LACONIA — "I am going to do everything I can, or at least try it," said Jim Rogato, who since settling in the city 32 years ago has become among its most visible and engaging personalities, an accomplished musician, versatile actor and public servant with untold zest for all life offers.
With a ready smile and genial temperament, Rogato relishes entertaining others, finding his reward in the pleasure they take from the performance. Recently he joined two others in a doo-wop group that debuted at the St. Francis Home. where he said that "the look on the faces of the people at hearing those old tunes again was just magical."
In perhaps his least visible role, Rogato has served on the city Licensing Board for nearly three decades and recently joined the board of the Putnam Fund, tackling his responsibilities with the same passion he brings to the microphone and the footlights.
Love brought Rogato to Laconia. Born and raised on the North Shore of Massachusetts, he formed his first band — Northern Comfort — at Peabody High School and continued to make music while studying psychology at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, playing throughout New England. At a gig in Jackson, New Hampshire, he met Judi Sawyer, the daughter of Jack Sawyer of Sawyer's Jewelry, with whom he has shared the last 37 years. After a spell in Chicago, where Rogato worked as a salesman for an aerospace company and slaked his appetite for the Windy City blues, the couple came to Laconia to start their family.
Rogato went to work at the jewelry store, where he is now the manager, and quickly became swept up in the life of the city. "J. Bart Connor really got me started," he recalled. "He instilled in me a desire to make things happen." Rogato considers Connor, whose myriad contributions are remembered by an annual award bestowed by the Lakes Region Chamber of Commerce, his "mentor." He said that Connor prodded him to join the chamber and was stunned when, at his first meeting, he was elected president. "I jumped in with both feet," he said. Rogato went on to serve as a president of the Downtown Association and Exchange Club of the Lakes Region as well as volunteer with the American Red Cross.
Meanwhile, at the urging of his wife, Rogato put together a band, the Rusty Rockstar Road Show, which for 22 years not only played at a variety of events — fundraisers, weddings and parties — but also became the house band at Patrick's Pub and Eatery. Rogato said that the band played its first gig to raise money for the YMCA, which became the Laconia Athletic and Swim Club. "We only knew five songs," he said. Russ Thiebeault, of Applied Economic Research, blew one saxophone and Warren Clement, longtime owner of the Sundial Shop, another "until we took his reed out and put in a kazoo," Rogato laughed.
Rogato also traced his acting career to the goading of his wife who encouraged him to audition for a musical review with the Concord Community Players. "I'd never done theater," he said, "never acted, never danced." He arrived with his guitar seeking a place in the orchestra pit, completed an application and was given a placard with a number to hang around his neck. then shown to a door. "I went through the door and I was on stage, in front of about 100 people," he said. "They asked me 'what are you going to sing' and I said 'I'm not.'" But, he sang a verse of "Sea of Love," recorded by the Honeydrippers, read some lines, skipped the dance number and did an impression of Wolfman Jack, thinking that was the last he would see of the stage. "We want you," he was told.
"I got bitten by it," said Rogato, who has since performed in dozens of musicals with the Concord Community Players, most recently "Spamalot," the first production of the Monty Python show by an amateur theater company. He counted performing alongside his daughter Jenna, a dancer, as the highlight of the show. "It was a special thrill doing the show together with her," he said.
Nor has Rogato shunned more dramatic roles, appearing in productions of "The Crucible," 'Twelve Angry Men," "The Diary of Anne Frank," "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" among others and becoming a mainstay at the Winnipesaukee Playhouse. He was nominated as best actor in a drama by the New Hampshire Theatre Awards for his portrayal of Nick in "The Guys" for the Winni Players and for best supporting actor in a musical for his part in "The Drowsy Chaperone" by the Concord Community Players. "Just to be nominated!" he exclaimed, his eyes gleaming, "meant so much."
First appointed by Mayor Karl Reitz in 1986, Rogato has enjoyed a longer run — three years per term — on the Licensing Board than on the stage. The board licenses a variety of services — hawkers and peddlers , pawnbrokers, junk dealers, taxicabs and entertainers — for which money changes hands as well as indoor and outdoor events — circuses, carnivals, dances, boxing and wrestling matches — for which admission is charged.
"It was more of a safety issue at first," Rogato said. "With taxis people deserved to know who was taking their kids to school. With door-to-door salesmen they needed to know who was knocking on the door." He said that "anything that's advertised needs to be licensed," offering the itinerant gold dealers who appear at local hotels when the price rises. "I look at it from the citizen's point-of-view," Rogato said. "What do I have to do to make it fair for customers?" At the same time, he stressed that the process "has to be fair and consistent."
Rogato noted that the work of the board grew significantly with the organization and expansion of Motorcycle Week under the aegis of the Laconia Motorcycle Week Association. "Every vendor had to be licensed," he said. The appearance of beer tents led the board to work closely with the inspectors of the New Hampshire Liquor Commission.
During the rally, Rogato makes the rounds at The Weirs, politely but firmly checking for unlicensed vendors. He said that he carries duct tape and when he encounters a stall without a license on display reminds the vendor of the requirement and offers to post it for him. He recalled passing a booth where an attractive woman wearing sunglasses was sitting in front of a big screen on which a pornographic scene was playing. "I told her you can't be doing that," he said, "and she said 'doing what? I'm blind.'" He said that she told him she was selling videos, but could not produce a license and, after admitting she could see, agreed to pack up and leave.
"I've seen some crazy stuff during Bike Week," he said.
Rogato said that recently loudspeaker permits have become a contentious issue, especially at The Weirs, where the interests of venues seeking to provide outdoor entertainment into the night conflict with those of innkeepers concerned to accommodate their overnight guests.
With the proliferation of special events and live entertainment, Rogato said that the lines between the Licensing Board and the Planning Board have become blurred and what he called the "duplication of effort" — even duplication of fees — has increased. He said that efforts are underway to streamline the process. "We have to make it friendly and easy," he said. "One stop shopping."
"I try to make a difference," Rogato remarked, "to be involved in some way."