A respected suburban theater owner and concert promoter hopes he can revitalize the shuttered Des Plaines Theatre, but whether he or anyone else will get the chance is in limbo.
Ron Onesti, the Wood Dale resident who took over operations of the Arcada Theatre in downtown St. Charles in 2005, is one of two people who have expressed interest in operating the historic Des Plaines showplace, submitting proposals to Des Plaines city officials and theater owner Dhitu Bhagwakar.
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The 89-year-old theater in downtown Des Plaines has been closed since Jan. 15 after Bhagwakar failed to meet a city-imposed deadline to fix building code issues. In an effort to get the theater open, the city sent out a request for interest and qualifications document in May to potential theater owners and operators. Only two people responded: Onesti and Jack Groat, owner of Bensenville-based Freight-Base Services, a trucking company, and organizer of the Elk Grove Farmers Market and Little Boots Rodeo.
Bhagwakar has looked over both proposals, but he said his first priority is to get the theater back open -- with the help of city funds. That's a proposition some city leaders appear unwilling to support.
For now, Onesti said he's going "full speed ahead" with his own research into the prospect of operating the Des Plaines Theatre, having done walk-throughs of the venue with building contractors and financial advisers.
"At the end of the day, it's going to take a lot of money to restore and make this place a viable entity," Onesti said. "So far, from what I see, I can envision an amazing entertainment complex that will truly benefit not only Des Plaines, but the surrounding suburbs."
Onesti said his business model for the Des Plaines Theatre would be what he's done at the Arcada, which he transformed from a "4-hour brew and view" movie house to a live performance venue featuring classic rockers and comedians. Shows featuring Foreigner, Richard Marx, Hugh Jackman, Joan Rivers and Andrew Dice Clay were taped at the Arcada and aired later as cable and public television specials.
"Variety is the spice of my business. These types of buildings have to be living, breathing entities," Onesti said. "The problems (with similar theaters) around the country is it's a stagnant stage. They book a band and cross their fingers. They put on a play and think it's the key to the promised land."
"You've go to do a lot of everything. I don't do anything halfway. It's not just a booking agent thing. We have to give the building the personality. That really is a key to success."
Groat, who is also interested in the theater, has said his plans include development of a "community center" with concerts and other events. He's already been in the theater several times with contactors and appraisers who have given him price estimates to fix building code issues and complete other renovations.
Now, he said, the ball is in Bhagwakar's court.
"I'm just going to wait it out and if I still have an opportunity, I'll jump at it," Groat said.
Bhagwakar said both Onesti and Groat are "genuine, good parties" and he's open to talking with both of them. But first, he wants to reopen the doors to the theater -- and to discuss with city officials the prospect of getting funds from the downtown's tax increment financing district to help fix building code issues, including lack of a fire-resistant curtain for live theater performances and of a sprinkler system by the stage area, and problems with the boiler and furnace rooms.
"I'm open to options. But nobody comes forward if the theater is closed," Bhagwakar said. "The theater should be open and running … then at some point we can find somebody."
Mayor Matt Bogusz has expressed reservations about committing tax dollars to fund the theater.
"I'm looking forward to the theater owner holding up his end of the bargain to make the improvements," Bogusz said.