Happiness is a full house for the showman of St. Charles
BY MIKE THOMAS Staff Reporterfirstname.lastname@example.org January 31, 2013 9:20PM
Ron Onesti owns and has revamped the once faltering Arcada Theatre in St. Charles. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times
Updated: March 4, 2013 6:02AM
Three seconds. That’s roughly how long it takes for friends and fans of Ron Onesti to merrily accost him at the Office, a bar and eatery near his Arcada Theatre in St. Charles. Onesti could be mayor of this ’burb, it’s suggested, and in fact he once pondered running for 36th Ward alderman. But the born promoter, a first-generation Italian-American, has no interest in politics.
“Mayor,” he says wryly, “would be a step down.”
Almost from the moment Onesti sets foot in the place, on a busy Friday evening, well-wishers approach to shake hands, proffer hugs and praise the shows at his venerable venue. And no, Onesti insists, they aren’t plants to make him look good in front of a reporter.
“I never come in here,” he says. “I swear to God.”
Built in 1926, the Arcada is an expansive and gilded gem that eventually became a second-run movie house and fell into disrepair. When Onesti leased the building and took over management, in 2004, it was en route to being repurposed. In early 2011 Onesti closed his popular St. Charles restaurant (Onesti’s Italian Steakhouse & Supper Club, on North 4th Street, in an 1850s church) to fully focus on the Arcada, where tickets for higher-profile fare generally range from $29 to $59. Primo packages top out at $125.
Calling the theater “an asset in our downtown,” St. Charles Mayor Donald DeWitte recently told the Elgin Courier-News that it “has served the city well, and I look forward to continuing that fine tradition.”
Onesti’s younger brother Rich, a longtime business partner who works behind the scenes, says the community wasn’t always so supportive.
“It was terrible. We got a lot of people looking down at us,” he recalls of their early stewardship in a small town (population: just over 33,000) that’s served by a number of other concert sites, among them the Norris Cultural Arts Center, the Fox Valley Repertory and the Pheasant Run Resort.
“The mayor was always trying to be on our side, but there wasn’t much he could do. … The help that we got was very minimal, and we were just kind of left out on a raft to make it work.”
Onesti — who points out that his surname is the plural of “onesto,” which means honest in Italian — says he has so far spent $250,000 on the Arcada’s resurrection. It hadn’t been enhanced, cosmetically or otherwise, since 1993. He needs another $250,000 for further improvements, but that kind of scratch doesn’t come easily — especially in the wake of a deeply wounding recession.
“If you don’t take into consideration the losses from the past years, we’re [more than] breaking even now,” he says a few hours before the Top 40 hitmakers Air Supply storm his stage. “We’re in the black now. We lost for a long time.”
They’re still struggling. And still fighting.
A passionate salesman of one sort or another (mostly in the showbiz field) for a quarter century, the Chicago-born and -bred Onesti, 50, began his current career track with a local musical revue called “The Pack is Back,” in 1996. Prior to that he ran a sporting goods supply company called Softball City. By his own count, he now produces more than 200 concerts, festivals and corporate events nationwide. He pens a dishy column as well — “Backstage with Ron Onesti” — for the Kane County Chronicle.
Like many in his people-pleasing profession, Onesti is skilled at accentuating the positive and feeds on the upbeat energy of others. When he’s out and about, the latter is rarely in short supply.
“Ron has done a wonderful thing for the city of St. Charles with the Arcada,” says Office patron Patrick Lacy, who’s sipping beers with a couple of mates. Lacy lives mere blocks from the theater and says he has seen foot traffic increase in the immediate vicinity.
According to a recent study commissioned by the St. Charles economic development office, the Arcada generates approximately $2 million annually through “direct, indirect and induced spending.” That means ticket sales, money spent in town by Arcada employees, dinner tabs, hotel stays, shopping and whatever else concertgoers blow dough on when they come for a show.
