Marie Laforge, one of Englewood's most colorful residents.
Young Fisherwoman Marie hooks a halibut in Alaska, 1987.
Dean M. Laux
According to Google, a free spirit is “someone who is uninhibited by traditional society structures. A free spirit might go with the flow, embrace spontaneity, reject conformity and live her life in an unconventional way.” If that’s the case, then say hello to free spirit Marie Laforge. In fact, you may already have met her. She’s the owner and operator of Mango Bistro, originally known colorfully as the Zigamazoo (her choice: “I really like Z’s”) and prominently located on the now spiffy-looking Dearborn Street. But there’s a lot more to her story, so read on. Marie was born into an art-loving family in Grenoble, France. Her grandfather, Joseph Laforge, was an art dealer who helped start the art museum in Grenoble, and her father, Jean-Pierre Laforge, was an expert art appraiser and art dealer in his own right. “My brother Marc and I were surrounded by art, and we did a lot of arts and crafts things on our own – but no TV,” she says.” Marie’s parents encouraged them to “just have fun, experience a lot of things, don’t hurt yourself and don’t hurt other people.” Marie took that advice to heart and has kept it as her mantra throughout her life. She was a good student. “I got into trouble a little bit, just enough to make it fun,” she acknowledges. After secondary school she enrolled in the Academie Charpentier, a private art college in Paris, where she majored in graphic arts and advertising. But after discussing her career prospects with two older cousins who had succeeded in advertising and film-making, she left school. “They told me that what really counts in these professions is your portfolio, not how many years of school you went through.” The year was 1983. “I considered going to England to polish my English language,” she says, “but I read in a magazine that I could go to the U.S. on a three-month visa as an exchange student and get a fun summer job, so that sounded like a better deal.” She went, and after a few weeks found herself working at a restaurant on the boardwalk in Atlantic City. She started out bussing tables, but the manager said, “Well, you’re French, you’re cute and you have a great accent. We’re going to put you at the bar opening onto the boardwalk.” It was a little wild, Marie concedes, because people could not understand her accent and she couldn’t understand theirs. “I had learned the Queen’s English in school,” she recalls. “But I enjoyed the experience, and I learned the trade of bartending.” Six months after that the restaurant closed down, and Marie landed a job in a gallery at Bally’s Casino as a data entry clerk, using one of the computers that were coming on the market. Then she received a call from the manager of the restaurant she had worked at, inviting her to go to New Orleans to work at the bar & restaurant she was opening for the 1984 World’s Fair. Marie jumped at the offer and spent the next six months as a bartender in New Orleans. “It was a little crazy but fun,” she says. “I made tons of money and learned a lot, meeting people from many different professions.” However, her visa expired and she had to go back to France. “I got a job with a small ad agency in Paris, but it wasn’t an interesting job, and all of a sudden I was making a lot less money than at bartending. I longed to go back to the U.S. So I quit my job out of the blue and arranged to meet a friend, Suzie, in Atlanta and do a little touring of the U.S. We took a month and a half, had a blast on a long road trip and ended up in San Diego with no money. Neither of us wanted to take a full-time job. A friend told us that if we went up to Alaska for the summer, we could make a lot of money working in the fisheries.” They went. They got jobs in a fishery, and the pay and work hours were terrible. Suzie decided to quit and went back home in her car, but Marie stayed on. First she worked as a cook on a small fishing boat, and some of her creative cooking skills were honed there. She also learned to handle commercial tackle. Then she caught on with other boats and qualified herself as a commercial fisherwoman, getting a full share of the take. After ten months she returned to France. Why? “I thought I could do more with my life than just fish,” she points out. She took a job in a jazz bar in Paris. Go figure. “That’s how I made money,” she avers. “It was part of the Paris scene. Incredible musicians, interesting people with interesting lives.” And the bar’s patrons invited her to do some things she never would have thought of herself – like take a helicopter ride over Paris and parachute from a plane three miles high in the sky. She “embraced spontaneity,” as Google phrased it. One of the invitations came from a boat captain she had worked with in Alaska. “He needed a deck hand for his sailboat, fishing for salmon and doing whale-watching charters. So I quit