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Ron Onesti: Bright songs in tragic times

Today was a very big day. A very good friend who is from my “old neighborhood” of Taylor Street turned 95. His name is Al Centofante and he is a proud World War II veteran.

We held one of those drive-by parades in St. Charles where he lives with what turned out to be well over 100 vehicles. It was nothing short of fabulous!


Countless American flags placed on the parade route fluttered in the wind and waved above opened sunroofs, which added to the emotional tribute to one of the last of a generation we honored on this day.

As the procession advanced slowly through his cul-de-sac, I thought about the decades that have passed since he was a U.S. Navy communications specialist. So many wonderful occasions, experiences and historic moments — yet also, the horrible realities of life that went with them. And with what we are all going through now, I think of the music that got past generation through it all.

Of course, there was that big-band sound of Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman and a few others that helped homesick soldiers get through the lonely nights, as they stared at the corner-worn photos of their stateside sweeties.

“God Please Protect America” was an actual pop song by Jimmie Osborne released during the Korean War in the 1950s. This was a profound song on the AM radios of the day that could apply to the challenges of generations to come. For many of us who weren’t around then, the theme from “M*A*S*H” comes to mind when reflecting on this period.


At The Arcada, we have had Eric Burdon, the Animals’ frontman from the British invasion of the 1960s, on numerous occasions. When he performs “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” and “The House Of The Rising Sun,” it is truly wonderful to look out into the audience and see the brotherhood of Vietnam War vets in their camouflage jackets scattered about, singing in unison. Visions of those Army-green helicopters, millions of wounded soldiers and college-age protesters come to life for me every time I hear those tunes.

Tony Orlando (from Tony Orlando & Dawn) has come to be family to us here at The Arcada. He is one of the most wonderful persons I have ever met. His song “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree” is one of the most popular songs to be played on our stage. From a military standpoint, we today remember it used as millions of yellow ribbons were tied around trees awaiting the return of hostages from the Iran crisis. But it was actually known in 1974 for welcoming returning military personnel from Vietnam.

The space shuttle Challenger disaster occurred in 1986, and I can remember John Denver doing a song called “Flying For Me” as a tribute to those lost in the accident. Its such an interesting story. Denver said in an interview he personally initiated a “civilian-in-space” concept while the development of the space shuttle was being done. He wanted to be that first person, but President Reagan at the time decided to send a teacher instead — Christa McAuliffe — to join the astronauts on board.

Upon seeing the newscast of the explosion, he wrote the song in memory of those who “flew for us,” and to Christa, who “flew for him.”


Just after the 911 tragedy, we hosted the 80th birthday celebration for Patti Page. She was the biggest female pop star in the Fabulous Fifties era. Her hit song “Tennessee Waltz” was another tune that helped the veterans get through the cold Korean nights.

In the middle of her show, she paused to pay tribute to those lost in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. She had a slow and soft demeanor, and her gentle words brought us all closer together under the banner of freedom and solidarity we all experienced at the time.

She then broke out into a tune that literally tore out every heart in the sold-out audience. It was a letter from the daughter of a pilot of one of the planes that went down. It spoke to the level of pride she had in him and how much she and her soon-to-be-born child will forever miss his warm hugs. It was a moment I will never forget.

That brings us back to today. Among massive racism, protesters, looters and a pandemic, here stood this lively nonagenarian (someone between 90 and 99 years old; I had to look this one up), smiling from ear to ear, still proud of the country he fought for 75 years ago. It is his efforts back then and his smile now that will help me get through the challenges of today.

“Happy Days Are Here Again” came out when Al Centofante (and Al Onesti, my dad) were just 4 years old. It won’t be long before we are all singing that timeless song again, arm in arm, all together and safe, eating meatballs and attending concerts, shoulder to shoulder again!

• Ron Onesti is president and CEO of The Onesti Entertainment Corp. and The Historic Arcada Theatre in St. Charles. Celebrity questions and comments? Email ron@oshows.com.

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