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Backstage with Ron Onesti: Accordions, Watermelons and Comedy Icons

For the most part, my place in the entertainment biz is surrounded by music.  From Jazz-Age, Prohibition-Era tunes to the Big Bands of the 1940s, Doo Wop of the 1950s to the 60s Psychedelics and Garage Bands, Classic Rock and Soul of the 1970s to the Hair Bands of the 1980s, our music venues bring our beloved customers back to the center of their respective musical worlds.

When it comes to comedy, we have had some of the “big” names, many of them iconic.  Don Rickles, Joan Rivers, Howie Mandel, Martin Short, Norm Macdonald, Jon Lovitz, Dana Carvey, Dennis Miller, Ralphie May, Hannibal Buress, Steven Wright and others have had folks rolling in our theatre aisles.  Even Carrot Top, Andrew “Dice” Clay and Weird Al are regulars by us.

This is approximately the one year anniversary of the passing of two of the legendary comic geniuses who have performed at The Arcada.  Judy Tenuta and Gallagher were comic icons who defined comedy in their own unique ways.  When most did it stand up-style, these two literally embodied their comedy in a manner with which few could compete.

Judy was originally from Oak Park and had that “Chicago neighborhood” attitude to back it up.  She was fearless, as she dressed as the Virgin Mary for her very first comedy gig.  She wore outrageous costumes, was relentless with “insult comedy” and played the accordion as part of her on-stage persona, “The Love Goddess.”

We did an Anti-Valentines Day show with Judy entitled, “Love Bites”.  It was for those who didn’t get the chocolates and flowers, those “Dateless losers who had nowhere to go on Valentines Day,” if I can quote how she described the show.  She poked fun at almost everyone in the audience, but somehow, she, in her frilly, sequined, paper-heart-laden dress was able to get standing ovations.

As most comics learn to survive as inexpensively as possible, she would fly but make two or three connections in order to get the best price.  So many times she would be sitting at O’Hare Airport for hours, bored out of her mind.  She would call me to see what I was up to.  Yet I rarely got a word in as she gave me the blow-by-blow commentary of the strange humans who dared to cross her path at the airport.  “Look at this guy,” she would observe.  “What a shlub, he must be wearing his twelve-year-old son’s shirt with that belly sticking out,” she would say.  A tremendously funny bit in and of itself!

But there was a soft side to her.  She appeared lonely to me on many occasions on the phone.  She had family, friends and lovers, but her demeanor was more often one of someone somewhat lost.  When I would think of the “Clown with a frown,” she would come to mind.  She passed at the age of 72 in October of 2022.

A month later, I received word that Gallagher, the ever-familiar comic from the 1980s who became famous for his on-stage antics involving the smashing of watermelons and the splattering of food onto the front rows of his audiences, had passed at the age of 76.

He performed at The Arcada, and I must say, it was after several years of him calling me personally to hire him.  But the stories of him trashing theatres were legendary, and I just wanted to avoid THAT situation!  The Arcada was built in 1926 and with its detailed Art Deco design would prove to have countless hiding places for his edible projectiles.

But I agreed to do it anyway.  After all, he WAS a legend!

He was ever-recognizable with his stringy, long black hair, cab-driver hat and signature moustache.  When he first showed up at The Arcada, he came through the front doors of the theatre, rather than the backstage door.  He was notably excited to be there, saying hello to every one of my staff personally.  He started setting up his merchandise in our grand lobby, t-shirts mostly, before even checking out the inside of the theatre.  He actually autographed all the T-shirts before he went into the theatre.

We usually get a contract rider with backstage hospitality requests that include deli trays, a hot meal and some beer.  His rider was a shopper’s nightmare!

Six cans of whipped cream, cans of sweet corn, pickled beets, boxes of corn flakes and yes, watermelons, but the list went on and on.  We had to cover the entire stage and its surroundings with roll upon roll of plastic, and that included the first four rows of the audience!

He promised me that it would be alright, and that the rolls of plastic would catch all the flying debris.  But when he asked me to actually have a custom table built specifically for holding the blow of a sledge hammer, I got worried.

So we made the table with solid two-by-fours.  Little did I know it was going to be to support his famous “Sledge-O-Matic”, the massive wooden mallet that would pulverize a watermelon as the climax after the pounding of the countless plates of food that went flying through the theatre air during his performance.

To this day, several years after that fateful foray of festive flying food missiles, we are still picking out pieces of corn and pumpkin pie filling from our 1920s décor!

But just like Judy, he always seemed less than happy, maybe not really reaching the level of fame they both would have hoped to attain over their decades of unfiltered antics.  It was such a shame if that were the case, because they both took their audiences to places most other comics could only dream of taking their fans.

It makes me think of Judy’s accordion and Gallagher’s “Sledge-O-Matic”, just sitting in some closet or storage unit.  Maybe they are in some exhibit somewhere, but still, alone without their masters.  They too are asleep, never to entertain again.

I will think of those two often, and I hope their memories will last many lifetimes.  They were special.  And so were THEIR smiles were also special when they were on stage.  That was their “happy place,” an ironic location as their place of solace was our place of joy for decades.  Goodbye Oh Love Goddess, and here’s to the countless watermelons who gave their lives so that Gallagher could enrich ours.