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Larry Mongo Talks Detroit’s Most Known Speakeasy

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I first met Larry Mongo 10 years ago at Café d’Mongo, a few months after he opened what he refers to as “the club.” In those days, and for years after, he only opened his doors on Friday nights. This was before I moved into an oversized and under-priced loft in Capital Park–$500 for 2,300 square feet! Before I learned about the Isaac Agree Detroit Synagogue.

Before I started Takoi. And a few months before I started working at Café d’Mongo. To my naïve eyes, there wasn’t much downtown, save a lot of dead pigeons, a strip club that would go through several name changes before ultimately becoming The Grind and a few more name changes after that–before ultimately burning to the ground.

A collection of micro-apartments and a burger joint, newly opened Lovers Only, has replaced the old neighbors. Dancers who, on Friday nights, would place carry out orders for chicken and ribs Larry grilled himself, that’s what Thursdays on the front sidewalk looked like then.

It was an honor to sit down with the man who would become my mentor and ambassador to Detroit, as he has for many newcomers to the city over the past 10 years. In quintessential Larry Mongo style, a short series of questions, became an hour of conversation and eyebrow-raising details. Like the part where Mongo basically said I started the club and I’m still not sure what the deal is with Ryan Gosling.

In similar Larry Mongo fashion, he imparts deep and painful truths between jokes, always reminding us to scratch beneath the surface. And take nothing got granted.

CVh: Most people tend to assume you grew up in Detroit. Where did you grow up?

Larry Mongo: Royal Oak. Oak Park area. At that time they combined places.

CVh: What was your connection to Detroit? Why here?

LM: Was probably the Fox Theatre. I was impressed with the Motown Review. It was really the first time I saw tall buildings, I fell in love, and I knew I could never go back to the suburbs. Never. So, starting in 1964, every weekend, every free break, I was downtown meeting the hustlers. It was fascinating to me because out my way there were no tall buildings in the suburbs. It was rural, everybody knew everybody.

It was really only country people. But I came down here, and I saw all types of black people, all types of white people. In those days, you heard foreign languages.

What fascinated me the most: everybody in the city was trying to make money. Either selling stores or hustling in the street. Making money fascinated me. I came from a family that believed in making money, but this time I was on my own. I wasn’t working for my father or uncles or aunts. I was on my own, and I wanted to make my own money. So that was it.

CVh: When did you move to the city?

LM: I moved to Detroit when I got married in 1968, we moved to Mary Grove and Indiana. At that time that was a well-off area. Mainly a young, Jewish area. In between Mary Grove and Puritan, between Wyoming and up to about Stoepel.

CVh: How did you meet your wife Diane?

LM: It was an arranged marriage. I was 18 months old, and Diane was 9 months, crawling. I peeked in her diaper to see if she was a boy. When I saw she was a girl, her mother saw me and said: “Well he did seen her, that’s her husband.”

My whole life, so help me, growing up I was always told I was going to marry her or one of her sisters because the families wanted to unite.

CVh: You started dating when you were teenagers. Where did you take her out?

LM: Oh, man. I believe in going first class. In those days there was still a lot of segregation in Detroit, places where black people could not go. We could not sit on the main floor of the Palms Theatre. What do they call it? The Fillmore? I didn’t know it, so when we get to the window – ’cause most blacks went to The Fox, I took her to the Fillmore – and they told me to get in the balcony line.

Then I noticed all the black people were in a certain line. I said, “No, I want to be on the main floor.” The lady said, “You know the rules. You get over there and get a balcony ticket.” It so happened I was with some of my friends from Oak Park. They took up for me.

But then the manager came out and actually told me “You know what the rules are.” What are they talking about? Then he say, “Where do you live?” Oak Park. And these were his exact words. “Is your father a lawyer or something?” He looked at the lady selling the tickets, and he said “give him a main floor ticket.” But we could not go past the first row once he walked in.

During intermission, the whole main floor was black, and they was pointing at me and Diane, saying “they sitting on the main floor. That’s the couple.”

I had no clue. I always took her to nice places.

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Dusty Kennedy