As the curtain rises and the stage lights shine once again, visitors to this St. Charles landmark are greeted by a venue that’s at once both familiar and different. Behind an aggressive renovation is the indomitable Ron Onesti, who’s spent years reviving this historic venue for the enjoyment of a new generation.
There are theaters, and there are experiences. The Arcada Theatre, a fixture in the heart of downtown St. Charles for 95 years, is much more of the latter, especially after a renovation that promises to make this theater a destination for years to come.
Behind it all is Ron Onesti, president and CEO of Onesti Entertainment. His Chicago-area firm produces concerts, events and festivals across the country, and it’s a proud overseer of the venerable Arcada Theatre.
After managing the venue for nearly 15 years, Onesti knew the theater was ready for an update. Last year’s shutdown of arts venues around the world gave him just the opening he needed.
“There’s a fine line between vintage charm and old and dilapidated,” Onesti says. “We needed a change, but I wanted to be very careful to keep that original charm while making it more comfortable for our folks.”
Onesti, working with new owners Curt and Conrad Hurst, engineered a massive facelift over the past year with the intent of propelling the 900-seat Arcada Theatre into the next 95 years and beyond. Updates include two new restaurants, a new bar area, additional bathrooms, a courtyard area and 11 hotel suites.
“I wanted to make this place a destination and an experience. That was my goal,” says Onesti, who took over management of the Arcada in 2005. “We made this a place to come early, stay late or even stay over the course of a couple of days.”
Pre-pandemic, the theater hosted nearly 200 shows each year, bringing such high-flying names as Bret Michaels of Poison, Wayne Newton and Howie Mandel. Now that the new and improved Arcada is once again raising the curtain, Onesti is ready for the real party to begin.
“There are very few theaters in the country that have hosted more Rock ‘N Roll Hall of Famers than ours,” Onesti says. “When it comes to music from the ’20s through the ’80s, very few theaters can compete with us. We bring everyone in.”
The Early Days
The Arcada Theatre has come a long way since it first opened to the public in 1926. Local millionaire and Chicago Tribune cartoonist Lester Norris and his family built the $500,000 theater as an arts and entertainment center the entire community could enjoy. There were only 5,000 residents in St. Charles in the mid-1920s, so the venue was built with just 1,009 seats. Despite its small size, lavish furnishings and decor helped to put St. Charles on the map as a destination for the age’s most beloved talents.
The venue was designed by architect Elmer Behrns, who used a Spanish Revival style to recollect the art and architecture of Colonial Spain. Decorative terra cotta outside as well as columns, faux balconies and a mock skylight above the main hall complete the look. Its name, Arcada, is Spanish for “arcade.”
Expectations were high on opening night, to the point where hundreds of people couldn’t even get a seat. Private railcars were booked to load VIPs from Chicago.
Those who were lucky enough to get in were treated to the film “The Last Frontier” (a silent western) and a live performance by radio stars Fibber McGee and Molly.
Those early years brought many legendary stars like George Burns, Gracie Allen and Duke Ellington.
The Norris family and staff members booked some of the biggest names in entertainment, while continuing to show feature-length films. The tradition continued well into the 20th century, but as Americans’ tastes in entertainment changed, so, too, did the theater’s position in the community. It eventually became a movie theater, and then Onesti came into the picture.
The Arcada was put on the National Register of Historic Places in 1994 because of its architectural and entertainment significance.
Onesti guesses the venue today is valued at nearly $34 million – quite an appreciation from its construction 95 years ago.
What’s Happening Today
In many ways, the Arcada Theatre may look unrecognizable to longtime patrons, and for good reason.
Onesti and his team have redesigned, repurposed and reimagined every square inch of the building. Literally.
“We actually decided prior to COVID to make changes, because at the time, I had been here for 15 years and it was time,” he says. “When I got here, the building was really run down, it was very ill-attended and people just weren’t coming. I wanted to build it up to something that the city could be proud of and people loved coming to.”
Behind the scenes, fire sprinkler systems and bright copper pipes have been installed throughout the building, along with a new HVAC system. The previous HVAC system was installed in the 1920s, and it was seriously outdated, Onesti says.
“We had air conditioning in the winter months and heat in the summer,” Onesti says. “I appreciate and value our customers, and I could see them suffering because they weren’t comfortable. And, when you have great food and beverage options, but only a handful of bathroom stalls, it doesn’t equate.”
When guests first approach the building on East Main Street, they won’t see a Starbucks anymore. Instead, they’re greeted by Rock ‘N Za, a new restaurant that specializes in wood-fired pizza. The menu also includes choices like salads, Chicago-style hot dogs, popcorn, pretzels and an ice cream machine that pumps out 12 delicious flavors.
Arcada merchandise is also served at Rock ‘N Za, in addition to memorabilia from visiting bands and performers. Seating for grab-and-go items is available, along with a row of pinball machines representing such classic rock groups as KISS, Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, AC/DC and Guns’ N Roses.
Heading down the main hallway, guests can look up and see several handmade chandeliers, all more than 100 years old.
Take a few additional steps and you’ll notice 10 additional bathrooms, a change that was high on Onesti’s list.
“This place was built before chili dogs and big beers, so there were only two stalls on the first floor and two stalls upstairs for 900 people,” Onesti says. “That’s all we’ve ever had.”
