A key aspect of taking over ownership of the Arcada Theatre in 2005 for Ron Onesti was that its most prominent feature had to work.
"We needed to have the marquee working; it was a main part of everything we were going to do," Onesti said of St. Charles' historic 84-year-old theater and the marquee that has been a beacon for the downtown in addition to promoting thousands of movies, plays and concerts for decades.
In what Onesti called "a very emotional time," for his Onesti Entertainment Corp., the current Arcada sign came down Wednesday afternoon in the first phase of a restoration project that will include a new sign and digital reader board for promoting Arcada events.
"Of all the stuff we have had to deal with, this (restoration of the marquee) has been resonating for five years now," said Onesti, who received support from the city and Downtown Partnership in pursuing the $100,000 project - with half coming from city facade grants and the other half coming from Onesti Entertainment and community support, including a Downtown Partnership donation of $2,500.
Marquee restoration has been a tricky business for theater owners, including Onesti, who put $30,000 into a cleanup and rewiring of the marquee in May of 2005, only to see a freak accident ruin the process.
"We had the whole thing (all of the Arcada letters) finally lit, and then that same day a 40-foot semi truck backed up into it when making a delivery and it tore out some of the circuitry," Onesti said.
That mishap drove Onesti to the conclusion that resulted in Wednesday's dismantling and the eventual replacement of the sign by workers from Joliet-based Grate Signs.
"I decided then that I had to put it forth as a community effort," Onesti said.
And it was not a hard sell.
Time is right
Former theater owner Craig Frank, an active member of the Downtown Partnership, said he did not hear any negative feedback when it was time to support the theater.
"This is not just for the theater," said Frank, who owned the Arcada from 1993 to 2000, and hired Willis Johnson and Classic Cinemas to operate the theater. "It has an effect on the whole downtown because when that marquee looks good, it speaks well of the city."
Frank knows about marquee maintenance firsthand, having it rebuilt in 1994 at the same time he was working to get the theater on the National Historic Register.
"The theater is a key historic landmark and the building is very much in its original form," Frank said. "But we were working for historic landmark status at the same time IDOT was rebuilding Main Street.
"There was talk about narrowing the sidewalks and there was concern about maybe having to remove the marquee."
Frank said that even though they were able to rebuild the marquee, the internal wiring of the structure remained the same, making future maintenance "a nightmare," partly because small "river flies" would flock to the lights, get inside sockets and short out neon tubes.
The marquee work on Wednesday drew a crowd of onlookers who watched the sign come down for the first time since it was put in place in 1943, replacing an original marquee from 1926 that did not include what Onesti calls "the Arcada tower" displaying the theater name.
Linda Stuart of St. Charles was an observer with a keen interest because she is the senior design and project manager for Grate Signs and was instrumental in getting the project under way.
Stuart, who has lived in St. Charles for 53 years, said she went to Onesti more than two years ago to tell him she couldn't stand looking at the malfunctioning marquee - and pitched her company's expertise and pricing.
"I have fond memories of the theater, but I had no financial interests or involvement (in the building)," Stuart said. "I just felt strongly that the marquee represented a main gateway into town, but it could be like hanging dirty laundry if the sign did not look good."
Stuart is hoping the new tower will be in place by Friday, and Onesti estimated that the second phase of the project - installing the digital reader board - would take about six weeks.
"We have to follow city and IDOT rules about the sign," Onesti said. "It can't be something that changes quickly and distracts drivers by being something you have to read or look back over your shoulder to catch another part," Onesti explained.
In addition, the new reader board will add one ton of extra weight to the marquee, calling for support poles that will extend from the end of the sign to the sidewalk. The two support poles have to clear IDOT approval.
Stuart said those poles will look identical to the city's light poles and will fit nicely on the cityscape.
Stuart had high praise for St. Charles Mayor Don DeWitte, saying he was a catalyst for getting community support and having a vision for a growing and improving downtown.
"He's really modest about it, but he was so important in getting the city and community to be behind this," Stuart said of DeWitte's role as city leader.
In the end, Onesti said, theater patrons can expect the marquee to have the same look and feel as the current design, with the digital reader board being the main enhancement.
Onesti purchased the theater in 2005 from real estate developer Scott Price of Seattle, Wash., who purchased the building in 2000 and was leasing the theater to Todd Smith of Mime Chuck Productions, which featured second-run films before the theater closing shortly before Onesti's purchase.