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Backstage with Ron Onesti :

Don’t thank me, thank the ‘Old Neighborhood’


It is no secret that I am an Italian-American, and a proud one at that. I was born on Taylor Street in Chicago’s “Little Italy.”

Being a child of the early ’60s, I was fortunate enough to have experienced much of the music from the ’60s and ’70s now referred to as heritage rock and classic rock. But how I am really lucky is the fact I grew up with tons of cousins who absolutely loved music. They are all a few years older than me, so I was exposed to the popular music of the time the way a teenager would, even though I was only 10.

My dad had the tailor shop in the neighborhood. It was located on Western Avenue at Taylor Street, which was the center of our local world. He was so good-natured and a truly fun guy. So everybody would hang out at and in front of his shop. He loved to listen to Cubs games on his A.M. radio.

He ALWAYS had his A.M. radio on, but when a ballgame wasn’t playing, it was flipped from WLS to WCFL, from disc jockeys Larry Lujack to Dick Biondi.

Top 40 music was all over the place! It wasn’t as much Elvis as it was the Beatles. The “Wild I-Tralian” Dick Biondi, who by his own account broke the Beatles in the U.S. on WLS in 1963, always had at least one, if not more, “Mop Top” tunes on his daily playlist.

From Biondi’s on-air intro of the band’s first American hit, “Please, Please Me,” to his live introduction of them and the Rolling Stones at California’s Hollywood Bowl, Biondi can be credited with truly fostering Paul, George, John and Ringo’s respective careers. He really caused Chicago to become one of the Beatles’ biggest markets, and why I have always been a Fab Four fanatic.

So I wanted “Ringo Bangs” when I went to the local barber. He had no idea what I meant, but he would cut my hair in that style anyway because of what we used to call a “soup bowl on your head” haircut. My mom used to do that, too, but she would Scotch tape my hair straight across my forehead so her trims were straight. It sounds weird, but that’s how it was done back then.

My dad’s barber was a little Italian guy who looked a lot like Mayberry’s Floyd The Barber on TV, mainly because of the pencil-thin mustaches most barbers had at the time. He would always have Sinatra music on; he and my dad often breaking out into song during the rapid-fire snipping with his bright chrome scissors near my ears.

He would put this wooden plank with a cigar box taped to it across the arms of his barber chair to make a booster seat for me. I was mesmerized by the red and white stripes revolving around the barber pole outside the window, and could never understand why his long, black combs were kept in a jar of light green water. The worst part was that he constantly yanked at my shoulder and told me to “Sit up straight!” Then, that blast of white powder on the back of my neck with his wood-handled brush would cause a cloud above my head and make me smell like my baby brother after a diaper changing. But between him and my dad, I was a budding Sinatra fan in training.

I had a bunch of crazy-fun aunts, too. They all got together on Sundays, making pots and pots of meatballs, neckbones, sausage and gravy. They had to make more than one pot because one was actually for dinner, and one was to be eaten during the cooking process. All my guy cousins would come into the house, rip off the heel from the crusty loaves of bread destined for the afternoon meal, and dip them into the “working” pot, while sticking forks into the treasured concoction, only to pull out a meatball or two and eat them, ice cream bar style, as they were being chased out of the kitchen.

Those nights turned into mayhem, because after dinner, all my girl cousins and aunts poised themselves in front of the black-and-white television set to prepare for “his” arrival. Yes, it was that hunk from Wales, Tom Jones. They would all scream throughout the “Tom Jones Show,” so much so that we could barely hear his swivel-hipped version of “It’s Not Unusual” or “Delilah.”

But because of those nights, I became a huge fan of musical variety shows such as “Sonny & Cher,” “Carol Burnett,” “Ed Sullivan” and so many others. I thank my screaming aunts and cousins for this “appreciation.”

We were outside 12 hours a day, entering unlocked door after unlocked door of my friends’ houses. I would hang with my older guy cousins, who taught me so much about music. As they hung in the local watermelon-slash-beef stand, they would all be trying to hit those high “Four Seasons” notes, with ear-bleeding renditions of “Big Girls Don’t Cry” that I fondly recalled with the emergence of the musical “Jersey Boys.” I forgot how much of a Four Seasons fan I was until the musical came out. I have since seen it more than 20 times. I’m a huge fan of those cool pop tunes, thanks to the guys in my old neighborhood.

My career in music has been a wild one. My roster at The Arcada will dictate my love for a wide variety of music. From the Glenn Miller Orchestra to Bret Michaels of Poison, to Engelbert Humperdink and Foreigner, every week is an adventure as to not which genre of music we will feature, but how many will be presented. Many people who attend the shows have expressed their appreciation for what we are doing at The Arcada, keeping “live” music alive and bringing the bands of their youths to their backyard.

I appreciate the kind words, but it’s my old Italian neighborhood that deserves the thanks.

• 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 protected].