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 in St. Charles. 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 theater. Those 60 days were, to say the least, a bit hectic.
It all started when I was trying to make a deal with the old Arcada owners for an appearance by American English, a Beatles tribute band I was managing at the time. The Arcada was a $4 brew-and-view movie theater that showed B-films you could enjoy with a box of popcorn and a beer. The band had appeared there before. A couple times a year, the theater 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 rebooked.
I pulled up and the theater 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 1990s to upgrade and get it up to code.
I literally walked around St. Charles and popped into local businesses to get their take on the viability of the theater. 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 a very interesting proposition to get the theater back up and running. I then met with Craig Frank, whose family owned The Arcada in the ’80s. His employment agency office was still on the second floor of the theater when I met with him. Although he was out of the theater 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 theater 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 you 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 theater just to see what the community really felt about the broken-down old gem. About 100 people showed up, from all walks of life. They were excited at the possibility of us reopening 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, Jim Shaffer and Bob Linn, who treated it like their own child. They were part of the Chicago Area Theatre Organ Enthusiasts. Because of Jim, Bob and that organization, we can still enjoy the more than 1,000 pipes buried in the walls of the theater during our regular showings of classic silent films.
Shaffer is gone now, and the pipe organ is dedicated to him. Linn is still very much a part of our family after decades of commitment to the pipe organ and to the Arcada Theatre itself.
With all this love and support, I felt taking over the theater was the right thing to do, no matter how grand a project is was going to be. I signed the deal 15 years ago this week, and have not looked back since. The Arcada Theatre is now the No. 1 live music venue in the Midwest with the best variety of the top entertainers from the 1950s, ’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 and one of the very few Vaudeville-era theaters to have been continuously running since it’s opening on Sept. 6, 1926. New power, plumbing, fire safety improvements, 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 who built it, and the various owners throughout its history, including the Frank family, who poured money, blood, sweat and tears into it, that kept it going. They will always have my sincere appreciation.
But as importantly, those who will always hold a very special place in my heart are the fans who have supported us since I got here 15 years ago. So many people came to show after show, dealing with 90-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 rebuilt 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 showbiz 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.
• 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.