Backstage with Ron Onesti:
These Lettermen are not from the post office
It’s been 11 short years since I took over the Arcada Theatre. And 1,500 to 2,000 (we are still counting) shows later, we are as busy as ever putting on shows and creating memories.
Over the years we have presented a wide variety of performers, from the best of the best in rock, country, R&B, opera and comedy, among many other specialty acts. Throughout those years, as I combed the classic stages around the country for new presentations at The Arcada, there were always a few entertainers who became returning staples, creating annual traditions for fans, families and music lovers.
One such group returns to The Arcada this Sunday at 3 p.m., the Lettermen. And am I so excited! Even though I am a classic “rock ‘n’ roller” through and through, there is much to be said about the wholesome harmonies that the Lettermen bring along with them to their shows. Their music is East Coast Americana, with “love” being the group’s consistent theme.
Like many of the groups that play The Arcada, the Lettermen first appeared as a result of somebody sending me a note about this fabulous trio of singers, with classic hits and loyal fans. Sounded good to me! So I booked them for their first show about eight years ago, and they have been coming back to standing ovations and loyal customers ever since.
At the time of their first appearance at The Arcada, I had an upscale, white-tablecloth restaurant a few blocks from the theater. It was a Las Vegas showroom-style establishment, with dinner shows and surprise appearances by celebrities on a regular basis. When the guys heard about it, they showed up during the preshow dinner we had that night and delighted the packed restaurant by splitting up around the room and singing a couple of songs a cappella. It became a memory for those in attendance that I hear about still to this day.
Tony Butala is the original founding member who has kept the legacy of the Lettermen alive since the group’s inception in the late 1950s. Since the Vocal Hall of Fame inductee’s first major hit, “The Way You Look Tonite” for Capital Records in 1961, the Lettermen have garnered 16 Top Ten hits, 32 Billboard-charted albums with 18 certified Gold, and well over 10,000 sold-out performances all over the world.
Naming the band for the popular high school “look” of the time — clean-cut athletes wearing cardigan sweaters bearing large letters earned from playing sports — the Lettermen don their “Letter Sweaters” still during each show. It’s a true throwback in time.
When I asked Tony about the staying power of the group, he said: “Ya know, with all the rock ‘n’ roll bands that came out in the ’60s, as well as other styles of music that have developed over the years, our ‘love song’ theme has never gone out of style. Plus, playing between 100 and 200 shows a year for over 50 years has helped keep us in front of our fans!”
I thought it was interesting when I saw the guys sing live for the first time. The Lettermen are a vocal trio that came out of a time when other vocal groups (and most bands, also) consisted of four-part harmonies. “Why only three?” I asked Tony.
“Our idols of the day were the jazz vocal group, the Four Freshmen. We started as a four-part harmony group also. It was me, two other fellas and a young girl by the name of Concetta Ingoglia. Just as we got the group going, she landed a role in the hit television series “Hawaiian Eye,” and she left the group. Her showbiz name became Connie Stevens!”
“So why did you keep it at three vocalists?” I asked again. “We figured out a way to mechanically make three high baritone voices sound heavy, as if there were four voices singing, so we left it that way. Better to split the checks in three ways rather than four, too!”
The Lettermen shows are a wonderful mix of classic hits and comedic audience interaction. Butala is flanked by two other incredible voices: Donovan Tea, who has been with the group since 1984; and Bobby Poynton, who has been a member off and on since 1989.
Their show is a virtual “Hit Parade” with smashes including “When I Fall In Love” and the Frankie Valli hit, “Goin’ Out Of My Head.” When people say, “They just don’t make songs like that anymore,” I believe there is a great amount of truth to that statement.
Think about how many times people have sung along with the Lettermen as they heard the group’s songs on the radio, driving in their 1964 Chevys, a guy with his arm around his best girl (without seat belts, of course). Think about the live shows at which couples relived their dating years, and celebrated years of being together. Think about the kids who have surprised their folks with tickets to the live shows. Just sooooooo much happiness!
And that’s what music is really all about. It is a medium by which people are able to remove themselves from their everyday challenges, even if it is just for the length of a song, or the duration of a concert.
The Lettermen are true American musical heroes who have enriched the lives of countless millions of fans over the past 59 years. To have them return to The Arcada is an absolute honor, but it is in keeping with the throngs of music lovers who have been enriched by The Arcada’s historic stage. As each year passes, and we continue to lose pioneers of the music we love, these live shows with musical legends become increasing more valuable.
Join us this Sunday as we celebrate the music of one of our country’s living musical legends, the Lettermen. I guarantee it will be a memory that will last forever!
• 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.