Ron Onesti: A very good year for Paul Anka
I have been so fortunate to present great entertainers and legendary showbiz superstars over my 30-plus years in the business. Most of them have been singing, dancing, playing or telling jokes for 30 to 50 years or more.
They are a magical breed for their innate desire to bring joy to fans via their talents never wanes. They get up on that stage, night after night, with the same excitement and "game face" as they had when their names appeared in lights for the very first time. They play their hits, tell a joke and a story or two, and take pics with adoring fans. The crowds may be a bit smaller than those of the act's "heyday," but the thrill still comes over the audience like "the wave" at the World Series.
But then there are those entertainers, albeit a small circle of them, who breathe new life into their performances, bringing the audience experience to one of sheer group ecstasy.
Specifically, I am referring to Mr. Paul Anka. He just completed a sold out, two-day stint at the Arcada Theatre. Some may call his appearance a concert. Some may refer to it as a career retrospective show. I can honestly say, not only for me, but also for practically every audience member, it was a life-altering experience.
When our guests come to our theater, they are greatly anticipating a wonderful evening of entertainment. Their senses are focused on our historic stage. But my entertainment is to watch the audience.
As I welcomed our valued customers at the front door for the Anka show, I saw mature couples, adults with their parents and young adults with their grandparents. There were Anka fans of all ages, all together in what looked like an intimate family party of a thousand aunts, uncles and cousins.
I suggested from the stage that everyone should take it all in, for we were about to partake in a most memorable experience. And because of who we were with, it would create a memory that would last a lifetime. Having worked with Mr. Anka before, I knew what was in store for us. Or so I thought I did.
This particular show of his was one I had not seen before. Not only was it his own "songs and stories" format, touching on his megahits and his 61 years of backstage memories, it was also his salute to the music of his mentor, Frank Sinatra.
In true Paul Anka fashion, he began his show by entering the theater, microphone in hand, from the rear of the auditorium. He sang as he walked through HIS crowd, taking photos and touching the audience. Throughout his show, he broke that "fourth wall," singing, smiling and posing as he walked on chairs, zigzagging through the adoring former "bobby-socksers."
He alternated between Anka smashes and Sinatra classics. The crowd was beside itself. So many poignant moments, space here does not allow me to share even a fraction of them. But two, in particular, just so moved me.
Throughout his show, Paul refers to the "Rat Pack" -- Frank, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. He said they called him "Kid," a nickname they used when the guys were together socially. But then Paul takes an emotional turn as he gives an homage to the late, great Sammy Davis Jr.
Paul talks of the social challenges Sammy faced, and how much Frank loved him. Together they fought the ethnic strife of the times, many times Frank standing up for his multitalented buddy, "Smokey The Bear."
A video begins of Sammy sitting on a studio set, alone, lighting a cigarette. It is he performing the Anka-penned closing theme song to Sammy's television show "I'm Not Anyone." It's a simple, yet captivating performance. With a dim spotlight on him, Paul respectfully watches the video, with sincere love in his eyes. Then he breaks out into song, and halfway through, a tear-jerking duet ensues. I'm welling up just writing about it.
The other high point of the evening that truly touched me was when Paul performed the 1966 classic for which Frank won a Grammy Award, "It Was A Very Good Year." I was sitting on the stairs that flank the front of the stage. But instead of watching Paul at that moment, I looked out into the audience.
"When I was seventeen, it was a very good year …"
The all-age but mostly mature audience seemed to transform to bright-eyed 17-year-olds right in front of my very eyes. I imagined them as young folks with all their futures ahead of them, when their biggest worry was what song was on the WLS radio survey charts.
"When I was twenty-one, it was a very good year …"
Once again, the entire crowd got just a little bit older. Their jeans and T-shirts turned into letterman sweaters. Their lives were about to change, with more responsibilities and more challenges to face.
"When I was thirty-five, it was a very good year …"
A few wrinkles began to appear, they were a couple pounds heavier and a few strands of hair short. The audience once again matured in front of me, in sync with the Sinatra tune.
"And now the days are short, I'm in the autumn of my years …"
They transformed back to who they are today. The black and white backdrop turned back to color.
Although they magically transformed from younger to older during this song, at least in my eyes, there was one thing that was consistent. It was the glimmer in their eyes, the warm smiles they had and the sheer joy they were experiencing because of the incredible Anka show combined with the classic tunes themselves.
All I could think about was all the years of combined memories, sorrows and happy days that had been experienced by all present. And it all came down to a memorable evening shared with loved ones, and the beloved music.
Paul Anka gave us a Carnegie Hall performance, one we all will keep in our hearts forever. Yes, he did it HIS way, a way that nobody else could ever do.
• Ron Onesti is president and CEO of The Onesti Entertainment Corp. and The Historic Arcada Theatre in St. Charles. Celebrity questions and comments? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.