Smile Politely

The new Rose Bowl Tavern

If you’ve stepped into Rose Bowl in downtown Urbana lately, you might have thought you noticed a little less Nascar and a lot more music, and you’d be right. On March 1st, Rose Bowl Tavern changed ownership from long-time owner Steve Campbell to Charlie Harris, Marten Stromberg, and Sam Payne. The trio is excited to put a little of their own flavor into the space, and I talked with Harris recently to find out just what that will look like moving forward. Read on to learn more about how the Rose Bowl is going to blend the classic Americana vibe we all know and love with an even more inclusive and vibrant music scene.

Smile Politely: You’re the new owners! Can you introduce everyone and tell us a little about you?

Charlie Harris: The three new owners are Marten Stromberg, Charlie Harris, and Sam Payne, all members of the CU music community. Marten has booked shows and bar-tended at The Iron Post for almost four years in addition to being the front-man in Chachi and The Bandidos, a country, R&B, soul fusion group. Sam Payne is a music instructor at C4A, has hosted the Urbana Hootenanny for seven years, has played guitar and mandolin in a number of bands, including bluegrass stalwarts, The Corn Desert Ramblers, and The Hot Iron String Band, and is an award winning guitar flatpicker. Charlie (me!) plays in a plethora of local bands, including touring with Bones Jugs the last 6 years. I began my journey into performing and producing shows at The Canopy Club working alongside Seth Fein, Mike Armintrout and Vanessa Robinson and produced my own shows with guidance from Ron Cannon at The Red Herring.

SP: How did you end up interested in this space, and how do you think this particular place supports what you’d like to see for the community?

Harris: The space itself is irrefutably interesting! It’s a honky tonk, an old country bar. It’s not a new bar designed to look like an old honky tonk, it is a preserved piece of history in Downtown Urbana. The neons have that sweet hum, the stage has a barrier to keep dancers and hecklers from the band, the cheap beer selection is immaculate, (we are adding some more craft options too…) Then, last and maybe most importantly, is the legend of Sunny Norman and His Drifting Playboys, the previous owner and his band who played the bar 6 nights a week to a packed house for over 10 years.

Our personal experiences over the last 10+ years at The Rose Bowl Tavern have brought us our admiration for it and what led to our ownership of the place. Sam Payne played weekly for 3+ years with The Corn Desert Ramblers (or some version of that group) and then, from 2012 to just last week he hosted The Urbana Hootenanny. I’ve been a weekly regular jamming and hanging out at these events with Sam, as well as being involved organizing the Folk & Roots Festival which hosts events at RBT. From spending a lot of time at this place, given its character and charm, I’ve grown quite fond of it.

Because of the history, of the space and the name, and what we’ve been doing here the last number of years, it is primed to be a flourishing part of the CU and central Illinois music scene, so the potential and unknown are both exciting and frightening.

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SP: What’s your vision for Rose Bowl? 

Harris: More music in a relaxed and inclusive environment. We’d like to create a gathering space for all people to enjoy themselves, be entertained, dance, play games, study, have a drink, and whatever else. We’ll be introducing more non-alcoholic options including coffee, tea and juices, and will also be experimenting with local chefs and restaurants doing pop-ups. Being musicians ourselves, our goal will be to help downtown Urbana grow as a destination for high quality fun and great music. We’ll be planning, promoting and playing great shows, and working with the other local businesses to fill Urbana’s nightlife (and early evening-life!) to the brim.

SP: What are you most excited about?

Harris: Great music and good times! We’re excited to be lifting up our music scene, throwing great shows for artists and fans alike, and getting the performers paid! The big picture, we are elated to be a part of what we like to call the #UrbanaRenaissance. There is so much great music, art, creativity, food, all of it… going on in Urbana, that, along with the loving community oriented people that make it what it is, leaves us (C-U) ripe to reach our full potential as a wonderful place to live, and I think we are on the brink of something special… I’m not gonna list all the kick-butt people and businesses that are making this happen, there’s toooo many, but we are just excited to be a part of the mix.

SP: Is there anything missing that you see in the available bar scene that you hope to shore up with Rose Bowl?

Harris: Well, with Cowboy Monkey, The Highdive aka Accord aka 51 Main, Memphis on Main, C Street, and Mike N Molly’s all closing within the last three years or so, I’d say C-U is looking for another music venue, eh? Other than that I wouldn’t say there is lacking. I will say, every staff and management is gonna put their own spin on an establishment, and therefore, every place will be unique, so, by nature of that, we’ll be bringing something unique to the scene.

SP: What can patrons expect when they visit Rose Bowl?

Harris: Good music in an interesting room, a good space to enjoy yourself with friends or a drink or both, reasonably priced drinks, a wide selection of domestic beer and some other beers too. Also, this is a place for anyone and everyone, I’d like to take this opportunity to say, we will not be tolerating any hateful or discriminatory speech or actions, we desire to make the Rose Bowl Tavern a place that everyone feels welcome no matter gender, race, background, religion, sexual preference, music preference, beverage preference, all of it! When we took on the place we were informed that some people have been banned for ill behavior and we plan on keeping that policy!

SP: What is most important to you that people know about what y’all are doing there?

Harris: Hmmm, I guess I’ll be repeating myself here… The most important thing for people to know is that we want to further curate the space to be an inclusive gathering place that features high-quality live entertainment in a cozy unique atmosphere. Also, we are open to feedback! We want to grow and collaborate and be along with our community, so if you have an idea hit us up on Facebook messenger or

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