Published in the Ithaca Journal February 10, 2004

Rongovian Embassy re-opens

by Bill Chaisson

Last year Mike Barry decided that he needed a new challenge.  He was either going to go back to school to get his Ph.D. or he was going to buy and operate a night club. Last summer the Rongovian Embassy in Trumansburg was suddenly for sale, and the graduate program in psychology at Cornell did not receive an application from Mike Barry.

Barry is the third owner of the Rongo in as many years. The doors to the Embassy had been shut since late July, but a sign appeared in the window in late November announcing "New local management. Opening Jan '05." Somewhere between here and Rongovia, faceless officials were poring over paperwork to grant the Embassy the privilege to serve alcohol. Just after Christmas Barry received word that permission had been given sooner than expected. The Rongovian Embassy began entertaining patrons again on New Year's Eve 2004.

The restaurant will re-open "later in the spring. I won't do it until it's right." Barry has some experience in the restaurant business. His family originally moved to this area from Massachusetts in 1975 when his father was selected to open the Friendly's on Triphammer Road. Barry then spent an instructive portion of his youth serving in various capacities in the Barry Family Restaurant in Trumansburg, which was located just down and across Main Street from the Rongo, where Ida May's can now be found.

The Rongovian Embassy opens during the week at 4 p.m. and a visitor will usually find the owner in there with the bartenders, putting away clean glasses, stocking bottles and talking on the phone with distributors. Barry worked for seven years at the Holiday Inn downtown and spent the last three summers working as a bartender at the Ithaca Country Club. The Rongo beer list is still being rebuilt--several varieties from Middle Ages Brewery in Syracuse were added last wee--and the management is quite open to suggestions.

Although open to input, Barry is also a man with a plan, maybe even a vision.  "I want the Rongo to be a showcase for all forms of eclectic music, including roots and traditional, but also indie bands. This involves some risk on my part." Barry is only 35, but he has been involved in music promotion for over 15 years. While an undergraduate at Le Moyne College in Syracuse he was the 'music chair' for the school, booking the coffeehouse performers, but also bringing in Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians and Dennis Miller. Barry was at Cornell, first as a graduate studentˇhe holds a master's in educational psychologyˇand then as an employee, for eight years. When he purchased the Rongo last fall he was the program director for Campus Life. In this capacity he organized a lecture by fellow alumnus and Bad Religion guitarist Greg Graffin, which included screening rare early footage of the band's performances, and this past September he brought in Aaron Brown of CNN.

Last February Barry booked Derek Trucks, son of Allman Brothers's drummer Butch Trucks, at the Rongo. The show sold out completely before opening night, even though ticket prices were well above what is usually charged at the venue. This event was "the clincher" for Barry; he saw that big shows like this could be done.  And they could be done in Trumansburg. But Barry understands that, even considering the entire greater Ithaca area, this is a small population for such big shows.  "I don't want to be seen as a competitor. I want to cooperate with other venues to make sure that we don't have similar acts with the same audience on the same night."

And he doesn't think that promotion and booking is all about bringing in out-of-town bands. "It's our responsibility to bring in and to develop new and local talent. I want to do this through open mic nights, 'battle of the bands' contests, providing a good solid place to practice and supplying decent gear."  His academic background shows as he sits backs, looks pensive and says, "There are two ways to stimulate creativity: 1. Add skills and 2. Remove barriers."  Then, changing his tone and speaking from experience--he is drummer--"a lot of musicians have to sell gear just to pay the rent."
Barry has been involved in the Ithaca music scene since he was a teenager, performing in bands and producing shows. Even when he went away to college in Syracuse, his band Paisley Burlesque would come back down to Ithaca to perform. In the early '90s he produced and directed a film about the local rock scene called "Bastards of Young"--the name is taken from Replacements song--which was shown at the State Theatre in 1994.

The present plan is for there to be five nights of music at the Rongo.  Clint Swank and friends will play jazz on Tuesdays. Mac Benford and friends will get together for old time sessions on Wednesdays. Soon Ithaca College professor Pablo Cohen will be playing Latin guitar on Thursday evenings. On these nights the music begins at 6 p.m. and ends around 9 p.m. 

Friday and Saturday are "showcase" nights and many former Rongo regulars have already returned, including Los Finsteros and Lost Sailors.  In March the Cayuga Cajun/Zydeco Network will resume their monthly dances on the third Friday of each month, and this Friday the Zydeco Trailrunners will be on stage. Michael Glabicki of Rusted Root will be in town on Wednesday, February 2. Mary Lorson will play Saturday, February 5. The Campbell Brothers are scheduled to appear on Friday, February 26. Right now there is no music planned for Sundays, but, as usual, Barry is open to suggestions. 

"This is a very special room.  The history.  The atmosphere.  The physical aesthetics."  He looks around at the newly sanded and finished floor, the exposed brick walls, one of which is dominated by a picaresque flow chart detailing Rongovia's place in world history, and decides, "It's a warm space."

[published article had additions by Jim Catalano]

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Last revised:  May 11, 2005