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Backstage with Ron Onesti:

Howie is the real deal

Howie Mandel is just one of those guys everybody knows, everybody likes, and he intrigues everyone. Putting on a show with him has been on my personal “bucket list” for years now. And just last week, that line item was crossed off as Howie brought his one-man stand-up show to The Arcada.

When he first got to the theater, he was a bit skittish about the old building. Of course, it’s no secret that Howie has major “germaphobia,” and old buildings are “riddled with germs.” The Arcada Theatre was built in 1926, so he was already on the defensive.

But once he actually walked around and took in the charm of “the ol’ gal,” he was smitten with admiration for this timeless treasure. “I love this place,” he said enthusiastically. “It has so much character and I can feel the legends who have performed here!” I thanked him and gave him an aggressive fist-bump as we continued to tour the building.

He was surprisingly warm, sincere and humble. As a high-profile individual who can’t leave his home for a minute without somebody wanting to take a photo or talk about “America’s Got Talent,” I thought Mandel would be more guarded or standoffish. But he wasn’t!

“I bet everybody with a daughter or son who sings or dances tries to get you to put them on your show,” I asked.

“I don’t mind,” he said. “I actually look for bars and small theaters to find talent. I love meeting new people and finding hidden future superstars.”

I was told not to bring up the germaphobe thing, but he right away said to me how he could shake my hand if he wanted to, but that it would “stir up a bunch of things that would make him a bit on edge.”

But still, he was extremely generous with the fans. It was so crazy, I began to feel bad. He said not to worry, as he loves people and appreciates the fact they are fans. “A lady actually apologized for wanting to take a picture with me,” he said. “Why would you apologize? Without you, I am nothing!”

His show was definitely a “blue show,” to the degree that I offered free pizza upstairs in our Speakeasy to the kids in the audience who wanted to go up during his show. Nobody took me up on my offer and it worked out OK.

His show was pretty much an interactive experience with the audience. He bantered back and forth, just putting every heckler in his place. His “quick wit” and spot-on jabs would have made Don Rickles proud!

After the show, he came upstairs to the new Club Arcada Speakeasy. He marveled at the vintage experience, the multiple rooms and the more than 400 antiques. “I have never seen a place like this,” Howie said. “I really feel like I took a time machine to the Roaring Twenties.”

He continued to tour the place, taking it all in and recording it all on video. His road manager of 17 years said: “You have a very cool place, and Howie never stays at the venue after his show. But he loves it up here!”

Howie stayed for more than two hours, pounding our food and watching our stage show. He actually made a video and explicitly gave us permission to blast it out all over the place.

All along I kept thinking about this humble, international superstar who came to St. Charles and didn’t want to leave. His stories of his devoted marriage of over 40 years, experiences on “AGT,” were so heartfelt. I asked him about some of the heart-wrenching moments he experienced on the show.

“There are so many cases of appearances on ‘America’s Got Talent’ being their last chance in life, or their only shot at survival,” Howie said. “There are those who are physically challenged, or who have had horrible times growing up. But their music gave them freedom, gave them hope. How many of us use the smallest of challenges or excuses as reasons for not pursuing our dreams? Then you see some of these people and the tremendous challenges they have faced, it all seems so insignificant.”

From a young lady who was completely maimed from a tragic fire but sang like an angel, to another girl in her 20s who lost her hearing as a result of a rare disease but kept the beat by being barefoot and “feeling” the music from the vibrations on the floor, who sang more beautifully than almost anyone ever on “AGT,” the emotions fly high on the show, and Howie feels it.

“Sometimes I just need a few moments after a performance. I just have to hold my head and even walk away. That is what editing and commercials are for,” he said.

I am blessed to do what I do. But when I meet people like Howie Mandel, I realize JUST how lucky I am. He is somebody who truly loves people and cares about them. He is a guy with a heart bigger than his own many accomplishments.

When somebody is tremendously talented on Howie’s show and “wows” the audience, the judges hit a “gold buzzer.” When it comes to stellar human beings, Howie Mandel is a “gold-buzzer” winner in his own right. America has talent, but the real treasure it has is Howie Mandel.

• 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].