Lacy’s pal Eric Ballenger, of Geneva, is thrilled to have caught “some of the greatest bands that have ever played classic rock” up-close and personal in “a small, beautiful” venue. He mentions Kansas, Asia and Eddie Money — just a few of the many acts Onesti has featured and personally introduced (he almost always introduces), often to sizable crowds.
Depending on the headliner, audience members travel from all over: from the Gold Coast to the western suburbs and far beyond. One woman jumped a plane from Seattle for the sole purpose of seeing her favorite band, Buddy Holly’s old group the Crickets. Onesti says there’ve been visitors from Germany, Austria and Australia, too. Gushing thank-you notes aren’t uncommon.
One gracious missive, written by a man whose severely disabled young son benefitted from an Arcada-held fundraiser, is heartening and heartbreaking.
“Seeing our little guy sitting in his wheelchair so handsome almost makes me forget all he has gone through in 6+ years… [A]ll of you are better people for what you did for him.”
In addition to his customer-is-king attitude, Onesti has a soft spot for hardship cases and is well known for his charitable endeavors.
“Everybody has the wherewithal to help people, and they don’t,” he says. “They choose not to.”
Nonetheless, he’s concerned about coming off as “a martyr” and wants it made clear that “I’m not fricking St. Ron, believe me. I’ve got my dark side.”
We can talk about that too, he’s told. Onesti laughs and doesn’t expound.
Because the Arcada is no United Center or Allstate Arena, its biggest names — which also have included comics Joan Rivers, Andrew Dice Clay, Don Rickles and Dana Carvey — appeal mostly to Boomers and Gen-Xers and still have enough drawing power to potentially fill the dome-topped room’s 900-plus seats. Last March and August, respectively, Rivers and Clay taped Showtime specials at the Arcada. Both are still viewable via On Demand and elsewhere.
In their heydays, Onesti almost certainly couldn’t have afforded or even lured many of the most prominent acts he now books. And while fees are normally in the tens of thousands and have soared to $100,000, Onesti occasionally pops big — in some cases knowing full well he won’t recoup the outlay.
“Sometimes I do lose on shows. Intentionally. Loss leaders. Like, when I had [comedian] Don Rickles here. I mean, he’s legendary. And I love doing legendary stuff.”
As Rich Onesti puts it, material gain “is so not the purpose for why [Ron] does what he does. It’s got nothing to do with the money.”
Here’s Ron’s take: “If I don’t make another frickin’ penny but my family’s taken care of, it’s OK. I really don’t care.”
Not surprisingly, his accountants want to “kill me.”
“I’m lucky I’ve got a family that’s supportive,” Onesti says. “It can’t always be all about the money, because if it was, I would have been gone. Because the last four years, like for everybody, [were] brutal. Brutal. Brutal.”
In order to raise business capital, Onesti says he had to “remortgage” his home in Wood Dale. And court records show that between 2008 and 2010 Onesti and his various entities — Onesti Entertainment, O Ventures Inc. and Onesti Dinner Club — were hit with breach of contract lawsuits by an Alsip meat supplier, a Pennsylvania-based advertising publication and a Chicago private investor. The first two (one of which alleges bounced checks and which Onesti refers to as “outstanding invoices”) relate to his now-shuttered supper club, the last to his theater.
When the subject of these suits is broached, Onesti sounds confused, saying, “Really? It’s news to me. Which ones?”
The investor’s claim, by far the biggest, stems from a now paid-off $58,300 loan (that amount includes 10 percent interest) Onesti obtained in the spring of 2009 to help fund Arcada acts. Court documents specify America and the Village People, but Onesti remembers it as a Jerry Lewis performance “just before the economy caved” and characterizes the original loan as “a business deal.”
“I would not ask this of you if I was not in a great bind,” he wrote in an email to the investor, a significant portion of whose money was repaid quickly. The remaider took time — too much time. Hence the legal action.
Being that it’s so financially taxing to keep the Arcada afloat, has he ever considered closing up shop?
“Every day,” Onesti says without hesitating.
But then “I’d go have a show, people leaving with tears in their eyes [because] it was the best night of their life. And it was like, ‘Oh, I gotta do it. I gotta figure something out.’”
