Backstage with Ron Onesti :
Our “Prince” experience returns today
Just this past April, we lost one of the most beloved pop icons in history, Prince. It was so strange for us because just hours after the news of his untimely death shocked the world, we had the country’s only “Purple Rain” era Prince tribute band, The Purple Xperience, at The Arcada. It turned out to be one of our most touching and musically incredible shows we have ever had. It was sold out almost instantly so I rebooked the band for this Friday. Aug. 5.
The concert had been planned for months, and turned out to be a bit eerie, tragically timely and emotionally poignant all at the same time. This was my column that week, so I thought repeating it now would be poignant. The following is how it all unfolded:
About fifteen years ago (I can’t believe it was that long ago already), I was hanging out with my buddy who ran a popular downtown Chicago nightclub called Excalibur. It was an internationally famous and massive dance club, and THE place to be (unless you were having a swingin’ Sinatra of a time at Jilly’s on Rush Street). There were long lines of wannabe jet-setters waiting to get into the rockin’ dance club at any given time, many of whom would frequent the 19th century, former Chicago Historical Society turned nightlife castle just to catch a glimpse of those celebs who would NOT have to wait in the line to get in!
He said, “Let’s go upstairs. There is a small private party I want you to check out.” So we go upstairs to an area where visiting celebs are typically sequestered. There was this guy in a black on black outfit, with buttons all over, almost looking a bit like a bullfighter. It was Prince! He was hanging out there after one of those “pop-up” kind of performances he was doing in smaller venues around the country. He played The Park West, a 700-seat venue in Chicago’s Lincoln Park area, earlier that night and ended up at Excalibur to wind down.
He was shooting pool with this giant of a guy, or maybe he just looked that way next to the small frame of the purple icon. He almost looked childlike next to this guy! I was putting on Rat Pack tribute shows at the time and had recently held a suit belonging to Sammy Davis Jr. It was so small and stylish, and what Prince was wearing made me think of it.
If you do think about it, both Sammy and Prince were very much alike in that they were iconic figures in showbiz, small in stature but HUGE in unbridled talent. Both consummate entertainers with a style all their own.
I never actually met Prince, as he was in his own small circle, surrounded by “Men in black” who could use Volkswagens for keychains and throw me across the room with a mere look. But we stayed in the room for a few minutes. He was actually knocking the billiard balls in with some conviction, hands-down beating his gargantuan opponent, a sign of his competitive nature. He was smiling and seemed to be ribbing the guy he was playing with quite a bit.
I actually was a fan already, especially of his 1984 breakthrough film “Purple Rain.” Prior to that night, I had put on several shows with another band featured in the film, Morris Day & The Time, so I was very much into “Purple Rain” the movie and the soundtrack album.
Fast forward to January 2016. I was at a talent-buyer conference in New York City and a Prince tribute band was showcasing their act. A very good friend of mine is their agent, so he invited me to the 15-minute performance.
WHOA! I could not believe how spot-on these guys were. Marshall Charloff, who played the role of Prince, completely embodied “The Artist” with his same physical stature and facial features. He sounded like him, walked and danced like him, even played piano and guitar like him! (I say “like him,” because Prince was an absolutely incredible guitarist who few in this world could possibly emulate. When asked what it felt like to be the world’s greatest guitarist, Eric Clapton responded: “I don’t know, why don’t you ask Prince?”)
Not only was the Prince character amazing, but so was the rest of the “Revolution” band! And to add to the legitimacy of the group, Matthew “Doctor” Fink was the keyboardist! “Doctor Fink” was actually in Prince’s band The Revolution, was in the film “Purple Rain” and the video for “1999,” and received two Grammy Awards for his production work on the “Purple Rain” soundtrack album. This was the real deal!
So I booked the show for The Arcada originally to play in March. After about a month on sale, I wasn’t really feeling the excitement, so for some divine intervention of a reason, I decided to move the show to April, and stepped up the promotion. We worked on the marketing strategy quite a bit, including giving away more than 300 tickets as a “Ladies Night” and “Kids Free” promotion.
