Val Camilletti sold us the soundtrack of our lives

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By Ken Trainor

Staff writer


Val Camilletti sold us the soundtrack of our lives


Staff Writer

Though she lived in Cicero, for many people Val Camilletti, 78, was the most recognized face in Oak Park. An institution and vibrant presence in the village for the past 50 years, she died on July 24, 2018 at the end of a two-year battle with breast cancer.

More than anything else, she was associated with music, beginning in the late 1960s when she ran record stores on Ridgeland near Lake Street, 723½ South Blvd. (near Oak Park Avenue), and finally 239 Harrison St. in the Oak Park Arts District. She started in vinyl and ended in vinyl, the majority of her sales reverting to used records by the end, as a new generation rediscovered LPs.

Her store, Val's halla Records was a play on Valhalla from Norse mythology — as were the names of her dog, Halla, her cat, Woden, and Halla's successor, Loki, who were omnipresent. For many customers, it was indeed a kind of mythical paradise, especially during rock 'n' roll's heyday of the 1960s and 1970s. It was the place to go, and kids flocked there. As those baby boomers grew older, they stayed loyal even though the music industry changed dramatically with digital technology — including the late John Mahoney, who was a regular customer, during his long tenure in Oak Park.

Val was the constant. Her knowledge was encyclopedic and her storytelling abilities wide-ranging, which made frequenting her establishment more than a shopping experience. It even included a shrine to Elvis for those who felt the need to pay their respects.

Val was a regular at George's Restaurant in the morning. She was in charge of the music during the May Madness street fests on Oak Park Avenue during the 1990s and early 2000s. She emceed the Church of Beethoven concerts at Open Door Theatre. She even penned a regular entertainment column and blog for Wednesday Journal for a time.

But Val's halla wasn't the institution — she was, with her gravelly voice and big glasses and bushy gray hair. You couldn't miss her. But we're missing her now. 

In 2012, when those music industry changes took a toll on her business, it looked as if the shop might have to close, but the community rallied to her. Children's musician Jim Gill and his wife Sue threw a benefit concert at their house, which raised enough to "keep the lights on."

"From the moment I wandered in," Jim Gill said at the time, "I fell in love with that place. You can't separate falling in love with the place from falling in love with Val. The store is more than a store for her. It really embodies all she knows about music. Val's is a place where music is more than bought and sold. I don't think the community is ready to give that up."

Val was 72 at the time, but she wasn't ready for retirement.

"I'm not sure how to spell that word," she said. "[The store] is so much a part of my identity. I don't know how to describe it any other way. We don't just talk about music. We talk about everything. I'm interested in anything. That's part of the real joy."

Andy Mead knew her as both an employee and a friend, which pretty much went hand in hand.

"If you spent time at the store," he recalled, "you either became a friend or you were scared of her. She had a big echo. She was like human musical Velcro. She could talk about everything from Maria Callas to the Beatles, from film to food. If you talked to her, you talked for 45 minutes. Music was her lifeblood."

Mead worked at the store from 1988 to 1998 and "we very quickly became friends. I was 23 and she was 48, but we combined well." Mead is the long-time advertising design manager for Wednesday Journal, Inc. 

Working for her was like everything about her: "Very intense. If you collided with Val, you didn't forget it. She stuck with you. She was demanding, hilarious, generous, passionate, charming and loud. If you could roll with that intense interaction, you became a lifetime customer. It was like working in a family. She was a friend, not a boss."

Val Camilletti grew up in the Austin neighborhood of Chicago, graduated from Austin High School, then moved to Oak Park for a while before finally settling in Cicero. After a short stint with a bank, she landed a job with Capitol Records on Michigan Avenue in 1962, doing record promotion, working with radio stations, organizing sock hops, etc. Two years later, the Beatles landed. It was the craziest time to be part of the record industry, but she passed up her one chance to meet the Liverpudlians when her boss went to pick them up at the airport for their concert at Comiskey Park in 1965. He asked if she wanted to go and she said no.

"She hated all the screaming," Mead said. "If she couldn't hear them, she didn't want to go. She said she had no regrets."

