Backstage with Ron Onesti:
Here’s to the heroes of my heroes
I often need to pinch myself to ensure I am not dreaming when I put on these shows with showbiz legends. Sure, it has been 30-plus years in the making with a great deal of hard work, sacrifice and disappointment involved, but still, I count my blessings for being able to help make fans’ musical dreams come true (along with my own) on a regular basis.
Along with the challenges come the perks and the positives. I get to befriend these icons, stay in touch, and have opportunities to ask questions about their careers. After a while, I gain a unique insight into their lives and their “human sides.” I find out a little about what it is like to be them, or understand what it was like the days they were selling out arenas.
Every one of the more than 200 shows I do a year has its own fan base that has been positively affected by that certain entertainer. The actual number of devoted fans varies from act to act but, nevertheless, there is always somebody who’s lifelong dream has been to meet a favorite performer from their childhood.
This is called the Meet & Greet. It is a part of my industry many of my peers, as well as many acts, truly dislike. It means extra costs for venue owners and promoters, and more time and energy the entertainer must expend over and above his or her performance. The current trend is many acts now charge for the opportunity to take a quick photo or get an autograph. Much of the “human” element is being lost these days.
For me, I see it as an opportunity to provide my most-valued customers something we, on “the inside,” can take for granted. That is why I try so hard to fulfill as many requests to meet the bands as I can, even with the extra time and expense it may cost me.
And I am not going to lie; more often than not, I am equally giddy and excited to meet the voices of my musically formative years. It is a just plain cool experience to meet these music legends. But here is where my life’s journey has allowed me the coolest of cool meet & greet experiences. How many people get to introduce their beloved parents to THEIR heroes?
My dad was born on Taylor Street in Chicago’s Little Italy (as was I) in 1925, and a Chicago Cub fan from the beginning. But being an Italian-American baseball fanatic, his hero of all heroes was New York Yankee great “Joltin’ Joe” DiMaggio. Growing up, he would tell me his stories of how he and his young buddies would listen to the games on the radio, and how excited they got when “The Yankee Clipper” came to bat. In 1941, my dad was 16 years old, and Joe set a hitting streak record of 56 games, a feat still unmatched to this day.
Fast forward about 65 years later. My dad was still a baseball nut, never missing the back page of the newspaper, and always talking sports. And his admiration for Joe D. never waned.
I had been producing an annual charity gala for the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame for a number of years (and still do). In 1978, Joe DiMaggio attended the gala to help kick-start the fledgling organization. Thirty years later, as we dedicated a piazza to him in Chicago, Joe returned as the honored guest at the annual event. This was my chance to intro Joe to my dad!
I had the immeasurable honor of coordinating the day’s events with Mr. DiMaggio. We started the day opening the Chicago Stock Exchange with DiMaggio ceremoniously ringing the exchange’s bell with a baseball bat. Then was lunch, a couple of meetings with sponsors, then the gala.
As he was on in his years, the tuxedo-clad legend was in need of an escort to walk him to the podium and sit with him while he waited to speak. I looked to my “personal” bullpen, and pointed to my dad. I was able to pair my father with his No. 1 hero, Joe DiMaggio. “If I could have held on to the 56-game streak just one more game, I would have made a bunch of money,” Joe said to my dad. “Heinz 57 would have paid me a ton to be their spokesman!”
As I watched my hero escort HIS hero to the podium, tears streamed down my face. Just the site of these two gray-haired gentlemen, who were both so much a part of my upbringing, walking arm-in-arm was enough for me to call it a career. What could possibly be better?
Just last year, another opportunity posed itself to me. A close agent friend of mine who is responsible for bringing big names to the national speaker’s circuit asked if I would be interested in hosting film legend Sophia Loren for an appearance. After nearly fainting, I accepted the challenge of bringing Loren to Chicago.
My mother was born in Florence, Italy, also in 1925. Aside from the Virgin Mary herself, few, if any, icons existed as important as Sophia for young girls in Italy. She is the epitome of class and elegance, and represents women in an intelligently sexy way. She is, in fact, my mom’s hero.
So the day came when Sophia arrived. She was as elegant and classy as ever. I couldn’t believe just how regal and poised she represented herself. An 80-year-old beauty, still with a great sense of humor and completely generous to her loving fans.
I first introduced my 90-years young mother to the audience first. “Ladies and gentlemen, we have two reigning queens in the house tonight. Allow me to introduce to you the queen who gave me life, my mother, Gabriella,” I said. The place went nuts.
Then, I took my mother by the arm and introduced her as my queen to Ms. Loren, from one queen to another. Sophia smiled widely, appreciating the respect I showed toward my mom. To watch this tall, statuesque lady speak to my little 4-foot-11-inch mom was such a cute thing to see. They spoke in Italian to each other, Ms. Loren confessing that her favorite food in the world was still spaghetti with ragu (a meat sauce).
Once again, my eyes filled with tears as my career has allowed me to give my mom, as I had done for my pops, an opportunity to meet her lifelong hero. Sophia Loren and my mom talking in Italian as if they had been friends for years? There I go pinching myself again!
For me, money, fame and fortune are all far behind the blessings of being able to give my parents such special experiences. Maybe I am a bit too sentimental, but as I get older and what’s important in life becomes more clear, it is these opportunities that make my tiny career blip on the music-business radar a bit brighter.
Here’s to the heroes, my music-icon heroes … and my folks.
• 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@example.com.