Ron Onesti: Frankie Valli and the mystery of the Crown Royal
A big part of the “fun” for me when I produce shows is being able to work with the acts that I love. At fifty-nine years of age and a classic rocker from the 70s, I have a deep appreciation for those musical acts that paved the way for today’s entertainers. One of those groups that I grew up really enjoying was one that nobody realized just how popular they actually were, until a musical about their ups and downs became one of the biggest shows in history. The group was “The Four Seasons” and the show was “Jersey Boys.”
Producing Italian festivals since the mid-eighties has allowed me to work with some of my early favorites from Dion and The Belmonts to Nancy Sinatra, Julius LaRosa to Keely Smith, Johnny Maestro and the Brooklyn Bridge to Bobby Rydell. One such festival was Chicago’s Festa Italiana on the pre-renovated, practically condemned at the time, Navy Pier.
It was my first experience with Frankie Valli. We had construction trailers on asphalt backstage for dressing rooms that I outfitted with all of his “needs” on the rider. No “M&Ms, but I did bring in couches, mirrors, blow dryers, antipasto trays, Italian wine, and a host of other things. It was OK, though, it WAS Frankie Valli!
About twenty minutes before his time to take the stage that was set with Lake Michigan as its backdrop, Frankie peeked his head out of the trailer door and motioned me to come over.
“Ron, you read my rider, right?” he asked. “Of course I did, I could barely fit you guys in there with all the stuff you wanted!” I teased. “Well, if you did, you would see that I requested a bottle of Crown Royal on the list. I don’t see it here,” he said.
Now I know I bought it. I saw it on the table! Sometimes things like that have a magical way of disappearing from “off-limits” backstage areas. I was sure that somewhere there was a maintenance guy pushing a broom with one hand and sipping a smooth shot of Crown with the other.
So I summoned one of our Chicago Police officer friends over and described my dilemma. “Hop in, let’s go find a bottle,” he said. He put his Mars lights on and we sped away. It was actually kind of cool going on “Code-Red” 75 mph liquor hunt!
As I mentioned earlier, this was happening at the pre-explosion of the Navy Pier area-not a lot of stores around, let alone those who sell upscale whiskey in a cloth bag. So I called a friend who lived at Lake Point Tower, the big building facing the lake, and he had one. I was at the huge glass lobby doors before he hung up the phone!
We pulled up to the building, I jumped out and grabbed the decorative bottle, and we sped away. My police officer friend took no chances, after all, we came this far. He flipped on the lights, turns on the siren, and we raced back to the scene of the crime…the mystery of the vanishing Crown Royal. He literally pulls op to the stage with lights flashing and sirens blaring, as if he was delivering a President or a King, and not just the “Crown.”
I delivered the package personally to Frankie, he nodded with a soft, “Thank you.” We got there with one minute to spare…the show commenced on time.
This may seem a bit extreme to most people, but sometimes vocalists use a shot of whiskey to relax their throats before they sing, so I respected the request. The killer was that after the show and the departure of Frankie to the hotel, there it was, the lone bottle of Crown Royal, still in its purple cloth bag, unopened! I never had the heart to tell my police officer chauffeur.
A few years later, I received an invitation to an opening of a show at the then-called LaSalle Bank Theatre in Chicago. I had heard about this project from a couple of entertainer friends who were asked to invest in the show, but didn’t as Frankie himself was a little skeptical about a musical that told the story of his and fellow-Four Seasons’ careers.
The show, of course, turned out to be amazing. Frankie had invited me to the private after party at the neighboring LaSalle Bank building. As I congratulated him and his life-long musical partner and writing genius behind the group, Bob Gaudio, he offered to introduce me to the cast.
The next day I get a call from Michael Ingersoll, an incredibly talented performer who played the part of Seasons’ bass player Nick Massi. “Frankie speaks very highly of you and I have an idea I want to talk to you about,” he said.
For the next three years I worked with the cast coordinating private appearances and helping to develop what ultimately became another of Ingersoll’s successful presentations, the PBS smash, “Under The Streetlamp.” The guy really is a creative producer in his own right, with an amazing career aside from performing…I feel fortunate to have been a part of it in the beginning of that chapter!
It was amazing to have been part of the “behind-the-scenes” action of the blockbuster show. Jarrod Spector, the original Frankie character in the Chicago cast who was so good that he became the lead on Broadway for two years, would pull his tongue for a half hour before the show. John “Smitty” Smith, the musical director, would actually be playing the music with the rest of the live musicians not on stage, but in secret rooms downstairs. Racks and racks of shoes, flamboyant jackets and character costumes lined the hallways of dressing rooms. Drew Gehling who played Bob Gaudio and Jeremy Kushnier who played Tommy DeVito would join Michael and Jarrod in their dressing rooms warming up before the show, Barbershop Quartet style. It was magical.
Today, I still see the guys every so often, and we just shake our heads and smile. They carry the torch that fostered an appreciation of music classics passed to them from Frankie Valli.
It was an incredible run with The Jersey Boys since that hot day on Navy Pier. I still could not believe after that show was over and Frankie had “left the building,” the salami was gone, the wine bottles were empty, and ashtrays were filled. In the corner of the room, on a small table was that unopened bottle of Crown Royal. I almost killed myself getting that bottle, all for nothing, but Frankie proved his point. Maybe “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” but at that moment, I sure did.