Growing up in an Italian-American household, we celebrated two sacred “Trinities.” One was “The Father, The Son and The Holy Spirit,” the other was “Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Tony Bennett.” It seems their music was always playing somewhere in my community.
I would wake up in the morning, my dad would be singing “My Way.” I would stop at the local grocery store on the way home from school and “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” by Tony Bennett would be on the loud speaker.
Every neighborhood had a Sally’s Grocery Store or Bobby’s Groceries and a Rexall drugstore. I still to this day don’t really know what “sundries” are, but you always got them at the local drugstore!
Then we would go to Livia’s Pizza on Pulaski Road in Chicago near Our Lady of the Angels (my grammar school) and Dean Martin would welcome us with “That’s Amore.” Then we would come home to watch the “Dean Martin Show” on TV.
Jerry Vale was another of those guys you kind of heard everywhere. He had a somewhat high pitched, nasally voice that made me feel as if my own uncle was singing to me. His voice defines “Sunday dinner” for me.
The undisputed female counterpart to those guys was Connie Francis. She also had a higher pitched, nasally voice that was so comforting, so familiar, so Connie. She was the female superstar of the day, especially in our neighborhood.
Years later, as I began producing live shows and festivals, I had the opportunity to work with Connie! I met her through some mutual industry buddies and after going back and forth a bit, she agreed to play The Arcada. It was a dream come true!
Usually I will send a driver from my transportation department to pick up the celebs at the airport. We bring so many in that it requires me to have vans, SUVs and drivers ready and waiting for their arrivals.
But this time, I went myself. We got her in “VIP” style with gate pickup, golf cart and police escort.
There she was, as beautiful as ever! There was no mistaking that face. I was right there … with the legendary Connie Francis! She was very cordial and all business when we first met. Her assistant went over details for the day. We discussed sound check and rehearsal times, length of show and the musicians I hired to accompany her.
The place was packed, as nobody could believe we were really seeing her. She had semiretired from performing, somewhat limiting her engagements to the East Coast and in Florida, where she lives. So to bring her to Chicago was quite the event.
After a video montage of her illustrious career, the lights went down, a drum roll began and I had the honor of saying, “Ladies and gentlemen, Miss Connie Francis!”
Her show was electric and fun, but when she moved into her classics, including “Where The Boys Are” and “Mamma,” the eyes of the audience collectively welled with tears as the music and the memories covered us like a warm blanket on a blistery morning.
We truly struck a wonderful relationship as she met my family and allowed them to reminisce with her. I told her about the Italian festivals I put on here in Chicago and, although I knew it was a longshot, I invited her to come.
“I would love to,” she said. “I have always loved Chicago. It was one of Frank’s favorites, too!” How cool.
Her show typically had a big orchestra and every detail was managed precisely, so I did not expect her to perform outdoors at my festival, on a temporary stage with a five-piece band, under the elements. So I blurted out the idea that we would like to present her with a lifetime achievement award at the festival on Taylor Street, in Chicago’s Little Italy. I would bring in local entertainers to sing her songs and she would just come up on stage and accept the award.
She agreed to do it. Somebody pinch me!
So the day came. We sat her in the audience next to my own Aunt Connie (she was as close to a grandma I ever had), in between my mom and dad.
My “big sister,” Deana Martin (Dean’s daughter), came in to sing “Stupid Cupid” to her. I was managing the Chicago cast of “Jersey Boys” at the time, so they came and sang to her. Several local entertainers performed what turned out to be a live “Connie Francis Greatest Hits” album. They included a 12 year-old vocalist who did a cute rendition of “Lipstick On Your Collar” and three tenors did a tear-jerking performance of “Mamma.”
The audience members weren’t the only ones in tears. Connie herself was visibly emotional as the outpouring of love, respect and memories overcame her.
The time for her to accept her award came and we escorted her onto the stage. Three blocks of Taylor Street was packed with admirers. When she took the stage to make her acceptance, the roar of the crowd dwarfed that of the last out in Game 7 of the Cubs’ World Series victory (it was at least close to it, anyway!).
After heartfelt thanks to her fans, she asked if it would be all right if she sang to the crowd as a token of her appreciation. Everybody gasped! No band, no rehearsal, 90 degrees outside! And she was going to sing? There is a God!
She pulled a CD out of her purse with backing tracks to “Mamma” and “Where The Boys Are.” The festival audience was silent as she belted out the songs, not missing a high note or a beat. It was surreal for the fans.
Nobody could believe the gift she gave us that day. And now that my mom, dad and my Aunt Connie are gone, this unforgettable treasure of a memory is one of my most cherished possessions.
From great monuments, vast grasslands and a melting-pot of different cultures, America is filled with treasures. One that can never be forgotten, with priceless value that has touched the hearts of millions, is called Connie Francis.
• Ron Onesti is president and CEO of The Onesti Entertainment Corp. and The Historic Arcada Theatre in St. Charles. Celebrity questions and comments? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.