Ron Onesti is regarded as the “ultimate showman.” Learn how the entrepreneur helped transform the Arcada Theatre, in St. Charles, into a venerable entertainment hub.
Go to any show at the Arcada Theatre, in St. Charles, and one of the first people you’re likely to run into is the affable Ron Onesti.
Onesti is the president and CEO of Onesti Entertainment, which operates the venerable theater in downtown St. Charles. The Arcada opened in 1926 and quickly became known as one of the best Vaudeville houses in the Fox River Valley. In the early years, many legendary stars graced its stage, including George Burns, Gracie Allen, The Little Rascals and Duke Ellington. Today, it’s home to nearly 300 concerts and other performances every year, welcoming entertainers from Frankie Avalon to Foreigner, and many in between.
Those who know Onesti best say he’s the consummate promoter. He works the crowd before, during and after the show. He’s been known to hand out free tickets. He brings fans up on stage. He works the meet-and-greets backstage. And he loves making his favorite Italian dishes for many of the performers who play the Arcada.
“Ron is the ultimate showman,” says St. Charles Mayor Ray Rogina. “His role is to be the master of ceremonies, and he does it well. By bringing these performers to town, he’s producing fond memories of our youth. That’s his greatest strength.”
For Onesti, making fans happy is what it’s all about. “People have so many options for spending their money,” he says. “I personally interact with our customers in order to create that type of relationship that brings people back. It’s all about increasing the awareness of the theater and our shows.”
And he shows no signs of slowing down. About 18 months ago, Onesti opened a speakeasy above the Arcada, on the third floor of the building. The first act he booked was a 1920s Prohibition-style act; it immediately sold out. Onesti unveiled his latest venture, in Evanston, last year when he opened three new food and music venues in one building. “Rock ‘N Ravioli,” “Evanston Rocks” and “Bourbon & Brass” – a 1920s-style speakeasy and showroom – opened in the former 27 Live building. “I’ve always wanted to do something with the Roaring ’20s,” he says. “The speakeasy concept is working well.”
The personable Onesti is so popular with customers that a couple of regular concert-goers, Matt Branom and Brian Moran, started a fan club in his honor that includes a Facebook page. The fans came up with T-shirts depicting Onesti’s photo and recognized the promoter on stage before a packed audience. “We call Ron the unofficial mayor of St. Charles,” says Branom, who publishes a weekly newspaper in Belvidere.
“He always makes us feel at home. We would not go to St. Charles if it weren’t for the Arcada. It’s a huge asset to the community.”
Onesti was a successful entrepreneur well before his time. At the age of 9, he was setting up lemonade stands all across his neighborhood, and two years later was working as a restaurant bus boy. “I haven’t taken a day off since,” he jokes.
In high school, Onesti was equally enterprising. He served on the student council, always the first to volunteer to organize and promote school dances. He didn’t realize promotion was a career possibility until he met with his school counselor during his junior year. “I thought I wanted to be a chemist or a baseball player,” says Onesti, who played semi-pro baseball until he was 33.
By the time he was 15, Onesti started a printing business. He later ran promotions, silk screen printing, sporting goods and food service businesses with his brother Rich. “Everything I did was tied to promotion,” says Onesti, who graduated from DePaul University with a marketing degree.
Onesti is nothing if not versatile. He has produced several projects for television, including a PBS special about kids against drugs and violence. It earned three Emmy Awards. He writes a weekly column for a local newspaper about his concert experiences. He was named to Chicago Softball Hall of Fame for his work promoting the sport and was awarded the Ellis Island Medal of Honor that’s given to U.S. presidents as well as business leaders and entertainment legends. And he was bestowed Knight of the Republic for his philanthropic work in the Italian community.
“I’m honored, but I have a great support system,” he says, modestly.
Over the past three decades, Onesti has built a strong network of contacts in his promotional work. He was managing the Beatles tribute band American English in 2005 when the opportunity to run the Arcada came calling. “I had always wanted to run my own place where I was in charge of food, entertainment and ticket sales,” he says.
Still, he had some reservations about the Arcada. Onesti walked into a tired building in desperate need of repair. “It was a nightmare,” he says. “There were holes in the walls and floors. The place was filthy, and it was antiquated – and not in a good way. I went back and forth before making a decision to go for it.”
Since Onesti took over 13 years ago, there have been many magical moments inside the Arcada. Joan Rivers taped her final television special there. Comedian Don Rickles performed one of his last shows there. Frank Sinatra Jr., Helen Reddy and Engelbert Humperdinck have all danced and sung their way across the Arcada stage.
“My peers in the industry say you shouldn’t be star struck, but I am,” Onesti says. “We’ve had Shirley MacLaine, Wayne Newton and Debbie Reynolds perform here. We celebrated Mickey Rooney’s 89th birthday party here. That’s a huge deal.”
Just don’t look for current big-name acts. They cost too much money and many prefer bigger venues than the cozy, 900-seat Arcada. Instead, the acts likely to hit the stage are stars from yesteryear who still hit the road – Pat Benatar, Ann Wilson, the B52s and Melissa Etheridge, among others. Tribute bands honoring the likes of KISS, Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd also draw enthusiastic crowds.
“Each show has a special meaning to it and represents a generation gone by,” Onesti says. “Whether I’m backstage with performers from the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s or ’80s, it’s always an amazing experience.”
As it is for the performers themselves. About 30 to 40 acts, like Ted Nugent and Bret Michaels, return on a regular basis. Onesti has become friends with many of the performers. Some even come to his house while in town. Onesti sat at Cheap Trick’s table when Rockford’s hometown heroes were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
“This business is 110 percent relationship-based,” Onesti says. “The money is the money. This isn’t about money. They love the intimate setting and the way we treat them.”
Longtime musician Jim Peterik has played the St. Charles theater for years. A member of Ides of March and formerly with Survivor and 38 Special, Peterik calls the Arcada his second home.
“All musicians love playing the Arcada,” says Peterik. “Whether it’s rhythm and blues or a tribute band, Ron has no boundaries in the acts that he books. You could be a one-hit wonder from the 1950s and Ron won’t forget about you. He values every performer, and he’s so passionate about music. That’s why people love him. By bringing in these amazing shows, he’s made a lot of friends in the business. I don’t see that stopping.”
Last year, however, Onesti hinted the Arcada might close due to the condition of the old theater – mostly the restrooms and the antiquated HVAC system. Now, Onesti and the city of St. Charles are talking about ways to make much-needed upgrades.
“We are working with the building owner (Scott Price of Seattle) and Ron on securing a long-term lease and finding grant money to repurpose the Arcada, improve the HVAC and upgrade the restrooms,” says Mayor Rogina. “It goes without saying that the Arcada has a positive multiplier effect for the downtown area.”
As for Onesti, it’s full steam ahead. He’s always thinking of the next big thing. His bucket list includes bringing Tom Jones, Peter Frampton and REO Speedwagon to town. Don’t bet against him. It’s hard to say no to the beloved promoter.
“I’m lucky,” he says. “I get to work with good people and I get to watch concerts for free. Who wouldn’t like that?”