Ron Onesti: What is America to me?
We all have crazy days, and we all have our ways of winding down from them. For me, it's sitting back in my easy chair just before bed, watching classic films and my favorite old TV shows for a bit. However, I usually don't make it much more than about 20 minutes before I am off dreaming about our next show at The Arcada.
Yet, the brief comfort of familiar faces of those with whom I grew up takes my mind off the detail-infested days I have.
As much as I look forward to the "It's A Wonderful Life" tradition every Christmas season, I look forward to watching the 1942 biopic "Yankee Doodle Dandy." It stars James Cagney as the "song and dance man" who became the king of Broadway, George M. Cohan.
That film was a WGN-TV tradition for so many years. Each year I would watch it with my dad, who absolutely loved Cagney and his "stiff-legged" way of dancing.
As a young boy, I enjoyed the film as much as any other I would watch on a Sunday afternoons at home. Whether it was "Mutiny On The Bounty," any other "Family Classics" movie with Frazier Thomas, or an Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy or W.C. Fields comedy, we loved watching movies together. "Yankee Doodle Dandy" was really more for me about watching my dad laugh at Cagney and sing along with the songs, than actually watching the film itself.
But as I grew older, I realized how important George M. Cohan was to this country. In the film, he is described as "the whole darn country squeezed into a pair of pants." The movie begins with Cohan (Cagney) giving his life story to President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the Oval Office as Cohan is about to be presented with the Medal of Honor. No big ceremony, just two guys talking at a desk.
Cohan practically created Broadway. There was a time his name was on multiple marquees at the same time from Times Square at 42nd Street to Herald Square at 34th Street in New York City, either as a star, writer or producer of a show. The 8-foot statue of him in Times Square is the only statue of an entertainer on Broadway. His songs "Over There," "You're A Grand Old Flag" and of course, "Yankee Doodle Dandy," have become anthems of freedom and musical symbols of what America is all about.
I learned a great deal from this movie. It taught me an appreciation for the creative side of the entertainment biz. It exemplified the greatness of both Cohan AND Cagney, and it deepened my own sense of patriotism. And when people ask me "How do you do it all?" referring to the number of shows and venues we are involved in, I think about the multiple plates Cohan was spinning at the time. It gives me a humility that makes me want to do more.
Last night, while winding down in front of a black-and-white film on TCM, an 11-minute short came on. It began with a Jewish boy being taunted by other boys about his religion. A skinny Frank Sinatra emerged to give the gang a lesson on equality. He sang a song entitled "The House I Live In" that addressed equality for all races and religions. A pretty bold move in 1945 when it came out.
It is a wonderful song that simplifies what our forefathers outlined in 1776. It's opening line, "What is America to me?" is a lyric that hit me hard. Political battles, race/gender/religious/international inequalities, economic turmoil, global warming, etc., has become the center of attention these days.
But there is the other side of that coin, too. Not to turn a blind eye to the important issues of today, but I think in life, balance is important. And what can get us through life's challenges is the strength that comes from the positive things that surround us.
The power of music is one of those things. In whatever I do, I try to make music a large part of the experience.
What is America to me? It is taking a step back once in a while, appreciating the freedoms we DO have, and taking time away from it all to enjoy life. It IS a "Grand Old Flag!" Let's not forget all who fought for it, and let's not take it for granted. It is the symbol that unites us all, and the blanket of protection that allows us to express ourselves.
I just happen to express myself by singing "Stairway To Heaven" at the top of my lungs while driving down I-90! Happy Fourth.
• 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.