Since its opening in 1946, local watering-hole The Chanticleer has long been synonymous with its distinctive neon signage.
For decades, “Rich the Rooster” occupied his perch above the downtown bar’s entrance, greeting flocks of college students, travelers and native Ithacans. But when the quintessential icon went missing in January, The Chanticleer’s now-empty facade did not go unnoticed by patrons long-accustomed to its watchful eye.
The removal of the quintessential signage was the result of building issues that were first identified last fall. According to Jeff Mazer, manager of The Chanticleer, attempted maintenance work on the awning revealed that the structure was “leaking and rotting from years of standing water and snow.”
As a result, professional repairs are needed to restore the concrete base and structure over the corner entrance. But the estimated bill of the project has now tripled, with the cost for restoring the structure and signage coming in at over $10,000.
“[The Chanticleer] tried to request funding from local groups, such as the Downtown Ithaca Alliance and Historical Society,” Mazer said, but was told that grant money was either unavailable or already allocated to other projects.
When attempting to secure funding for the restoration, The Chanticleer’s owners were advised to start a GoFundMe page. TJ Leonardo, daughter of Chanticleer owner Rich Leonardo, opened an online crowdfunding campaign on Feb. 20 — which so far has raised $6,934 of its $10,000 goal, as of Sunday night.
“We didn’t, as a family, anticipate the outpour of inquiry and support that we’ve gotten,” TJ told The Sun.
Support for the project has also come from those who have offered discounted services for necessary work on the rooster, including artist Amanda Mulholland and contractor Mike Snyder.
The Chanticleer, which has occupied the corner of 101 West State Street since 1946, was first established by Frank Leonardo as a fine dining restaurant, who later passed ownership to Rich.
Over the decades, the eatery has undergone significant changes, evolving from its fine dining origins into a bar, now known for its jukebox, pool table and social atmosphere.
In the early years of the restaurant, the Leonardo family had matchbooks made for the restaurant with the inscription “you’re a stranger here but once.” According to TJ, the saying encompasses what The Chanticleer has meant to its patrons and the local community.
“People learn your name and know it the next time,” TJ said of her family’s business.
Many donations on the GoFundMe page are accompanied by comments describing The Chanticleer’s status as a landmark — which also has gained historic designation from the Ithaca City Landmarks Preservation Commision.
“Ithaca’s my hometown, and it just wouldn’t be the same without that rooster!” read one comment, while another alluded to “[l]ong ago college memories!”
“The Chanticleer and its neon facade are Ithaca icons — as are Rich Leonardo and his family,” wrote Steve Mount, a former bartender at The Chanticleer, who donated $1,000.
Early birds and night owls alike have been beckoned in by The Chanticleer’s neon rooster for over 70 years, and TJ acknowledged that Ithacans are eager to see the original signage reinstated.
Unfortunately, the project is contingent upon weather conditions, as a rubber membrane that needs to be added to the structure must be done when the temperature is around 50 degrees for several consecutive days.
Still, thanks to the outpouring of support, the owners are hoping to have Rich the Rooster back up with the crows by May 1 at the latest.