cheswick, 56, said, “I learned working there that you treat people with respect. You try to give perfection. If something is wrong, you make it right.”
The documentary is available for $20 from the society and will be posted on its website in the future.