In 1967, she started working for NMC Discount Records, a chain that had a store in Oak Park. Val managed the various stores, but when they went out of business in 1972, Val took over the Oak Park shop on Ridgeland, which soon moved to South Boulevard and became Val's halla. She moved to Harrison Street in 2006.

"She weathered everything from the Big Box stores to the internet," Mead said, as record stores everywhere were closing. "It was the force of her personality. She just pushed through. That store was her and she was the store."

But she also had a full life outside.

"She loved kids and animals," Mead said. "She was a huge advocate for the Animal Care League for many years, emceeing their annual auction. She loved golf and played at Columbus Park just a couple of weeks before she went in the hospital.

"She lived fully. She told me about one weekend in the '70s when she went to see David Bowie, the opera, and a rodeo, all in one weekend. She could span all that. She was very involved in the folk scene in the 1950s and early '60s. John Prine used to come in the store and show her his latest record. She knew Steve Goodman.

"As one friend put it, 'She was always cool.' She didn't show her age. I forgot she was 78."

As for her store, Shayne Blakeley, her right-hand man for the past 17 years, is planning to go ahead with the annual Valpalooza sale and music fest this Saturday and Sunday at 239 Harrison. Friends, meanwhile, are planning a Celebration of Life event in the near future. Stay tuned.

Back in 1997, for a special section we did on the 25th anniversary of Val's halla Records, I asked her if she were going to sing a song at a Karaoke bar, which would it be. Her reply was telling.

"'If Love Were All' by Noel Coward, one of my favorite songs of all time. It has one great verse: 'I believe that since the world began, the most I've had is just a talent to amuse. Hey, ho, if love were all, I would be lonely.'"

But as one on Oak Park's most recognizable people, she was seldom alone for long.

Of her local renown she once said, "I guess you get old, you get famous. It just never really penetrated that that meant anything. It's not part of my nature to think in those terms."


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Val Leventhal from Chicago  

Posted: July 25th, 2018 5:04 PM

I'm the other Val, or one of them. I didn't spend alot of time at Val's store, as I live some distance away and have busy making my own music, but whenever I was there I loved the store, the atmosphere, the stock, and of course, Val herself. I have performed at a few of the store's events, and always found a welcoming and actually listening audience. Val gathered folks who loved music, and so we became part of her tribe. So very sorry she's left us, but I know she is being celebrated by all the folks whose music she encouraged her public to experience and enjoy. I picture her having tea or whatever with Ella or Janis in an afterlife where real music is valued. She kept something precious alive for all those years, and we won't forget her.

Jai Skot  

Posted: July 25th, 2018 10:09 AM

Thanks to Ken and Terri for their lovely and fitting tributes to both the Legend and woman we loved and were lucky enough to have known, and been a part of our own lives! for all that i have read so for which has evoked such comments from those that had not met her, "Val sounds like a very special person" - 'special' pales, does not even remotely come close to a fraction of one of the most eclectic generous multi-faceted individuals anyone could EVER imagine. yes Val and Val'sHalla were one and the same, and her involvement with all creatures other than our own species was of a calibre that would have have completely endeared her to St. Francis, but have yet to hear mention of her also still managing time as a reader for Light House of the Blind, or choir at the Lyric. and yes later there was golf, but before that there was Val the ballroom dancer, Val the equestrian at Silver Spursranch. and even before it morphed into Halla and was just Val's Records at 109 So. Ridgeland ( where i first met Val in '67 ) just around the corner from The Fourth Plane, hippie headquarters. it was Val's admiration for Angela Davis that inspired what was to be her own trade-mark afro for the next half century. Heaven's Musical department has now been greatly enhanced!

Bill McClung from Oak Park  

Posted: July 25th, 2018 5:59 AM

The Village of Oak Park owes Val an honourary street naming...How about South Boulevard...being Val Halla Way...Keep rocking Val...

Martin A. Berg from Oak Park  

Posted: July 24th, 2018 11:49 PM

I couldn't help but notice that her age at her passing was a traditional record turntable speed--and she seemed to be at that setting for a good part of her life. A really nice person and an asset to her community. Thanks for sharing your life with us here in Oak Park, Val, and rest in peace. You've earned it.