Then a few days before the show was to take place, a news flash about an emergency landing by Prince’s private jet at a small Illinois town outside of Chicago was all over the press. It was stated that he landed to find a hospital because of “severe flu symptoms.” When a private room was not available at the small-town hospital, he got back in his plane because his home was just about an hour’s flight away.
The buzz was out and people started calling about our show. Prince music increased on the radio, and the film “Purple Rain” began slowly returning to late-night TV. What was to happen a few days later was unfathomable, and a complete shock to the rest of the world. Prince was found on the floor of an elevator in his home compound, Paisley Park, dead at 57 years old.
The news came out on the morning the day before our show at The Arcada. When I heard, I just sunk back in my chair, like the rest of the world, in pure disbelief. So many music icons had recently passed. This however, MUST be a joke, I thought. Actually, a thousand thoughts came into my head! I really didn’t know what to do. And neither did the band. I mean, Prince was like family to these guys, and they ate, drank and slept all things Prince every day. They were devastated!
So I called some of the people who I knew were originally excited about the show. “What else are we supposed to do if you cancel the show?” they asked. “Where else can we all celebrate his music and his memory?”
So the band and I spoke about it deeply. They were very concerned it might be perceived as disrespectful if they performed within hours of his passing. I said, “I think we have somewhat of a partially unwelcome responsibility here. We have the opportunity to provide a situation where a large group of fans can come together and join hands in tribute to the memory of a true legendary figure. This may actually help all of us grieve, if we do it together.”
The band agreed, and with an unmeasurable amount of inner strength and complete dedication, they arrived to perform one of the most important shows of their careers.
And that it was. It became a media frenzy with Doctor Fink being interviewed by television cameras, radio personalities and journalists greeting him at the airport the night before, and continued after the show. It was like a political rally, with TV cameras from every major station propped at the rear of the theater to the point where our production team spent half its time tripping over camera cables. We really had the only major connection to Prince in Chicago, so we were the center of the media’s attention. Fink paid tribute to Prince’s songwriting genius, and remembered him mostly for his sense of humor and warmth.
Backstage, we all stood, more nervous than usual. The show could go either way — a fabulous tribute or a morbid tear-fest. The lights went down and we began the evening with a video of Prince film clips. It was upbeat and set the tone as an uplifting one. I introduced the band after explaining our quandary to the audience. They roared with appreciation for us not canceling the show. We looked at each other and knew at that moment it was the right thing to do.
It was an absolutely incredible performance! The guys played their hearts out, and Marshall was masterful in his performance. Two hours of nonstop hits and memories. We were able to find 900 purple neon glow sticks earlier in the day, and they arrived right as the doors were to open. We handed them out to the sellout crowd, asking people to brandish the sticks during a particular song. Then, the finale of “Purple Rain” began. All the lights went down, the glow sticks were lit and the audience became a purple celebration of light. It was one of the most awe-inspiring moments ever to happen at The Arcada.
Marshall, the Prince character, performed the number with a heavy heart and tears in his eyes. The crowd joined in, and the song became almost gospel-like. It was a moment like Prince truly lived his life for — people of all races coming together, holding hands as brothers and sisters, celebrating life, in this case, HIS life.
Up until a day before this show, people WANTED to attend this concert. Within 24 hours of the show, people NEEDED to attend this concert. Although I never really met the man, I will be forever grateful to Prince, not only for the musical genius he gave to the world, but also for the opportunity that arose for me to in some small way be part of an “official” celebration of his life. With more than 100 million albums sold, he was a music icon. But he was also one of the most famous pop icons in history. There are several legendary figures known only by a first name, and fewer known by just a silhouette of their face and body. But how many are known by just a color?
The “Purple Xperience” returns to The Arcada Theatre on Aug. 5.
• 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.