Ron Onesti: Celebrating 15 years with this 94-year old gem

May 13, 2005, a day that will live in infamy! Fifteen years ago this week, I signed my life away and took over The Arcada Theatre! And the truth is, I NEVER knew what I was getting myself into!

Just a few months earlier, we moved into a new home. Then we had our daughter in March, about the same time I made the deal for the theatre. Those sixty days were to say the least, a bit hectic!

It all started when I was trying to make a deal with the old theatre owners for an appearance by a band I was managing at the time, Beatles tribute American English. The Arcada was a $4 Brew-and-View Movie theatre that showed B-Films you could enjoy with a box of popcorn and a beer. The band had appeared there before because a couple times a year, the theatre would host a live act or two, and American English was its biggest draw. But when I called that year, nobody called back.

So I drove out to St. Charles, which was a hop, skip and a PLANE RIDE from my house near Harlem Avenue and Irving Park Road in Chicago (The HIP for some of you) to see what was happening, and if I could get the band re-booked.

I pulled up and the theatre was vacant and a dumpster was out front filled with broken wood and plaster. I freaked out! “Please don’t tell me you are knocking this place down,” I asked a construction guy there. “It’s not getting knocked down, I think they are making it an office building,” he said.

I was able to contact the owner of the building and he gave me the info. It was going to be a lot of money and effort to get it back up and running. Not much had been done to the building since the early 90s to upgrade and get it to code.

I literally walked around St. Charles and popped into local businesses to get their take on the viability of the theatre. Most spoke as if it were a fantasy to have a downtown center for entertainment that supported the local businesses in the area.

I sat with then Mayor Don DeWitte of St. Charles. He was so excited about my ideas! He made it a very interesting proposition to get the theatre back up and running. I then met with Craig Frank, who’s family owned the theatre in the eighties. His employment agency office was still on the second floor of the theatre when I met with him. Although he was out of the theatre business, I could tell this magical building meant so much still to him and the locals.

I tell a story about Kevin Costner coming to the theatre and me telling him that his film, “A Field Of Dreams” had much to do with me making the decision to take on the project. In a nutshell, I could have gone either way, taking it on or walking away. But a random visit to the real “Field of Dreams” in Dyersville, Iowa with my brother Rich gave me that “If we build it, they will come” chill I felt all over my body the day before I was to make the decision.

I then invited the community to a town hall-style meeting at the theatre just to see what the community really felt about the broken-down old gem.

About a hundred people showed up, from all walks of life. They were excited at the possibility of us re-opening it. They were also quite protective, as I recall it. They wanted to know my intentions, the way a parent would ask a young man about to escort their daughter on a first date.

The meeting was overwhelmingly supportive! Many wanted to volunteer to help put the building back together. Many wanted to be ushers and concessions workers. They even created a “Friends of The Arcada” support group for us!

We were so lucky to have the original pipe organ still intact. It was lovingly maintained by two gentlemen who treated it like their own child. Jim Shaffer and Bob Linn. They were part of an organization, The Chicago Area Theatre Organ Enthusiasts, a group still managing the fate of this classic instrument. Because of Jim, Bob and that organization, we can still enjoy the over one thousand pipes buried in the walls of the theatre during our regular showings of classic silent films. Jim is gone now, and the pipe organ is dedicated to him. Bob is still very much a part of us, even after decades of commitment to the pipe organ and to the Arcada Theatre itself.

With all this love and support, I felt it was the right thing to do, no matter how grand a project is was going to be. I signed the deal this week fifteen years ago, and have not looked back since. The Arcada Theatre is now the number one live music venue in the Midwest with the best variety of the top entertainers from the 50s,60s,70s, 80s and 90s!

We are now taking the building into this next go around of “The Roaring Twenties”. The beloved Arcada Theatre is still a grand palace that is one of the very few Vaudeville-era theatres that have been continuously running without stopping since it’s opening September 6, 1926. New power, plumbing, fire safety, bars, restaurants, stage upgrades, and restrooms will bring it back to its original Art-Deco splendor.

But it was the passion of the Lester J. Norris family that built it, and the various owners throughout its history, including the Frank family that poured money, blood, sweat and tears into it to keep it going that will always have my sincere appreciation.

But really, who will always hold a very special place in my heart are the fans who have supported us since I got here fifteen years ago. So many people who came to show after show, dealt with ninety-degree heat in the summer and chilly nights in the winter, long bathroom lines and limited food and beverage offerings. They stuck with us year after year, with an understandable complaint here and there, but they still came.

Yes Kevin, we re-built it, and they came! And I don’t care about a pandemic, an economic downfall or World War, the brick, mortar and soul of this Grand Dame of show-biz palaces will survive it all. Long live The Arcada Theatre and thank you all for the most amazing experience of my professional career. It has come to define me and I will be forever in your debt for allowing me to live out my dreams.