Ron Onesti: Martin Short…Tall on St. Charles
A while back, one of comedy’s most iconic superstars made his way to our historic stage at The Arcada. It was an incredible experience with probably one of the most down to Earth individuals I have ever worked with.
Few would disagree that the glory days of “Saturday Night Live,” one of the most popular pop-culture television shows in history, revolve around the comedic wizardry of John Belushi, Jane Curtin, Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner, Bill Murray, Chevy Chase and the rest of that classic cast. But as those iconic figures spread their individual wings to rise to great heights, or in a couple of cases, meet with a tragic end, the show began to falter despite heroic attempts to keep it rockin’ with emerging superstars like Eddie Murphy. In 1984, the show began its rise back to the top of the ratings charts with Billy Crystal and Martin Short, the Canadian actor and star of “SCTV.”
Short’s physical comedy made him an absolute favorite of mine. Each one of his characters was over-the-top yet in so many ways believable to the point that you felt you knew them intimately. On occasion, he would hit the road performing some of his classic bits with video footage of his most famous roles, from SNL to Father Of The Bride to The Three Amigos. As I had not done major comedy at The Arcada Theatre yet, I wanted to start, and what better a person to go after than Martin Short?
He flew in early to promote our show on morning news TV. As I waited to meet him at the CBS studios in downtown Chicago, I was anticipating a hurried and pretentious person, as many Hollywood-types can be. As the town car pulled up, the door flew open and I was met with a “Ron! How are you! It’s so nice to finally meet you!” He was so animated and since we had never met before his greeting actually stunned me for a moment.
“I’m great, Martin,” I responded. “Call me Marty,” he said. He then put his hand on my shoulder and thanked me for bringing him in. “Wow!” I thought to myself. He was so real, so nice. We walked to the receptionist and she got a bit flushed at the site of the very familiar face. As we walked down the hall, person after person came out of their offices to see him. He said hello to each and every one of them, stopping to take photos each time it was requested.
We were staged in the green room for a while where he barraged me with questions about the theatre and specifically, the audience. “I try to incorporate the locals into my act as much as possible,” he said. What a great time he had with Bill Zwecker of CBS. He had the entire studio laughing, including the cameramen and other behind-the-scenes staff.
We arrived at the theatre and he spent the first half hour literally feeling its walls, practically caressing each brick of the backstage area. “I absolutely love these Vaudeville houses,” he said. “Such a tragedy when these places get torn down for shopping centers. That’s one of the reason’s I wanted to come here. I actually get inspiration from places like this.”
After an intense rehearsal with his piano player he went into the empty audience and just stared at the stage, discussing creative options with my brother and technical director Rich. He then put on his weathered trench coat and baseball cap and said he was going to the hotel, The Hotel Baker which is located across the river about two blocks away. It was a brisk day and I said the car was out front. “No, I’ll just walk it,” he said. He then walked down the street by himself, waving at onlookers and signing autographs for shocked St. Charles visitors.
This is one show I wanted to be front and center for. From his much anticipated entrance on stage he had the audience in the palm of his hand. So much of it was true connection to the audience as opposed to standard stand-up shtick. He then broke into his characters, actually transforming himself into them. Ed Grimly, his most popular character (the only spin-off from SNL to actually have its own cartoon show), skipped onto the stage and was met with an actual roar from the crowd. “Here I am in St. Charles! My career is soaring, I must say!” he proclaimed.
He then jumped on top of my 1929 vintage piano, the one Duke Ellington and Neil Sedaka played on, and burst out into song. I held my breath as I waited for the piano to explode into a thousand pieces of Arcada history. “I love the Arcada cuz Carnegie Hall was booked,” he sang.
Then another famous character entered the stage, talk show host Jiminy Glick. He welcomed the audience and introduced his guest…Ron Onesti! I was taken by surprise and he pulled me up on stage. Here is a guy whose talk show parodies have welcomed Tom Hanks, John Travolta, Tom Cruise…and now me!
He introduced me as his Jewish friend (I’m about as Italian as it gets) and really interviewed me, actually doing research on my background. Shot after shot he threw at me, the audience joined me in uncontrollable laughter.
His signature bit on television was to take a large bowl of candy and literally pour it down his throat, a testimonial to his pudgy persona. As I sat on the chair in the talk show-style format, I happened to notice a box of Krispy Kreme donuts behind his seat. I was a bit embarrassed because I thought my stage crew forgot it out there. At that moment, he reached around, grabbed the box and began stuffing the donuts into his mouth, consistent with his on-TV shtick of an overeating talk show host. One, then two…not to be outdone, I picked one up and shoved the whole thing into my own mouth. He then picked up two more and stuffed them into MY mouth. On the fourth donut, I actually bit his thumb so as to stop the force-feeding.
So there we were, both mouths stuffed beyond their capacities. He then turned behind me and emptied his mouth. I went to do the same thing but as I looked onto the floor and saw this chewed-up glop of anything but Krispy or Kremey, I just could not spit it out. So practically for the remainder of the interview, I kept chewing and chewing and chewing. Really, one of the funniest nights I have ever witnessed, or been a part of.
Yes, Marty made quite the impression on the audience, as he has for over four decades including his return to “SNL” co-hosting its recent holiday show with Sir Paul McCartney. What a guy, and what a talent- a gift from Canada for whom we should be forever grateful.
I am convinced that warmth sets the table for laughter, and he is living proof of that.