The evening wears on and Onesti’s admirers continue to vie for his attention. As ever, he is flattered and wary.
“You wanna be the best-looking guy, the nicest guy, the most loved guy? Be the guy who controls free tickets. You all of a sudden become so much better looking,” the compact but always nattily dressed son-of-a-tailor says.
Although his jaunty, hardly-say-no attitude sometimes garners scoldings — be it by his number crunchers or those in charge of corralling fans for celebrity gawking in the basement dressing area — Onesti does his utmost to oblige. He estimates that only 5 percent of those seeking backstage access actually know him. Lots of them are women.
Fortunately, his wife of 16 years, Elena, is “cool” with the fawning femmes to whom he is friendly and warm and smoochy-huggy in a Hollywood sort of way. As she surely realizes by now, it’s all part of the gig — one that keeps her husband’s cortex clicking and eyelids blinking (she can hear them) into the wee small hours.
“The women are outta control,” admits Onesti, father to a 7-year-old daughter who’ll soon be dancing around him next door. “But you know what it is? I give them a night out they don’t normally get. They work hard, they’re moms with four or five kids, school, this and that. … But for one night, man, they let their hair down. And they entrust me with that.”
Before long, a possibly 40-ish member of that group approaches Onesti’s table.
“Sorry to interrupt,” she says. “Is Air Supply sold out tonight?”
“You coming?” Onesti asks her, looking up.
“No, I don’t have tickets.”
“Come by!” he exclaims with a smile. “We got room for you.”
She looks unsure.
“I got room for you!”
“I told [my friend] to go get tickets,” she says.
“Who are you here with?”
“My running group.”
“Bring ’em!” Onesti says. “Tell ’em they’ll be your guests tonight.”
She’s still on the fence.
“Eight o’clooooock,” he cajoles in sing-songy voice. “I’ll be at the door.”
“How many?” the woman asks.
“How many you want? I’ll take care of you.”
As she leaves to find takers, Onesti turns back to our conversation.
“I don’t even know these people,” he says.
You didn’t know her?
“I didn’t know her at all. You just gotta make ’em feel like you know ’em.”
It is an integral part of his business philosophy and a boon to his likability.
“We sell smiles,” he reminds Arcada employees. “We sell happiness. If we’re not making people happy, we’re not doing our jobs.”
Back at the Arcada, mixologist Mike Gentile is furiously slinging drinks, and the smell of freshly made popcorn floats from behind his bar. Onesti can barely take a step without someone embracing him or offering a compliment or presenting him with a problem.
The biggest one this evening, it appears, is a typo on some early-issued tickets. They indicate a 7 p.m. start time — an hour off — and grousing already has begun. Onesti briefly leaves his post in the narrow lobby to deal with it.
“One couple was really, really mad,” he says upon returning. “But I gave ’em the charm, bought ’em drinks. They wanted their money back. … See the frickin’ look on that guy’s face? Brutal. Brutal.”
And so it is. A couple of ladies get grumpy, too, before Ron works his magic. Most everyone else looks far happier, or at least less disconcerted.
“Ron makes this theater smile,” declares Arcada habitue Audrey Slana. A Batavia speech pathologist, she works with developmentally disabled school kids and often sits in the front row at Arcada shows.
Without Onesti around, she adds, the theater “loses that magic” and “doesn’t feel right.”
Just feet away, Onesti is in full welcome mode despite a head cold that only yesterday had him zonked. Standing in dark designer jeans and a camel-colored sportcoat with customized cuffs, he takes tickets, gives seat directions and dispenses a flood of salutations.
“Will, will you take this young lady also?” he asks one of his earpiece-wearing security guards after a women inquires about meeting the band. Will obliges.
As people stream toward the auditorium, Onesti starts humming: “Da-da-da-da-da-dum-dum-da-da.”
Another concertgoer approaches. He seems to know her.
“Gimme a little sugar,” he says while smiling and moving in for said sweets. “Gimme a little sugar.
“There we go.”