It has been 12 years since I arrived in St. Charles, hoping to keep the Arcada Theatre alive. During that time, I am proud to say we have taken this historic, yet physically-challenged, building and turned it into one of the most popular entertainment venues in the Midwest.
Fast forward 10 years to 2016, the 90th anniversary of The Arcada’s grand opening. It had been enjoying a popular resurgence as we continued to renovate and replace infrastructural elements of the tired building (I am proud to say that finally the theater will be replacing the antiquated HVAC system and install new bathrooms in 2018. More on this to come).
When we celebrated being open continuously for 90 years, a rare feat in the theater industry, the year was filled with Prohibition-era-style celebrations, including a parade down Main Street with more than 50 Model A and Model T Ford autos and about 200 people in flapper dresses and newsboy costumes.
I have always loved the 1920s and 1930s. As a matter of fact, The Arcada’s Roaring Twenties feel is what enamored me to the venue in the first place.
As I prepared for that 90th anniversary, I researched the history of the building. It turns out that during Prohibition (it began in 1920 and ended in 1933, so the theater opened right in the middle of that era), the Red Parrot Tea Room served “tea” to patrons who wanted to imbibe forbidden moonshine. In 1933, upon repeal of the Volstead Act prohibiting the sale of alcoholic beverages, Club Arcada restaurant and show room opened on the second floor of the building.
I thought, “How cool would it be to reopen a Speakeasy called Club Arcada in honor of the 90th? But where? In one of the second-floor offices?”
I started poking around the third floor of the building. It had many walls and small offices. There was a drop ceiling and the floors had 1970s carpeting. It was a disaster, but THIS was the place! I felt it!
There was a worn wooden dance floor that took up one of the rooms. It had been used as a dance school for many years. Then it became offices and storage. Like much of the building was when I arrived, it was bland and forgotten. Not since Lester J. Norris created the third floor as a meeting room for the local Masonic Lodge did it truly have any life to it.
I found the actual ceiling to be much higher than that of the rest of the building. The dance floor was in the biggest office, and I thought, “I could probably fit 50 people in here. This DEFINITELY could be The Speakeasy!”
After doing a walk-through with city of St. Charles engineers, I learned the walls separating the various offices were not original and not protected as being part of the “historic” nature of the building. “Somebody grab me a sledgehammer,” I belted out!
Then it just began unfolding in my head. No designers, no drawings, no plans. I just picked out colors as we went along, and brought in tradesmen to do carpentry, painting, flooring, electrical and plumbing to my specifications. I hired local artists as well as flying in one of my favorite muralists and portrait artists from Russia. Yeah, RUSSIA!
All along I collected antiques, went to estate sales and combed the internet for specific items that would add to this Prohibition-era experience. My friends Mike and Judy Bradfield, who also had collected that type of stuff for years, donated so many of the priceless items. People even left me precious family heirlooms in their wills!
We had to put a kitchen and a bar in there, as food and drink are always a part of my entertainment experience. I was able to feature my recipes and creative ways to prepare steaks, seafood, sandwiches, flatbreads and desserts.
The entrance had to be a “Wow” experience, so the reception area became the “Library” with a secret door behind a bookcase. As you entered the Speakeasy on your left, you would pass the first room, the Prohibition Lounge complete with a copper 1920s washing machine and generations-old curio cabinets filled with antique glassware.
Ornate lamps and fountains welcome you as you continue down the hall. On your right is Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp Room. In there are all things Chaplin, such as rare photos, movie posters, commissioned paintings, the original spotlight and stage light from The Arcada in the ’20s, antique cameras creatively mounted on the walls and a hat rumored to have been worn by the comedy great himself! Black and white silent films are also projected on the Chaplin-decorated back wall in the room.
You then will enter the Fred & Ginger Ballroom. That’s the room with the dance floor! It is breathtaking as the copper, yellow and orange tones make for a warm atmosphere. Antique chairs and couches add to the comfort of the room. A massive, hand-painted mural occupies the entire back wall.
A semiprivate room is annexed to the ballroom. It is called The Great Gatsby Room and has a cozy space for about 20 guests. There is another full-wall mural with Gatsby-esque free form artwork hand-painted in the Jazz Age style.
The final room is a spectacular experience for two to six guests, aptly name the Jean Harlow Room. The furniture is exquisite, French Provincial with more paintings, rare photos and a “Public Enemy” movie poster. The 10-foot multi-paned window overlooks the theater’s classic marquee and St. Charles’ Main Street. Truly fabulous!
The Club Arcada Speakeasy & Restaurant recently celebrated it’s first anniversary. Folks are just loving the food, the creative cocktails and the exciting shows in the ballroom.
But as I sit there at the end of the night, spending quiet time in each of the classic rooms, I get a feeling I am not alone. I truly feel the souls of those who ate, drank and danced in these rooms generations ago. Is it “haunted?” I don’t believe I would say that. I do feel, however, it is a place of timeless happiness that I, just by coincidence, have tapped into.
If there is a heaven, then I believe Club Arcada is one of those places “angels” like “Clarence” in the film “It’s A Wonderful Life” wait until they get their wings.
• 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.
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