Backstage with Ron Onesti:
Arcada is 90, but still “rocks” like a teenager
On Sept. 6, 1926 — Labor Day — the Arcada Theatre opened its doors in all of its grandeur, as a “Grand Palace” and a gem of The Fox Valley.
This Monday and Tuesday (Sept. 5 and 6) will mark the 90th anniversary of that illustrious night, where the St. Charles socialites donned their flowing gowns and crisp tuxedos, attending the combination silent film and vaudeville presentation. And oh what a presentation it was.
As a self-proclaimed “old soul” myself, I fell madly in love with this statuesque girl named “Arcada” the moment I laid eyes on her. When I first walked into the building in February 2005, something special was happening, at least it felt that way. It was more of a “presence” rather than an actual visual experience. I could almost feel the place buzzing with excitement of the vaudeville shows and the nickel silent films of days gone by. Mischievous kids with tattered clothes and shoes, sporting “newsboy” caps sneaking into the balcony, while adults in their “Sunday best” outfits would excitingly be attending the performances.
It was a classic little sister to the Chicago Theatre, but located in the West suburbs.
The difficult reality, though, was that it was as tattered as those newsboys’ knickers. The building had fallen into disrepair, despite three major renovations in the 1940s, 1960s and 1980s. At the time of my visit, the programming was basically $4 “brew and view” movies, with second run films and bottles of beer, which was cool, as it kept the theater open at that time, but did nothing to maintain its original beauty.
But I “saw” it. I felt it. The still-present souls of the throngs of people 90 years ago who stood in lines around the block just to hear the master pipe organists, who were the rock stars of the day. They played that marvelous Marr & Colton in concert or along with the silent films, which became so popular that the Geneva Organ Co. came in just a few short years later and increased its ranks, making it even more spectacular.
As I delved into the theater’s history I learned about Lester J. Norris, the cartoonist-turned-millionaire who had an amazing drive, and became an industrialist in his mid-20s. He married his childhood sweetheart, Dellora Angell Norris, the niece of “Bet A Million” Gates, who held the patent on barbed wire and started Texaco Oil, and let his “Walt Disney-like imagination” run wild. Or maybe Walt Disney had “Les Norris-like imagination” as they were young friends and both aspiring cartoonists!
Norris became a staff illustrator for the Chicago Tribune at the age of 25, then went on to purchase the local newspaper, the St. Charles Chronicle. He always had a love of the arts, but had a passion for entertainment. With some of his and his wife’s investment money, he bought half stock in Hal Roach Studios in California, the company that produced films starring Laurel and Hardy, Our Gang (Little Rascals) and the Keystone Kops.
Back home in the Chicago area, the chairman of Texaco was killed in an automobile accident, so Lester was asked to come back to St. Charles to step in, giving up his cartooning career. Combining his love for St. Charles with his passion for the arts, Norris parleyed his partnership with Hal Roach and friendships with those comedy stars in Hollywood and designed the Arcada Theatre. It was to rival the theatres being built in downtown Chicago, and be a train stop for those vaudevillian stars on their way to the Windy City.
So Lester invested $500,000 (almost $7 million today) and designed a grand palace that seated well over 1,000 people (with the advent of Twinkies and McDonald’s, larger seats had to be installed in the late ’60s, making today’s capacity 900). That was quite a leap of faith when the population of St. Charles was only about 5,000 at the time!
Opening night was the biggest thing to happen to the area to date. Hundreds were turned away as the excitement for the theater was the talk of the town for months. The show featured two silent films accompanied by a pipe organ that rose from the ground, “Phantom of the Opera”-style. “The Last Frontier” was the feature film, and the highly anticipated premier of the Our Gang comedy “The Fourth Alarm” was shown. That was a big deal because the guests that night saw this comedy “short” a month before its original release date! It paid for Lester to have friends in Hollywood!
The films were followed by vaudeville stars Fibber McGee and Molly, The Wayfarers and others.
Since then, the theater has gone through several phases, some relatively successful, and some, well, not so much. But still, through its 90-year journey, the original splendor has been maintained, and its doors have remained open, which was not the fate of literally thousands of theatres across the country that closed, were turned into bars or just razed.
In 1927, Al Jolson’s “The Jazz Singer” premiered as the first “talkie,” thus pretty much ending the era of silent films. The popularity of vaudeville began its decline around the late 1930s. The theater became more of a community center as it was a central point of communication newsreels and support for families during World War II. It became a safe haven for community theater throughout the ’50s and ’60s, with The Playmakers being the in-house production company of local volunteers. The ’70s converted the once silent film house into a full-out movie theater, hosting the big productions of the day, from “The Godfather” to the disaster blockbusters “The Towering Inferno,” “Jaws,” “The Poseidon Adventure,” “Earthquake” and others, with Surround Sound and wide-format screen.
First-run films continued to be the main focus for The Arcada throughout the ’80s. As multiscreen theatres began to pop up, second-run films became the norm for The Arcada from the mid ’90s through 2005. Then I showed up and tried to change things a bit.
Being in the entertainment production business, I, similar to Lester Norris, always wanted a place I could utilize to take advantage of my relationships in the industry. I was managing a local Beatles tribute band at the time and was trying to book a reoccurring appearance at The Arcada. I wasn’t receiving return calls so I drove out to St. Charles to investigate. The rest is Onesti Entertainment history!
My first show was in June 2005, putting together original members of Paul McCartney’s Wings with my Beatles’ tribute act, American English. It was marvelous, and I was on my way!
Since then, more than half a million patrons have enjoyed the well over 1,000 shows we have produced here. We have tried hard to create a comfortable, family atmosphere, paying tribute to those entertainers who have become legendary. Our mission is to foster great memories of days gone by for music lovers who travel to the theater on a regular basis, from all over the country.
And the way we do it is by showcasing a variety of superstars. “Variety” is a key word here.
Mickey Rooney, Don Rickles, Jerry Lewis, Frank Sinatra Jr., Wayne Newton, Connie Francis, Debbie Reynolds and Shirley MacLaine are among the many legendary performers to grace the stage at Arcada Live! Bret Michaels of Poison, Kevin Costner, Weird Al, the Guess Who, Pat Benatar, Boz Scaggs, Michael McDonald, Dennis DeYoung, America and Kansas are just a few of the amazing acts who have perform here semi-regularly.
A huge source of pride for the theater are the television specials that have been shot here, including Joan Rivers’ Showtime special (her last television stand-up comedy show), Andrew “Dice” Clay’s New Year’s Eve special for Showtime, Foreigner’s VH1 special and Richard Marx with Hugh Jackman for PBS.
With all these shows and crazy nights behind me, you may wonder what lies ahead! I can only tell you I am more excited than I have ever been, and I am seeking out and creating new experiences I am sure the Arcada Theatre audience will love. Yes, I am a maniac about this stuff!
I was recently asked what I thought Lester J. Norris would say about the theater today. I think he would have that young-boy smile, as excited as I am, and be front and center for every show. What I am most proud of is not solely keeping the Arcada Theatre alive, especially during the height of the recent economic downfall, but knowing that the passion that opened the theater lives on, 90 years later, as if it were just opening today.
A “newsboy hat” off to you, Lester J. Norris. I proudly, and humbly carry your torch, fostering your memory and your passion. And don’t think that I haven’t seen you peeking out around corners backstage or in our basement dressing rooms. I know you are with us today because the laughter and the joy that filled the Arcada Theatre in the Roaring Twenties resounds today, 90 years later.
• 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.