In the halcyon years of Rockaway Beach, Mo., thousands of Midwesterners descended on the Ozark resort town each summer to amble along the boardwalk, ride the Ferris wheel and swim off the sandy beach that hugged the shores of the White River. But like so many American communities once prized for their small-town charm, Rockaway Beach was beaten out by the flash of a bigger city — in this case neighboring Branson, Mo., the country music mecca that bills itself as “The Live Music Show Capital of the World.”
These days, Rockaway Beach is lucky to attract a crowd of a few hundred on any given weekend. By contrast, Branson counts about 10 million visitors in a year. So when two men, known to have catered food for The Oak Ridge Boys, arrived from Branson and set up a barbecue restaurant that attracted some 500 people Saturday nights for live music and dancing, many town residents credited them with helping to revive their flagging economy.
But the pair’s presence also generated a flurry of controversy. According to the two men, a handful of local figures, including the mayor and the president of the Chamber of Commerce, have tried — with little success — to drive them out of town. One member of the barbecuing duo, Ron Mangum, had a Jewish father and retains a strong Jewish identity, which he suggests is one factor in the opposition he faces. But he says the issue has more to do with the fact that he and his business partner, Brian Mellott, are also partners after hours.
At a recent party to celebrate a developer’s bid to build a casino in Rockaway Beach, population 600, the mayor was reported to have been crystal clear in expressing his sentiments about Mangum — who is also the publisher of the Oklahoma-based gay newspaper the Gay Guardian — and his partner, Mellott. According to witnesses, Mayor Tom Strom said that he was “tired of the two faggots down the street, and if I don’t start getting the support of the ones here, I am going to resign.”
Seven of the 16 residents who attended the gathering, including the hostess, Susan Riggs, one of the town’s four aldermen, have signed notarized affidavits attesting to the mayor’s inflammatory remarks.
Strom firmly denies that he ever made such a statement. “That never happened. Where does this stuff come from?” he said in an interview with the Forward.
Riggs, who is the granddaughter of a rabbi, said she was “shocked” by his words. Referring to Mangum and Mellott, she said, “They’ve done a lot for the town.”
Riggs said that the aldermen have initiated impeachment proceedings against the volunteer mayor, who has served a little more than a year. She declined to spell out the charges, saying only that they were unrelated to Strom’s anti-gay remarks.
The tussle erupted last spring when Mangum, 56, and Mellott, his partner of 16 years, reapplied for a vending permit to sell hot food in the public park where weekend festivals are held from spring through early fall. A recent draw was the Bikers Against Child Abuse convention, which brought motorcycle enthusiasts from across the nation to assemble in the predominantly white Bible-belt town.
Mangum said that he and Mellott did brisk business at the fairs during the two previous summers. They outsold the competition, he said, because of the high quality of the burgers, fries and ice cream that they peddled from their trailer. But their success was perceived as a threat, he explained, and the fact that they were gay raised some eyebrows. “This year, when we went to get our vendor’s license, we were told we weren’t welcome so that other people could sell food.”
The president of Rockaway Beach’s Chamber of Commerce, which issues the licenses, did not return a phone call seeking comment.
Stripped of their right to sell concessions in the park, the twosome decided to open a restaurant in Rockaway Beach. In June they set up Bubba Pig’s Cafe, where, Mangum said, they do catering for country music stars, serve dinner Saturday nights and host street dances. One local resident, Chico Vega, a former member of the 1950s super-group the Drifters, even sang live outside the establishment.
On a good night, Mangum said, Bubba Pig’s reaps anywhere from $500 to $600 in business. “I’ve never seen a group of bigots get so upset over two gay guys who are Jewish making money,” he said, referring to himself and his non-Jewish partner. “You’d think we had opened a 25,000-square-foot steakhouse.”
As a side business, Mangum publishes a local newspaper, the Rocking Times, and uses the pseudonym Ronald Marcus for his journalistic work. He printed several articles critical of the business practices of a local storeowner, Joe Halcomb, and his wife, Joyce Halcomb. According to Mangum’s story, Joyce played a role in denying him a vendor’s permit.
On a Saturday night in mid-July, following a lively set of bluegrass music, Joe Halcomb made an unexpected appearance at Bubba Pig’s.
Mangum alleges that Halcomb forced his way into the restaurant after it had closed, shouting anti-gay and anti-Jewish slurs. Mangum also contends that Holcomb took a swing at him, which he successfully ducked, before Mangum and his partner were able to eject the businessman from their eatery.
Halcomb paints a different picture. He contends that he entered the restaurant in order to confront Mangum about what he called “the slanderous things” that had been written about him in the Rocking Times. When the conversation heated up, Halcomb alleged, Mangum hurled a piece of furniture at him. “I just went down to ask him to leave me, my family and my business alone, and he attacked me with a chair,” Halcomb said.
The dispute has yet to be resolved, although Mangum said that he had obtained a temporary restraining order against Halcomb. Mangum also filed charges with the city, and was later told that the case had been referred to the county prosecutor.
Now, he added, the county prosecutor’s office is saying that it has no record of the case.
“It’s just one big cover-up,” Mangum said. “The ‘good ol’ boy’ system is in effect.”