my job and flew back to Alaska.” Talk about spontaneity. Well, the guy didn’t show up to meet her when she got there, and she hopped a plane to Cabo San Lucas on Mexico’s Baha Peninsula to recuperate for a few weeks. There she met the man she would marry: David, a native of the Czech Republic who lived in Los Angeles and was in the U.S. with a green card as a political refugee. They were to spend the next eight years in California – not in L.A. but in beautiful Santa Barbara. “I loved it!” she exclaims. “It had everything – mountains, lakes, the beach and an amazing culture – and our beautiful daughter Zia was born there.” “That’s when we started doing art shows,” Marie says. “David was a musician, an artist and also a free spirit. We made puzzles, for some odd reason, which were popular in California at the time, and I did designs printed on scarves and beach coverups and other things.” She also submitted acrylic paintings and inks on silks. They would send photos of their work to art shows all over the country to qualify, and they hopped into their RV with daughter Zia and hit the road. They did shows for some 15 years and made a living at it. Just not enough to settle down in California, which was in the midst of a huge real estate boom then. In 1999 they pulled up stakes and moved to Florida. They happened upon Englewood during their home search and promptly bought a house that they loved. Marie says, “Then we were like, ‘What are we going to DO in this town?’ So we started exploring.” They found Stump Pass Beach State Park and Boca Grande and saw the potential for development on Dearborn Street – especially in an awning-fronted building called the Bargain Box. In 2005 they bought it, planning to convert it to a coffee shop/smoothie bar with an art studio and art gallery for local artists. Alas, David and Marie weren’t getting along together and parted ways in 2006. Shortly after that, Marie met Brazilian-born Ricardo Ruggiero, and they became partners in business and in life. Ricardo helped her fulfill her dreams for what became Mango Bistro, which they opened on March 1st, 2008. It was an immediate success. “Very quickly we decided that the art-selling part had to shrink, because food sold a lot faster than art,” Marie acknowledges. She was the cook and Ricardo was the greeter and IT guy, though they have staffed up in the past 15 years. Their specialties: healthy, “California style” breakfasts and lunches. But Marie wasn’t out of ideas. She was asking, “Just because we’re a small town, why can’t we do what other cities have done? Why can’t there be more public art, more interactive, free public projects?” She presented the idea of a local farmers’ market to a couple of town organizations, and they said, “Sure Marie, you do it.” She rounded up the vendors, and in 2011 it opened, becoming a staple of the town’s offerings. Last year she did a public art project, bringing in a national organization that created a gigantic wall of post-its across the plaza from the Mango Bistro, where people could come and write messages. This year, with the help of local artist Nichole Motanda, she’s put up a 24-by-8 ft. chalkboard on the plaza, where people can write comments or draw pictures appropriate for the theme she posts. For February it’s been “Love is …” This past Christmas for the Christmas Walk, Marie and Nichole organized a Holiday Parade on Wheels, free for kids and families to participate in with strollers, bicycles and wheelchairs, and they held a free workshop to help people decorate their entries. Marie is on the board of Kids’ Needs of Englewood and is planning some fundraisers for them. Another current project is called “Chair-ity,” in which people will paint or decorate chairs to be auctioned off for them in April. “I’m passionate about things like that,” she says. “I could do more and more. I can do these projects because of the experience I gained from doing so many art shows.” She’s still doing some art exhibits in the field of photography, and she’s off to a great start. She recently finished with a first-place in one of the six categories recognized by the National Wildlife Association for its annual competition. There were 30,000 entries in the contest. “I’ve never thought of having a career path,” Marie says. “I’ve done whatever interested me and helped others, and it’s all come together through the art shows I’ve done.” She’s gone with the flow, embraced spontaneity and is living her interesting life as she wants to. Isn’t that just what any truly free spirit would do? Marie’s photographs can be viewed online at marielaforge.com, and some will be exhibited at the Secret Jewell Gallery in Placida starting March 18. Dean Laux is exploring interesting folks living in our community. If you know of anyone with an interesting background please send an email to: [email protected] Include the person’s name, contact info and give a brief description of the person's background.