Don Kronberg: Standing Behind the Stars

If you’ve ever seen a big-name act around our region, you might have Don Kronberg to thank for it. The entertainment promoter has found his passion rubbing elbows with the stars.

If Don Kronberg’s office could talk, oh, the stories it could tell. The walls in his roomy office are brimming with framed photos, vintage guitars and other cool memorabilia from some of the biggest names – past and present – in the entertainment business.

There’s an autographed banjo courtesy of actor Steve Martin and a signed guitar and poster from Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen. There’s a framed photo of Johnny Cash and a montage of the iconic singer Tony Bennett.

Kronberg is owner and president of NiteLite Promotions, a concert promotion company based in Palatine, Ill., in Chicago’s northwest suburbs. As a promoter, Kronberg takes care of everything from booking acts and securing venues to setting ticket prices and marketing the show.

“I’ve formed so many great relationships in this business, and I’m doing things I never thought I’d be doing,” he says. “Concerts are an escape for people where they can enjoy themselves for a few hours a night without worrying about anything else.”

Over his 33-year career, Kronberg has rubbed elbows with some of the biggest names in show business, including B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Don Rickles and George Jones. He’s swapped stories with Willie Nelson and shared meals with Beatles drummer Ringo Starr and others.

“It’s so surreal,” he says. “These are people who were my childhood heroes.”

“Don knows more stars than anyone I know,” says Rockford radio host Steve Summers. “He understands the relationship part of the promotion business, and that’s why people gravitate to him.”

Kronberg estimates he’s promoted more than 2,000 shows and events at venues throughout the Midwest, including the Genesee Theatre, Chicago Theatre and Rosemont Theatre. He’s also a board member for the Illinois Rock & Roll Museum and has been a longtime supporter of Rockford’s Coronado Performing Arts Center.

“Don stands out among promoters bringing shows to the Coronado, driven by a genuine passion for historic preservation,” says Beth Howard, executive director for the Friends of the Coronado foundation. “Since our first meeting, Don has remained an ally, staying in touch and generously contributing autographed items from his performances.”

It was happenstance that Kronberg found his passion. In 1981, the Chicago native enrolled at Loyola University, but he lasted just one semester. He took a two-month course at the Chicago School of Broadcasting before another short stint, this time at Columbia College in Chicago. “I wasn’t ready for college,” he says.

Kronberg started a DJ business and played the likes of “Love Shack” and “Footloose” at weddings and parties. The money was good, but he wanted something more fulfilling. That’s when he caught his first big break. He entered a contest for a chance to work as a DJ at WZOK, an FM radio station in Rockford. A few weeks later, Kronberg got a call from Summers, the station’s program director at the time, with the good news.

Kronberg’s first on-air shift (under the name Don K.) came the same night Bon Jovi played at what was then called the Rockford MetroCentre. A couple of months later, WZOK offered Kronberg a part-time weekend gig.

“I was terrible,” he says. “I had no clue about show prep. Between songs, I just talked about whatever interesting things I had going on in my life.” Summers stepped in and gave him a pep talk.

“Don may not have had all the broadcasting skills, but he had the ‘it’ factor,” says Summers. “There was something there and people liked it.”

Still, Kronberg felt like radio wasn’t a long-term career. But he did enjoy introducing bands at concerts and meeting tour managers and agents at the shows, and that led him down a path he never considered: concert promotion.

Through his connections, Kronberg landed a job booking shows one night a month at Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook Terrace, Ill. His first show was comedian Jerry Seinfeld in 1990. Kronberg spent two years learning the ropes – ticketing, marketing and negotiating with agents.

“I was a naïve 27-year-old,” he says. “I knew nothing about the business, but I learned quickly.”

In 1992, Kronberg took a leap of faith and, under the NiteLite Promotions name, promoted comedian Howie Mandel, who performed to a sold-out crowd on a Sunday night at the MetroCentre. His next Rockford show was another sell-out, headlined by REO Speedwagon and Survivor. Kronberg’s business was off and running.

These days, NiteLite Promotions books a wide range of acts in music and comedy including Steve Martin, Tim Allen and Kevin James. Kronberg has two other employees who manage the marketing and finance/settlement part of the business, and he relies on the venues and their employees for advance help and anything that’s needed on event dates.

Some of the most popular shows these days are acts paying tribute to the likes of Queen, Pink Floyd and Fleetwood Mac. “If you had told me 10 years ago that I’d be booking tribute acts, I would have said, ‘No thank you,’” he says. “But now it’s 25% of our shows.”

Not every show goes as planned. Earlier this fall, the legendary band YES cancelled a performance at the Rialto Theater in Joliet, Ill., 2 hours before the show because lead guitarist Steve Howe gashed his thumb. More than 1,600 fans, some coming from as far away as Florida, were on their way to the theater when Kronberg had to pull the plug. “We’ve taken musicians to the hospital before, but I’ve never had to cancel a show that late,” he says. “It was a painful experience.”

Another uncomfortable encounter occurred 20 years ago, when Kronberg sued Aretha Franklin after she backed out of a contractual performance at Rockford’s Coronado Theatre. After much back and forth, Kronberg and the Queen of Soul settled out of court. “We tried everything we could to work with her,” says Kronberg, who adds it’s the only time he’s had a legal issue with a performer. Kronberg did eventually work with Franklin again, including her last Chicago appearance in 2017.

“Don has a deep understanding of the business, and he has an innate ability to see a show’s value,” says Doug Johnson, assistant general manager of ASM Rockford, the parent company of the Coronado and the BMO Center, the venue formerly known as the MetroCentre. “People don’t understand what it takes to make a show happen and make it successful for everyone involved including the venue, promoter and the performers.”

Perhaps the toughest chapter in Kronberg’s career was working during the COVID pandemic, as venues shut down and concerts were shelved.

“People were scared, and the entertainment business started to fall apart quickly,” he says. “Smaller venues were going by the wayside and larger ones were starting to crumble.”

With no concerts to promote, Kronberg used the downtime to document his company’s accomplishments over the past three decades. It also gave Kronberg a greater appreciation for his work and the industry. And, he hatched a plan to kickstart the concert business again.

“I’m used to working with permanent stages, with roofs over our heads,” he explains. “But I woke up one day with the idea that I could do a show in a gravel parking lot with a movie screen as a backdrop.”

Kronberg started booking drive-in shows at the McHenry Outdoor Theater, in McHenry, Ill., where he landed performers including comedian Iliza Shlesinger and electronic dance band the Disco Biscuits. He also promoted shows in parking lots at Soldier Field and the NOW Arena in Hoffman Estates, Ill.

“COVID might have been a good thing for me,” he says. “I had been thinking about retirement, but this time rejuvenated me and gave me a new sense of purpose.”

In 2022, NiteLite Promotions had its best year, booking 104 shows. This year has been just as solid, Kronberg says, adding that next year could be another record-setter.

In the first week of November, he had 14 shows scheduled in various cities, many of which the 60-year-old attends in person. Kronberg says the music business is alive and thriving.

“Don loves this business and he’s really good at it,” says Doug Johnson. “He lives for putting smiles on people’s faces.”