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Backstage with Ron Onesti: Don’t Thank Me, Thank The “Old Neighborhood”

Backstage with The Arcada Theatre’s Ron Onesti

Don’t thank me, thank the “Old Neighborhood”

It is no secret that I am an Italian American, and a proud one at that.  I was born on Taylor Street in Chicago’s “Little Italy”.  Being a child of the early sixties, I was fortunate enough to have experienced much of the music from the sixties and seventies now referred to as “Heritage Rock” and “Classic Rock”.  But how I was really lucky was the fact that I had tons of cousins who absolutely loved music. They were all a few years older than me, so I was exposed to the popular music of the time the way a teenager would, even though I was only ten.

My dad had the tailor shop in the neighborhood.  It was located on Western Avenue at Taylor Street, which was the center of our local world. He was so good natured and a truly fun guy.  So everybody would hang in and in front of his shop.  He loved to listen to Cubs’ games on his am radio.  He ALWAYS had his am radio on, but when the ballgame wasn’t on, it was flipped from WLS to WCFL, from Larry Lujack to Dick Biondi.

Top 40 music was all over the place!  It wasn’t as much Elvis as it was The Beatles.  The “Wild I-Tralian” Dick Biondi, who by his own account broke the Beatles in the U.S. on WLS in 1963, always had at least one, if not more “Mop-Top” tunes on his daily playlist.  From the Biondi’s on-air into of the band’s first American hit “Please, Please Me, to his live introduction of them and “The Rolling Stones” at California’s Hollywood Bowl, Biondi can be credited with truly fostering Paul, George, John and Ringo’s respective careers.  He really caused Chicago to become one of The Beatle’s biggest markets, and why I have always been a Fab-Four-Fanatic.

So I wanted “Ringo Bangs” when I went to the local barber.  He had no idea what I meant, but he would cut my hair in that style anyway because of what we used to call a “soup bowl on your head-haircut”.  My mom used to do that too, but she would Scotch Tape my hair straight across my forehead so her trims were straight.  It sounds weird, but that’s how it was done back then.

My dad’s barber was a little Italian guy, who looked a lot like Mayberry’s Floyd The Barber, mainly because of the pencil-thin moustaches most barbers had at the time.  He would always have Sinatra music on, he and my dad often breaking out into song during the rapid-fire snipping of his bright chrome scissors in my ears.  He would put this wooden plank with a cigar box taped to it across the arms of his barber chair as a booster seat for me.  I was mesmerized by the red and white stripes revolving around the barber pole outside the window, and could never understand why his long, black combs were kept in a jar of light green water.  The worst part was that he was constantly yanking at my shoulder and telling me to “Sit up straight!”  Then, that blast of white powder on the back of my neck with his wood-handled brush would cause a cloud above my head and make me smell like my baby brother after a diaper changing.  But between him and my dad, I was a budding Sinatra fan in training.

I had a bunch of crazy-fun aunts, too.  They all got together on Sundays, making pots and pots of meatballs, neckbones, sausage and gravy.  They had to make more than one pot because one was actually for dinner, and one was to be eaten during the cooking process.  All my guy cousins would come into the house, rip off the heel from the crusty loaves of bread destined for the afternoon meal, and dip them into the “working” pot, while sticking forks into the treasured concoction, only to pull out a meatball or two and eat them ice cream bar-style, as they were being chased out of the kitchen.

Those nights turned into mayhem, because after dinner, all my girl cousins and aunts poised themselves in front of the black and white “television set” preparing for “his” arrival.  Yes, it was that hunk from Wales, Tom Jones.  They would all scream throughout the “Tom Jones Show”, so much so that we could barely hear his swivel-hipped version of “It’s Not Unusual” or “Delilah”.  But because of those nights, I became a huge fan of the musical variety shows including “Sonny & Cher”, “Carol Burnett”, “Ed Sullivan” and so many others.  I thank my screaming aunts and cousins for this “appreciation”.

We were outside twelve hours a day, entering unlocked door after unlocked door of my friends’ houses.  I would hang with my older guy cousins, who taught me so much about music.  As they hung in the local watermelon-slash-beef stand, they would all be trying to hit those high, “Four Seasons” notes, with ear bleeding renditions of “Big Girls Don’t Cry” that I fondly recalled with the emergence of the musical “Jersey Boys”.  I forgot how much of a Four Seasons fan I was until the musical came out.  I have since seen it over twenty times.  I’m a huge fan of those cool pop tunes, thanks to the guys in my old neighborhood.

My career in music has been a wild one.  My roster at The Arcada will dictate my love for a wide variety of music.  From the Glenn Miller Orchestra to Bret Michaels of Poison, to Engelbert Humperdink and FOREIGNER, every week is an adventure as to not which genre of music we will feature, but how many will be presented.  Many people who attend the shows have expressed their appreciation for what we are doing at The Arcada, keeping “live” music alive and bringing the bands of their youth to their back yard.  I appreciate the kind words, but it’s my old Italian neighborhood that deserves the thanks.