Backstage with Ron Onesti:
2016 … A legendary year
It was a truly momentous year for us at The Arcada. Many “firsts,” more shows than ever and several milestones hit in 2016. But I must begin my annual “Year in Review” not in January, but on Sept. 6, 2016 … 90 years to the day that Lester J. Norris opened the doors to his new gem of the Fox Valley, The Arcada Theatre.
And we celebrated our 90th year with a BIG bang! We put together a grand parade that traveled through downtown St. Charles consisting of more than 50 1920s vehicles and over 100 people in flapper dresses, newsboy get-ups and Prohibition-era costumes. Stilt walkers; penny-farthing, high-wheeled bicycles; marching bands and other attractions added to the color of the parade. We even had “Charlie Chaplin” lead it!
Then, a vaudeville-style show was held on The Arcada’s historic stage, much like the ones that occurred during the Roaring ’20s. Ribbon twirlers, tap dancers, jugglers, vocalists and a “Prohibition Band” made for a true stroll back in time. It was a memorable day, one that paid tribute to the vision of Norris and a treat for so many locals who lay witness to the growth of the town over the past 90 years.
More than 200 shows, events and special presentations took place last year at The Arcada! The variety was definitely there, from the heaviest of rock acts to legendary bands from the beginning of rock ‘n’ roll and “boy band” superstars to Hollywood legends … it was an AMAZING year!
Each show had its own special vibe to it, but the ones below were highlights of the year. It was SO tough to make this list, but space only allowed these few of the many incredible experiences that happened at The Arcada this year.
Jeffery Austin began the year, emerging as a local St. Charles vocalist to fourth-place winner on the television show “The Voice.” We held his “going away” concert before his big move to Los Angeles where he is to embark upon a professional singing career. A very cool night, and a very cool send-off.
A definite highlight was the Rip Van Winkle-bearded ZZ Top frontman Billy Gibbons’ solo show. If you are a rocker, his familiar look represents rock radio at its finest. His persona is almost larger than life, and to have him at The Arcada was really crazy! And he loved the theater so much, he didn’t leave the dressing rooms until 3 a.m., and only because I promised to take him through a Steak ‘n Shake drive through!
We attempted to re-create history with a Tommy Roe/Chris Montez pairing. In March of 1963, Tommy Roe was enjoying great success with his big hit “Sheila,” and Chris Montez was all over the radio with his smash “Let’s Dance.” They were paired together for a tour in England, with a “local” band to be named later once they arrived in London. That group turned out to be the Beatles, and by the end of the tour, the mopped-topped opening band had become the headliners. This tour was scheduled literally in the month the Beatles took off with their hit single “Please, Please Me.”
So we brought in Tommy Roe and Chris Montez, and had a local Beatles tribute band open. We followed the set list from March of 1963 and it was magical. Even Tommy and Chris both got choked up!
Next was a replay of a show we put together a few months earlier that brought together Chicago heroes of 1960s “garage” rock. Another magical night as the Buckinghams, the Ides of March, the New Colony Six, the Cryan’ Shames, the Shadows of Knight, and Ted Aliotta of Aliotta, Haymes & Jeremiah all got together to perform their big hits. It was special also because Dennis Tufano, original lead singer of the Buckinghams, made a rare appearance with the band, as did Ronnie Rice, also a lead singer with New Colony Six, who did not regularly perform with the group. It went hand-in-hand with a PBS television special I hosted on WTTW Channel 11. Historic.
Being an Italian-American, tops as far as celebs go, next to the “Mother Mary,” is film queen Sophia Loren. Through a relationship with her manager and about 40 other moving pieces, I hosted a behind-the-scenes interview and Q&A session with the international legend. Although it was all surreal — as at 80 years young she was beautiful, elegant, witty and personable — the biggest thrill for me was introducing her to my 90-year-old mom who was born in Florence, Italy. There are not many legendary film stars who were ever as big as her, especially who are still around. Yes, magical.
In April of 2016, we unexpectedly lost another pop icon, Prince. It was a coincidence that I had booked the biggest Prince tribute band in the world on what turned out to be the day after the superstar’s passing. The band had one of Prince’s original band members in it, so our tribute concert became a media frenzy. Every television station in Chicago plus national newsteams were present at OUR show! We actually provided fans with a special opportunity to grieve and to celebrate the “Artist’s” music and life when they needed it most. A rare opportunity for any venue to have.
The Misfits are a horror-punk rock band that you may or may not expect to see at The Arcada. My commitment to a true variety of acts offered at the theater led me to welcome this group for a rare performance. It was unique at the very least, and a bit scary for us, I’m not going to lie. “Mosh pits” wasn’t something I ever imagined for us, but I wanted to experience everything! It wound up being a great night with a great band, and the precursor to a reunion show of original band members for the first time in 33 years.
Back to “classic” performers. I had been trying to book this next superstar for literally 25 years. I had previously booked him three times; all three times he canceled. But “An Evening with Paul Anka” actually happened at the Arcada! A bucket list show for me, and a throwback to classic tuxedo-donning, Vegas-style entertainers in the vein of Frank and Dean. A tremendous two-hour night of classic hits ensued, and one of the most audience-interactive experiences we have ever had!
It’s no secret that Donnie Wahlberg of “New Kids on the Block” and his showbiz superstar bride Jenny McCarthy are local St. Charles residents. What WAS a secret was that he and his New Kids’ buddies all flew in to surprise R&B legends, the Stylistics, as they entertained a sold-out show at The Arcada. The New Kids credit the group for giving them their “style,” so it was cool for both bands to meet each other, and even cooler for NKOTB to join them on stage.
Then, Donnie had so much fun with those guys, we hosted a fundraiser for Jenny’s autism foundation, bringing the New Kids on the Block together for an all-out secret concert! It was epic!
Ted Nugent was another monster, two-night, sold-out blockbuster! Politics aside, it was an amazing musical experience as he checked his politics at the door and gave two hours of classic ’70s hits. Toto, Grand Funk Railroad, .38 Special, Night Ranger, Vince Neil, Bret Michaels, Roger Hodgson of Supertramp, Brian Setzer and many more rocked the Arcada in 2016. Michael Bolton gave us some soft excellent rock and we even had two legendary blind superstars provide us with incredible shows, Ronnie Milsap and Jose Feliciano. Talk about variety!
I can go on and on, but most of all, I want to thank all who have supported me and The Arcada over the 10-plus years I have had it. I am proud of what we accomplished so far, and am excited about our future.
You keep coming, and I’ll keep bringing in these great names from our childhood. No matter how old you are, I promise to have something for everyone! Let me know who it is YOU want to see at The Arcada! You may be surprised at who appears on our marquee next.
• Ron Onesti is president and CEO of The Onesti Entertainment Corp. and The Historic Arcada Theatre in St. Charles. Celebrity questions and comments? Email email@example.com.