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Backstage with Ron Onesti:

‘Now you’se can’t leave’

As I have mentioned on many occasions, the real reason I am in this business is mainly because I am a huge fan of this stuff! Artists and bands from my youthful years of the ’60s, ’70s, and a bit of the ’80s (even though I love the stuff from the ’20s, ’40s and ’50s), television and movie stars from pretty much the same era, and culinary experiences that remind me of Sunday afternoons with my crazy Italian family … MY “wonder years.”

So I actually get excited and star-struck when these acts hit our historic stage at the Arcada Theatre. And I am proud of it! Many professionals in my industry pride themselves on not being star-struck, and how it’s all just another day at the office for them. Not for me. They have all achieved great heights in their careers and have given so many people pure joy by sharing their talents with them. Yeah, it’s a big deal, and I get excited to meet them. This is about my experience getting acquainted with Oscar-nominated film star Chazz Palminteri.

In 1993, a film entitled “A Bronx Tale” was released. It starred Palminteri, a rising yet relatively unknown actor, and Robert DeNiro, a relatively known superstar. It was about a neighborhood in the Bronx, controlled/protected by local mobsters in the turbulent time of the 1960s.

But this became my all-time favorite film as it touched me in such a familiar, “old school” way. It was autobiographically written by Palminteri. Although Chazz played the mob chieftain Sonny, it is actually the childhood story of Chazz, as a young boy growing up in the mob-protected Fordham neighborhood in the Bronx of the 1960s. He was the cute Italian kid named Cologero in the film who the “Outfit” took under its wing, only to ironically warn him to stay out of that very element.

DeNiro, who celebrated his directorial debut with the film, played Cologero’s father. The film was also dedicated to Robert DeNiro Sr., who passed away that same year.

The focus is on this young boy who idolized the pressed-suit gangsters, especially the local boss, Sonny. Sonny takes him under his wing and proceeds to teach the boy life’s lessons by using “the streets of the Bronx” as examples. There are many memorable scenes, sequences and quotes from the film that resonate with fans, even to this day. “Is it better to be loved, than to be feared?” “Will Mickey Mantle ever pay your rent?” “It cost you 20 bucks to get rid of this guy. He will never ask you for money again. You got off cheap!” “The working man is not a sucker, he is the hero!” “Now you’se can’t leave” to frightened bikers upon their realization of the mistake to tread on mob-controlled sidewalks. “House money,” “The Mario Test,” “Sonny had five fingers, but used only three.” I could go on and on …

Without getting too specific, it was very close to my own upbringing on the streets of Chicago at about the same time. As my career in the business of entertainment began to take off, I spread my wings into New York and New Jersey. I was managing Lena Prima, the daughter of pop-jazz legend Louis Prima, when I was asked to get involved with cast parties for the popular HBO television series “The Sopranos” at the Borgata Casino in Atlantic City, New Jersey. It was there I met Louis Vanaria, the young actor who played “Crazy Mario,” an animated character in “A Bronx Tale.”

We became fast friends and I brought him to Chicago from time to time to perform his Sinatra-esque show at the Italian festivals I would produce. When I read that Palminteri was out doing a one-man show based on the film, I called my friend Louis to see if he could hook me up with Chazz. With the caveat of no promises, and the probability that Chazz would not respond to his request, he said he would try.

A couple days later I received a call on my cellphone. “Ron Onesti?” the voice asked. “This is Chazz Palminteri. We have a mutual acquaintance who tells me you are interested in presenting my play in Chicago.” “Yeah right!” I snapped. “C’mon Louie, quit messing around. “No, this IS Chazz,” the all-too-familiar, hauntingly intense voice stated. I nearly dropped the phone!

We spoke for quite a while and I eventually flew to White Plains, New York, to consummate the deal at the larger-than-life actor’s home. On many occasions, I have returned to Arthur Avenue and 187th Street, that neighborhood in the Bronx where Palminteri grew up and was the setting for the film. Chazz and I would smell the rosemary/basil/oregano air and have lunch surrounded by hanging salami and prosciutto made by owner David Greco at the 100-year-old Bronx institution, Mike’s Deli, to be followed by a post-antipasto experience with the “Cannoli King,” Jerome Raguso from Gino’s Pastry Shop. Walking with Chazz on the streets of the Bronx is like walking with DiMaggio at Yankee Stadium. Quite the experience!

I asked if being a proud Italian-American made it difficult for him to promote the stereotypical references of Italians in the mafia represented by his film. “Not at all. This really isn’t a ‘mob movie’ set to glamorize gangsters,” he said. “The film represents what it was like in our neighborhood, and there is no escaping that. But the message was that crime didn’t pay, and the life of a mobster was not the life to live. It really was about the integrity of ‘the working man’ and the life ‘not’ to lead.”

Since then, Chazz has been a true and wonderful friend. He came to my house for my daughter’s birthday, flew in for my restaurant’s grand opening, and has appeared at my festivals. I have presented his two, one-man plays, “Chazz Palminteri: My Life In Song” and the stage version of “A Bronx Tale.” Both actually brought tears to my eyes as he re-creates all 27 characters in the film, masterfully, convincingly and passionately.

And he is as busy as ever! He has his own vodka, called Bivi Vodka, made in his hometown in Sicily. Keep an eye out for the vodka to make “special” appearances at The Arcada and at our festivals! He is preparing his Broadway musical adaptation of “A Bronx Tale.” He is writing, producing and acting regularly, and, of course, still performing his one-man play, the one that started it all.

I am so excited he is returning to The Arcada with his one-man masterpiece of “A Bronx Tale” on Oct. 15! Once again, we will be treated to an incredible performance of neighborhood life in the ’60s. Much of that life can be identified with here in Chicago, at least that’s how I remember it.

If you know the movie, you know the most famous line of “Now you’se can’t leave.” I guarantee, if you come see this performance, you truly won’t want to!

Tickets are on sale now. Call (630) 962-7000 or visit www.oshows.com

• 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].