The updated bathrooms on the main floor have large murals of musical icons including Madonna and Aretha Franklin.
Nearby, Bar-Cada is now housed where the former Rock Store used to be. The area is now a full-service bar and has an enlarged entrance. There’s video gambling here, and the space is open daily.
Close by, the Arcada’s ticket counter has been retrofitted to resemble a 1940s-era box office.
Across the hall is Rock ‘N Ravioli, an Italian restaurant that features some of Onesti’s homemade recipes, including chicken vesuvio ravioli and braised beef ravioli. Guests can enjoy their meals while listening to a dueling pianos show.
“This’ll be a 200-seat restaurant, and they’ll make handmade pasta right in front of you in the kitchen,” Onesti says.
Just outside Rock ‘N Ravioli is an outdoor Venetian-style cafe, perfect for outdoor dining. There’s also a small stage, so live entertainment will be available under the stars.
As guests walk into the actual theater, they’ll notice a smaller main bar that allows for more walking space. Fresh new paint and carpet reflect a Roaring Twenties vibe that’s meant to transport visitors back to the theater’s beginnings.
The main stage has been updated, too, and it’s now accompanied by added lighting and a larger backstage area.
The colorful walls will still be seen in the entertainer dressing rooms, along with autographs from hundreds of visiting performers including Debbie Reynolds, Mickey Rooney, Kevin Costner and Frank Sinatra Jr.
Returning performers will notice new floors, ceilings, a dining area, restrooms and a production office backstage. There’s even an upgraded awning between the tour bus parking area and the backstage door.
The second floor has many surprises. A small window bar has become a larger, walk-in bar. The House Pub event area has become a VIP space with cherry wood walls, lavish food and beverage choices and celebrity access. The old second-floor restrooms have become updated restrooms reserved for the VIP area.
The second floor also houses the Arcadian Suites. These 11 themed hotel suites each have a fun and unique theme that plays on the venue’s musical roots with names like the Sinatra Suite, the Zeppelin Suite and the Nashville Suite.
“Each room is connected, so it’s perfect for a wedding or a girl’s night out at the theater,” Onesti says.
Finally, on the third floor, Club Arcada’s Speakeasy has all-new floors and a larger kitchen that opens the door for a larger menu and quicker service. A refinished dance floor makes a night of dancing more tempting.
Some updates are still in the works, but Onesti says they should be done by late fall.
These many improvements to the Arcada are inspired by Onesti’s own ideas and experiences managing the theater. He admits it’s not unusual for him to lie awake at night just thinking about recipes and updates to improve the experience.
“These are passions of mine, whether it’s the Italian cooking, or the ’20s,” he says. “I was brought up in a World War II household, so the ’40s are big to me. I was born in 1962, so I grew up in the ’70s, and classic rock is my stuff. I try to include my interests, and it turns out I’ve hit the interests of a lot of other people, too.”
There’s little doubt Onesti has the future in mind as he welcomes guests back into the Arcada for the first time in more than a year.
“This is the future right now,” he says. “Making this the No. 1 live music venue in the county is my goal. And, I think we can do that by offering more opportunities for people to really have a great time between video poker, vintage pinball machines, Prohibition-style drinks and various forms of live entertainment. There’s literally something for everybody here.”
Onesti says the value of the Arcada will continue to be greater as the years go by.
“I think people are really valuing these smaller, more intimate venues, because so many were knocked down, so if we take the time and financial resources to make this place beautiful, I think this place will be even more valued.”
One of Onesti’s biggest challenges, he says, is bringing high-end entertainers to smaller venues like the Arcada, especially as more big-name performers from the’ 70s and ’80s retire.
“You have to have a really cool place, and we have to play on the fact that many entertainers will do an intimate experience, because a lot of people like that feel,” he says. “Kevin Costner is a big Hollywood star, but he has a country band and he plays here and he sells out. He can play at Allstate Arena (in Rosemont, Ill.), but he and other acts like the intimate experience, so we’ll play off that.”
Onesti says pleasing the audience and keeping everyone engaged is what drives him and fuels his passion. That passion can be felt when you step inside the Arcada.
“When I’m backstage, I’m watching the audience, and as they’re singing and dancing I think to myself that there’s someone in that crowd who’s lost a loved one, or lost their job, so we have a responsibility to take them away for a few hours.”
In one case, Onesti and his team took a call from a lady looking for handicap-accessible seating to see English rock band UFO perform. She wanted to get the tickets for her brother, who was terminally ill.
“I told them to park in the alley, and I opened a side door where the seats were 10 feet away,” Onesti says. “We brought him in and I got the band to take photos with him, and they gave him drum sticks. He had the time of his life, and he died the next day. We do a lot of that, because it’s the power of music and we love music.”
The renewed Arcada Theatre is no doubt in a position to thrive in the heart of St. Charles for years to come.
“I just want everyone to come here and live their rock ‘n’ roll fantasy,” Onesti says. “That’s my job.”
By the Numbers
• $500,000: Original cost of Arcada Theatre
• $34 Million: The current estimated value of Arcada Theatre
• 200: Shows per year, pre-Covid
• 900: Seats in the auditorium
• 1926: When Arcada Theatre first opened
• 12: Ice cream flavors available at Rock ‘N Za
• 11: Hotel rooms at The Arcadian Suites, adjacent to The Arcada Theatre
• 6: Pinball machines inside Rock ‘N Za