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Backstage with the Arcada Theatre’s Ron Onesti: We Built it, and HE Came!

Ron Onesti:  We built it, and HE came!

It happened!  The grand re-opening of the Des Plaines theatre played to a sold-out house on Halloween and featured Hollywood superstar Kevin Costner and his Americana/Country band, Modern West.  To say it was a “journey” to get there would be like saying Ray Kinsella (Costner’s character in “Field of Dreams”) just threw a sandlot ballgame together in his back yard.

It all started many years ago as the classic Vaudeville-era hall began to fall into disrepair and lack of use.  Folks saw what we accomplished in St. Charles at The Arcada Theatre and thought it would be great for The Des Plaines Theatre to walk down that same road.

But by the time I looked at it, the old gal was a bit too far gone for me to do what the place needed to come up to code and be the kind of place it was built to be.

A few years later, economic development of the downtown Des Plaines area moved closer to the forefront of the political environment.  And as planning began for a commercial and residential resurgence, the more it became evident that the theatre could be a major catalyst for attracting new families and businesses to the area.

The city was prepared to invest heavily into the project.  Then, Rivers Casino in Rosemont bellied up to the table and made a substantial financial commitment, all in an effort to save this classic venue.  The one piece that was missing was, “who would run it?”

A “Request for Proposal” went out to various potential operators and investors of the theatre.  After much research and due diligence, the City of Des Plaines by way of its City Manager Mike Bartholomew, reached out to Onesti Entertainment.  “We want what you have in St. Charles” was the statement, and a deal was made.  As I receive this request from struggling classic theatres all around the country, this Des Plaines property just seemed to make sense.  It is close enough and far enough from St. Charles to allow me to do my thing in both venues.

We began the design phase and I let my creativity run wild!  I had envisioned bringing the theatre back to its original “Roaring Twenties” splendor, complete with an exquisite Speakeasy, a Prohibition-era tavern and a 1950’s-style pizza place.

Then came the pandemic.  All came to a crashing halt.  The future of the theatre project, actually, of live music in general, was uncertain.  But little by little, we got back to work, and construction continued.  We had to dance around artists moving their dates, labor challenges and material shortages.  But, after four years of designing, building and business structuring, we established a grand opening date of Halloween 2021.

But who would be the very first act to grace the classic stage at a level not seen since the 1940s?  I first thought Chicago icons like blues legend Buddy Guy, comedian Tom Dreesen and Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan would be good.

What about my friends Tony Bennett or Tom Jones?  Not going out performing right now.

Then, I remembered the situation that prompted me to move forward with The Arcada project 18 years ago.

On my bucket list was to throw the ball around the actual “Field of Dreams” in Dyersville, Iowa.  It was about the time I had to make the decision to either spend the tremendous amount of time, money and effort it would take to restore the downtrodden 1926 Arcada Theatre.  Truthfully, it was a 50/50 shot if I was going to do it.  That was before my brother Rich and I threw the ball around the field Shoeless Joe Jackson posthumously played on in the film.

Nobody walked out of the cornfields, but that “if you build it, they will come” moment happened.  The decision immediately went from a distant “maybe” to a “We gotta do this!”  The rest is show-biz history!

A few years later, I had the opportunity to bring Mr. Costner and his band “Modern West” to The Arcada.  I told him the story of how it was his film that pushed me over the edge to take the leap of faith and assume the Arcada Theatre.  He actually teared up a bit.  “I became an actor so that I could make a difference and touch people,” said Kevin.  “If you are telling me that my movie had a little bit to do with saving this beautiful theatre, I am really speechless.”

He left soon after his performance, not really spending very much more time with me.  I didn’t get an autograph!

But then I found what he left me in his dressing room.  A “Field of Dreams” poster signed, “Ron, you built it, and they came.  Congratulations, Kevin Costner.”  How cool is that?

So here we are, 2021, I am about to open the completely restored Des Plaines Theatre.  Again, who do I ask to be the first act?  Then, as I watched the dedication of the new Field of Dreams on television, it hit me.  Who could be more fitting or more awe inspiring than Kevin Costner?

I had done a few other shows since that first one, so we were definitely on his radar.  When I had called, he didn’t bat an eye.  We built it, and he came!  It was a magical night!  All the stars were aligned, the place was packed and everyone not only had a night to remember, but also a night when the past came alive and wonderful memories flowed.

Then he left quickly after the show again!  But, in true Kevin Costner form, he left me another autographed poster, this time one of our opening night.  “Ron, you built it, and they came-AGAIN!  Congratulations, Kevin Costner.

It was at that moment that I truly realized that it was the right decision that was made on a baseball field some 18 years prior.  There may not be any “Crying in baseball”, but there were some tears of joy shared that night on my “Stage of Dreams.”