As someone who has spent his life in the entertainment industry, Ron Onesti, the operator of St. Charles' Arcada Theatre, doesn't get star-struck. But when he learned of the death of Mickey Rooney he did pause to mark the end of an era and the loss of an icon who, for one week in St. Charles, reminded Onesti about what it once took to be a real entertainer.
Onesti booked Rooney, and his then-eighth wife, Jan, to perform at the theater about four years ago while the couple were touring with a multimedia career retrospective show.
"I had heard stories about him being kind of ornery to work with," Onesti said. "But he turned out to be nothing but a sweetheart. He was both interested and interesting, and you have to remember he was 89 years old at the time."
Onesti spent several days with Rooney taking him on various press interviews and visiting local media outlets to promote the show. But the highlights of Rooney's visit included taking him to a meeting of Italian American War Veterans to share World War II war stories and a meal at Onesti's supper club where Rooney unexpectedly entertained guests with a performance on a 100-year-old piano.
"He was an entertainer that could do it all," Onesti said. "I put him in that same vein as Sammy Davis Jr. He was a very rare individual that was born into it. If you look at a picture of Mickey as a 5-year-old boy, you could just see he already had it. And then it just got better. ... Singing, dancing, telling jokes, telling stories, all the musicianship they had. Who do you see that in now? Gene Simmons? Justin Timberlake? That's who we have now."
Onesti said Rooney's death is notable not just for the loss of a great talent but for what Rooney represented in his final years.
"Mickey was there from practically the beginning of entertainment as we know it," Onesti said. "Think of the people he worked with, the people he had conversations and relationships with. In just my time with him he always had another story about Clark (Gable), or Spencer (Tracy) or about Judy (Garland) or even Marilyn (Monroe). This guy not only knew them all, he was respected by all of them."
Even younger people who might not be familiar with Rooney's work have to be impressed by his longevity in the industry, Onesti said.
"That's part of what makes him special," he said. "He was the last guy of many eras of entertainment who was still around. The John Wayne era. The gangster era. The 1960s "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" era. Everybody is gone. He was the last one. If there was anything that represented the days of the entertainment industry gone by, it was Mickey. And now that entertainment as we knew it is extinct."