Ramona Lopez  

Posted: July 24th, 2018 11:09 PM

I've been a regular at Val's since I moved here 22 years ago. She helped my daughters grow up with vinyl as I did. I left some flowers at the door of her store tonight with a note " My sweet Val, Your life and work are a testament to not only the power of music, but to the power of kindness,and community. You made the world much better for all of us and I am forever in your debt".

Chatka Ruggiero from River Forest  

Posted: July 24th, 2018 5:02 PM

Tony & I are so saddened. We knew Val when she was at Capitol Records and Tony was a DJ. I guess we all thought she'd be behind her counter chatting with everyone forever.

Matt Baron  

Posted: July 24th, 2018 3:10 PM

Such a fantastic tribute, Ken. This does Val justice, which is no small feat! So true that if you spoke to Val, it would be neither brief nor forgettable! I had the pleasure of crossing paths with Val on occasion, and that mostly came in recent years through her support of the Celebrating Seniors Coalition. She was our cover girl (with one of her cats) one year for the Celebrating Seniors Resource Guide. In addition to being one of our "60 Over 60" honorees--that was a slam dunk, of course--she played a key role in our programming to honor and celebrate older adults in the community. Val was emcee of our "Battle of the Bands" two years ago and was Grand Marshal of our hugely popular Pet Pals in the Park event in recent years. Val will be dearly missed. But her impact on our community--and the vibrant, caring, community-minded example she set all of her days--will echo for many, many years to come.

Jeffrey Smith  

Posted: July 24th, 2018 3:05 PM

I moved to Oak Park in 1975, and Val's Halla was my home away from home. Going there always meant a stop at the Elvis Shrine, a leisurely browse for treasures in those amazing bins, but more than that it meant being able to talk about any performer, any kind of music, or any obscure album I was trying to lay my hands on and knowing that Val knew it all and knew how to get the album. She was also, without making it a big deal, someone around whom a gay kid living on his own could feel comfortable and sense a kindred spirit. She was a friend, an inspiration and as she grew older an exemplar of how to age superlatively and contribute till you take your dying breath. As the tributes come rolling in (and they will) all of us who knew her will be amazed again at the breadth of her influence in the music scene and the struggle for LGBT rights. Addio, Val, you made the world a better place.

Christopher J Janis  

Posted: July 24th, 2018 2:44 PM

As young teen nothing was more fun then having a few bucks in the pocket for some used records from Vals. I would spend hours going though those bins looking for gold. Sometimes I knew what I was buying, many times not. If the cover looked interesting I would grab it. I learned to love all types of music from that store and my older brother. And Val was always there to point you in right direction. I went back there a few time over the last couple of years. Poured though the bins for old times. Don't even own a turn table. Found a few that I had them transfer to CD. Thanks Val

Mike Bochner  

Posted: July 24th, 2018 2:26 PM

The world will be a little less nice without Val. She was truly one of a kind. She will be missed.

Bill Dwyer  

Posted: July 24th, 2018 2:24 PM

What terribly sad news. Val was one of the most authentic, unique people I've ever known. Truly One of a kind. I'm not sure she always remembered my name, but every time I walked in her store, it was enough to see her smile and say, "Hey, you! How are you?" Rest in peace, lady.

Jeff Schroeder from Oak Park  

Posted: July 24th, 2018 12:41 PM

As someone who lives in central Oak Park, I noted how the old building Val's store was in on South Boulevard is still standing. All these year's after she was forced to move out for a big redo that never occurred. At least she was able to move to Harrison and stay in the community.

Kathryn Jonas from Oak Park  

Posted: July 24th, 2018 12:38 PM

Thank you Val for your very special music store, for all your efforts in bringing music appreciation to so many people, and for adding so much character and joy to Oak Park's small business community.

Jeff Schroeder from Oak Park  

Posted: July 24th, 2018 12:38 PM

I had many fun chats with Val over the years. She knew my father from his days with RCA/A&M records and we had many common recollections of music industry people back in the day. Just a month ago, we were discussing a band from sixties and I was amazed at how much she remembered. She will definitely be missed.

Janet Haisman from Oak Park  

Posted: July 24th, 2018 12:19 PM

This is utterly wonderful. Both Ken and Terri have spoken from the heart -a place where Val will always be for so many. May she rest in peace and know how much she was loved

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