St. Charles' Arcada Theatre stays alive where others fail
Eight years ago, the Arcada Theatre was an unkempt piece of history — a 1920s vaudeville hall that hosted George Burns and Gracie Allen in its heyday, but ended up showing movies to a handful of people as the decades wore on.
Then along came Ron Onesti, a longtime concert promoter who took a chance on the St. Charles venue and believes he's now closer than ever to recapturing its original glory.
"It's all about making magic happen," the Wood Dale man said. "This is a magical place, and the only things that can happen here are magical."
Onesti, president and CEO of the 940-seat nightspot, might not pull rabbits out of hats — but since 2005 he has been pulling in more prominent entertainers.
Last summer, actor Kevin Costner stopped by the Arcada for a live set with his band, Modern West. Then controversial comedian Andrew Dice Clay showed up to film his first stand-up special in 15 years.
That's just for starters.
This year alone, the Arcada has welcomed the likes of Pat Benatar, Chris Isaak, Boz Scaggs and Gretchen Wilson.
Johnny Lang, the Yardbirds and Debbie Reynolds are on tap for September.
"We went from having local bands to Joan Rivers, Shirley MacLaine and (Beach Boys founder) Brian Wilson," Onesti, 51, said. "We're the flavor of the month now."
But it hasn't been an easy road. Crowds were puny, 20 to 30 people at a time, Onesti estimates, when he set out to transform the dying venue into a contemporary hot spot.
Back then, the Arcada put on maybe a dozen gigs a year, Onesti said, rather than the 100 or so it now hosts annually, many of them with sellout audiences.
"It's day and night," he said.
Onesti strategy was to expand offerings — from rock to country to comedy. He also built a good rapport with Showtime, VH1 and PBS, all of which have filmed concert specials in St. Charles in recent years.
Meanwhile, the theater has received upgrades to its infrastructure, decor and lights. Its original marquee — greeting Main Street travelers for the better part of a century — was replaced by necessity three years ago.
Onesti also overhauled food and bar service.
"It was a complete gamble, but we've shown what we're made of and hung in there," Onesti said. "The reality is, it's been tough. We're still educating people."
Built for $500,000 in 1926 by local philanthropist and cartoonist Lester J. Norris, the Arcada initially had one seat for about every five residents of St. Charles, which had a population of roughly 5,000.
Despite its proximity to Chicago, the vaudeville hall went on to host some of the 20th century's biggest names, such as Burns and Allen, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, Vincent Price and John Philip Sousa.
Today, visitors still get to hear a few licks from the theater's vintage — though refurbished — Marr and Colton pipe organ, which rises from beneath the stage floor and is emblazoned with flamingo designs.
City officials note the Arcada's turnaround has helped not just the downtown but all of St. Charles. With the theater as a destination, there are more shoppers, diners — all of which leads to more jobs and income for the city.
Studies show between 10,000 and 30,000 drivers pass by the Arcada's marquee every day, while Onesti estimates 100,000 people a year actually set foot in the place.
The annual economic impact on St. Charles is about $2 million, city officials said.
Last year, the city spent $225,000 to buy a former sporting goods store next door to the theater. There was no official plan for the building, though some city officials said they envisioned it possibly giving the Arcada additional space to make upgrades and expand its lobby, dressing rooms and restrooms.
As of August, the building remained under city ownership. Aiston said officials have plans to do weatherproofing and other upgrades, with an eye on making the most of it economically. Onesti said he's still interested in the property but is not sure what may come together.
In the meantime, he's looking to expand theater rental offerings for corporate and private events.
He notes that while the entertainment industry is in "crisis," the Arcada has survived through old-fashioned customer service and a "never-let-them-see-you-sweat" attitude.
"We're gutsy," he said, "in a time when people are just trying to stay alive."
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