Backstage with The Arcada Theatre’s Ron Onesti: Thanksgiving 2020
Onesti: No my friends, Thank YOU!
Like so many other people do this time of year, Thanksgiving is the time that I truly take a few steps back and reflect upon the blessings in my life. This year, MAN this will be hard to do! But still, I have been blessed with so much up until the pandemic hit, I feel there is still a bit of credit left in the “Count your blessings” Department!
The vintage-venue Arcada Theatre is flourishing, and as the number one live music venue in the Midwest, no other place features more classic acts from the 60s, 70s and 80s than us! And we have featured more Rock and Roll Hall of Famers on our historic stage than almost any other venue in the country! We are so humbled!
We here at The Arcada have a very unique opportunity to, in our own little way, affect the lives of hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people each week. Think about it…in every nine-hundred-guest audience, at least one person had recently lost a loved one, lost a job, argued with a boss or spouse, or just had a bad day. We feel that we have a responsibility to take those people away from it all, even if it is for just a couple of hours, and make their day just a bit better.
The other day, I received an email from a caretaker of a young man with a horribly debilitating disease who is bound to a wheelchair. This young music lover cannot readily communicate, can’t really change his facial expressions and can hardly move in his chair. Yet, he loves coming by us. His caretaker says he can feel the music, and he loves our place. “He looks forward to your hug when he comes by you,” the caretaker said. “His face truly lights up when he sees you.” “It’s all about the music and the magic of The Arcada,” I said.
In his letter he stated that they attempted to go to a concert at a large venue downtown. They went on to describe a horribly difficult time they had at this show. “It was a cold experience and they treated us terribly. It wasn’t like being at The Arcada, we feel like family there, and he is treated as if he had no disability,” he said. “What a wonderful trophy to have,” I thought.
One of my favorite things to see at the shows is an adult with a young child, exposing the kid to the classic music of the 60s, 70s and 80s. To see a dad with his twelve-year-old son sporting a Led Zeppelin t-shirt, or a mom and her two young daughters enjoying Pat Benatar together…it really warms my heart!
Here’s another one: When someone brings their senior citizen parent to a show that they wouldn’t normally attend but are there just to share an experience with then or other senior loved one. When we do our Sinatra shows, our Glenn Miller Orchestra dances or our Fifties Sock Hops, it really warms our hearts when a customer of ours introduces us to his or her seventy-five year old parent, while they dance together. Magical.
We also get quite a few people at our place sharing a romantic date night, sometimes a first date or a twentieth anniversary. The music really becomes the catalyst for a fabulous evening, something that greatly contributes to the health of a good relationship. And I can’t tell you how many engagements have happened during our shows! Pretty powerful stuff, when you think about it!
One night last year, just before a show was to start, I was making my usual rounds welcoming guests throughout the audience when I happened upon a young man sitting in the front row with his dad. He was twelve years old, and he was at a Neil Sedaka concert!
“What are you doing here?” I asked. The father told me that the boy was really good at the piano, but needed a push to stick with it. Neil Sedaka is a world class player, and a legendary singer/songwriter. He thought a close-up experience watching someone of the caliber of Sedaka may inspire his son to give the piano the attention it deserves. Sedaka was incredible, and his performance was enough to instill the excitement back into the young player that his dad was searching for. He went on to say that his son’s piano teacher was really great, but had no place to hold his school recital. “Have it by me,” I yelped.
“Really?” his father asked. “Absolutely!” I answered. Two weeks later, I had a hundred kids in my place, showing off their skills and exhibiting a certain pride in their craft on a big stage in front of their families. How cool was that? I do have a slight ulterior motive here. These twelve year olds will be ticket buyers someday!
At the risk of putting myself in a tough position, I also have been able to, on many occasions, but not always, bring a certain amount of guests down into our dressing rooms to meet the band of their dreams. Most of my contemporaries in the industry really try to shy away from the meet and greet initiative because it is usually difficult, time consuming and something the artist is rarely happy about.
But I still do it, as much as possible. I do it because I once again feel that I have some level of responsibility to help keep this music alive. And the best way to do it, is to engage with the audience. But when I am down in the dressing rooms with the act and my security force brings down some meet and greet people that I had previously approved, I really get a kick out of seeing to the degree that the person gets excited over meeting his or her childhood hero. I have seen people cry, some get all tongue tied, definitely bucket list activity. I always felt that I was lucky to be able to help people with their “bucket lists”! Really, how many people get that kind of an opportunity?
And when the artists are fan friendly, that just makes it more of an amazing experience. The Monkees’ Davy Jones had proclaimed to the audience after his encore how much he loved The Arcada and its audience…so much that he would love to hug each and every one of them! Well, after the show, NOBODY left! I told him that we had 900 people waiting for their hugs! He spent over three hours hugging every one of them! Class act, he was.
Or when I had a local all-girl band open for their absolute hero, Pat Benatar. Pat heard about this, and brought them into her dressing room and gave advice to the fifteen-year-old budding rockers. Life changing!
How about the time when a girl with a brain tumor contacted me as her “life dream” of meeting Bret Michaels of Poison? I asked him for this favor and he said, “Absolutely, no question!” He came off the bus, and really spent some quality time with her. We parked her wheelchair right in front of the stage and she had the time of her life. He even invited her to his next show! I recently heard from her, her tumor has left her, she is feeling better, and she said that it was that day that she decided she was going to get better!
Country music superstar Vince Gill is a great friend and one of the nicest people I have ever met in music. I told him that a family drove in from Alabama to see him. He asked, “Where are they now?” I told him that they were at dinner across the street. He said, “Come on, let’s go.” So we walked across the street into the restaurant, filled with pre-concert diners. He went table to table taking pics and talking with fans. Then, as he walked out, someone in front of the bar next door said, “Hey Vince!” So he went in there and said hello to all the people! Amazing.
I could go on and on about our little way of touching people. So many people thank me and my staff for these great experiences. Little do they know that deep inside, WE are thanking them! We get the opportunity to help people, using music and a little bit of heart. And even with the lockdowns and other elements of sadness we have all experienced this year, I am still positive and excited to get back to seeing you all again very soon. Really, I am the lucky one! My heartfelt thanks go to all of you who have helped me make my dreams come true. The happiest of Thanksgivings to all of you!