Backstage with Ron Onesti:
The ‘Roaring Twenties’ 100 years later
I really must have been born in another time. I MUST have been! I just love the 1920s and 1930s so much. The music, the style, the movies, the free spirt. I love it all.
I knew this at a very young age because (you are not going to believe this) every time I would visit Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry as a youngster, my favorite part was the Yesterday’s Main Street exhibit, complete with its brick-laden street and a nickelodeon playing Fatty Arbuckle silent films!
And along with owning my own vaudeville-era theater, my bucket list will soon get smaller as I will open Club Arcada, an upscale, Prohibition era-style speak-easy on the third floor of The Arcada Theatre building. I know! Cool, isn’t it? More about that in the weeks to come.
But I am a product of the early Sixties, born in 1962. And as much as I lived through the “Woodstock, Animals, Jefferson Airplane” years, the “Zeppelin, Sabbath, Rush” years, the “Bread, America, James Taylor” years and the “Styx, Journey, Boston, Foreigner, Skynyrd” years, few things from my early childhood resonate with me like those black-and-whites on television. Of course, we only had a black-and-white TV, so everything was in black and white! But I think you know what I mean.
My first fond memories of TV were Saturday mornings spent with “Laurel & Hardy,” “The Little Rascals” and “The Three Stooges.” To this day, I can hum the opening theme music to both the Rascals’ and the Stooges’ shows. Well, I can hum that clarinet-based music of “The Little Rascals” and sing the “La La, La La-La-La-La La” song from the Stooges!
I can almost credit much of my own entrepreneurial spirit to “The Little Rascals.” At a very young age, I learned about forming my own fire department, putting on a “huge” theatrical presentation, building tree houses, becoming a barber, and building my own car/truck out of an old wooden crate … all things demonstrated on episodes of those great “Our Gang” comedies. I wanted to be Spanky, the guy in charge, the creative genius, the voice of reason. And really, much of what I do today mirrors the Spanky character — maybe not the “genius” part so much, but definitely the guy who is running around trying to wrangle a bunch of crazy personalities together to put on a show.
I try to be a bit light hearted, with some sort of a sense of humor, also partaking in “physical comedy” when I am in a goofy mood. The slapstick comedy of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy and the fake “slaps” of the Three Stooges definitely resounds within my actions today. I don’t going around “bopping” people on top of their heads with hammers, or grabbing their noses and slapping my own hand down off their faces, but a fake fall here, a faux slip-up there, and I am right there back in time. The only thing missing is the soda water bottle that shoots like a cannon!
The ironic thing for me personally about these three legendary groups of showbiz pioneers is that they have come full circle in my life. Lester J. Norris, the St. Charles illustrator-turned-industrialist who built my Arcada Theatre had close, personal relationships with all three. As a cartoonist for the Chicago Tribune in the early 1920s, he had the opportunity to cover vaudeville shows and movie premieres all over the country. He married his childhood sweetheart, Delora Angell, an heiress to the Texaco Oil fortune, and used that financial windfall to finance the fostering of those relationships Lester made on the West coast.
After he built The Arcada, Lester became close friends with a rising-star director of the time, Hal Roach. He invested into Hal Roach Studios, becoming a 50-percent partner. The business hit it big, as it produced the “Our Gang” comedies, Laurel and Hardy movies, the Keystone Kops movies and many other silent films and talkies of the day. And Lester Norris’ friendly persona garnered friendships with all the stars.
So when he fulfilled a dream of his by building a grand palace of a theater in St. Charles, all his friends, including the Little Rascals and the Three Stooges, would make a stop here on their way to the big houses in Chicago, making live appearances while promoting their movies and film “shorts.” Lester Norris brought the biggest stars of the day to little ol’ St. Charles and that is why I try and accomplish the same thing today — bringing big stars to our little town the way he did in the 1920s.
Being an Italian-American from Chicago, the legacy of Al Capone has haunted me my entire life. My Italian-American community has always been sensitive to the stereotypical references of Italians and the mafia in the movies and in the press. But it is an unavoidable truth, and the glorified depiction of gangsters in the Roaring Twenties was interesting to me in my youth. Watching James Cagney, Humphry Bogart, George Raft and Edward G. Robinson sport snappy suits, fine fedoras and polished pistols made me want to be an FBI guy. So Edgar J. Hoover became a hero as the first FBI director and the guy who stayed at its helm until his death in 1972.
My interest in that stuff was also perpetuated when “The Untouchables” television series was rerun throughout my youth. Robert Stack, alias Eliot Ness, was a federal agent during the Prohibition era in Chicago, forever chasing the Capone gang. So then I became an “Eliot Ness-wannabe.”
Then, of course, what was more of an image than a personality, was Charlie Chaplin. Although the silent film star was way before my time, his image was everywhere. Everybody from Lucille Ball to Carol Burnett was imitating him. I could walk like him, twirl a cane like he did and wiggle a fake, Hitler-like mustache like he had, and I had never really seen any of his films at that point!
My other favorites became the Marx Brothers. When a movie starring Groucho, Chico, Harpo and sometimes Zeppo would come on, it was an event. I didn’t understand half the adult-oriented humor, but watching Harpo do his thing with a horn was worth sitting through the confusing storylines. I always thought the Marx Brothers were the Three Stooges fathers!
If you add in the other rare appearances of the top hat-wearing, alcoholic womanizer W.C. Fields on Sunday afternoon television (just before Frazier Thomas’ “Family Classics”), my 1920s-1930s exposure was complete.
The other movies I don’t remember watching in their entirety at all, but seemed to always be on the tube, were those production extravaganzas by film director/choreographer Busby Berkeley. His movies, such as “The Gold Diggers of 1935,” featured hundreds of huge headdress-wearing beauties, all moving and dancing in sync on grand sound stages, epitomizing the glory of the early-day movie studios.
As I got older, and I began watching shows like the “Ed Sullivan Show,” the “George Burns and Gracie Allen Show” and the “Jack Benny Show,” I learned more about those big stars of yesteryears. Their variety style introduced me to Depression-era stars such as electrifying bandleader Cab Calloway, master trumpeter/entertainer Louis Armstrong, and sad-faced comedic actor Buster Keaton.
Yes, I am a fan of the era. And as I go from the Moe Howard haircut I had as a boy and approach more of a Curly Howard haircut in my older years, I still appreciate those times when going to the movies or out to dinner on a Saturday night meant wearing a tuxedo and greasing your hair back.
Long live the Roaring Twenties, and I don’t necessarily mean the 2020s of my daughter’s era!
• Ron Onesti is president and CEO of The Onesti Entertainment Corp. and The Historic Arcada Theatre in St. Charles. Celebrity questions and comments? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.