Ron Onesti: Our 'Idol,' Crystal Bowersox
I have been producing music and food festivals for the past 35 years. During that time, I have crossed paths with a regular stream of entertainers who have graced our various festival stages. Most were good, some not so good, a couple were "idols" in the making.
One individual who fit into that last category was a young girl with dreadlocks, a guitar and an uncertain musical future. A friend asked if I would hire this girl to play a small stage in the afternoon at one of my festivals. She was struggling and my friend knew I was always up for helping young entertainers striving to succeed. I was impressed with her demo and put her on. I, along with everyone in front of the stage, was blown away. She finished her set, and I could not help but think this girl really should get somewhere in life. She was soft-spoken, sweet and musically engaging. I looked forward to possibly working with her again. But we fell out of touch after her performance. That was August of 2008.
Fast forward to January of 2010. I was armchair-quarterbacking the ninth-season opener of "American Idol." C'mon, after all, I AM a seasoned industry professional who could have easily occupied a fifth chair next to Simon! I love watching "America's Got Talent" and all those other similar shows. I'm ALWAYS scouting for new, unique talent!
I was watching "Idol" and one of the contestants looked incredibly familiar. Wait a minute … is THAT the dreadlocked-blonde who performed for us at the festival? I couldn't believe my eyes! It WAS her … and it made so much sense. I thought she had talent THEN, and she sure did on TV! Her name was Crystal Bowersox.
Crystal and her twin brother were born in a small, rural Ohio town. When she was 17, she ventured off to the big city of Chicago, where she performed at coffee houses and subway stations. But it never really took off for her here as her struggles became greater. She began to lose hope. But something made her give it one last shot when several of her coffee-shop fans told her about pop-country megastar Shania Twain coming to Chicago to audition rock star-hopefuls for "American Idol." Twain ultimately saw in Crystal what we all saw at the festival … a blossoming superstar.
She kept advancing through the competition until it ultimately came down to the point when it was just two performers left standing. It was her and Lee DeWyze, another Chicago-area performer, also with incredible talent. It was a nail-biter. The envelope was opened, and the winner of that season's "American Idol" competition … Lee DeWyze. She came so close! But it still gave her a forum to be noticed, and her star began to rise.
So when I found out she was touring the Midwest promoting her new album, All That For This, I jumped at the chance to bring her our Arcada Theatre. To my surprise, she contacted me on Facebook and asked if I remembered her! "I am so looking forward to seeing you guys again," she said. I really couldn't believe it! She actually remembered us from the festival!
The exciting day came … the day of her show at The Arcada. So many fans were from all over, just trying to get a glimpse of their "Idol." We have had Idols at the theater before: Season 2 runner-up Clay Aiken and Season 6 contestants (and Chicago area natives) Leslie Hunt and Gina Glocksen on numerous occasions. Still, this excitement was a different kind of electricity that flowed through the building.
She was so humble and so down to Earth. When she first saw me, she gave me a huge hug. I mean an exceptionally huge hug. More than just a friendly hello. She looked at me, practically with tears in her eyes, as if we were two long lost friends joyfully reunited after many years.
"I don't know if you remember that you hired me for your festival years ago," she said. "I sure do," I responded. "I became a fan that afternoon, and I really knew you would make it. I was watching the show pulling for you every step of the way!"
"I have to tell you," she said, "That show was a turning point in my life. It was the week of my birthday, and of course, I'll never forget it. It was the first time people actually came up to a stage to say how much they liked my music. I actually had fans!
"It was kind of a tough time for me then, I was practically homeless," Crystal continued. "I really thought maybe music wasn't for me, but your positivity and that show helped give me strength to keep going. That festival show really made me think that maybe I COULD do this! It gave me the confidence to audition for 'Idol.' I probably would not have gone through with it had it not been for that show. And here I am today!"
"You've got to be kidding!" I said. "I'll give you a couple more tidbits about that night at your festival," she said. "It was behind the stage at your festival where I met Brian, my future husband! It was also the highest paying gig I ever had before 'Idol.' One hundred bucks! I was down to nothing before that gig!
"Whenever I need a pick-me-up confidence builder, I remember that low time in my life and how that check helped change it all. I STILL have a photocopy of the check!"
She then reached in her pocket and pulled out a tattered photocopy of that original check I gave her for playing our festival! "I always keep it on me!" We hugged again.
What a humbling conversation. You just never know how you may touch someone's life.
As she was killing the audience with a powerful rendition of the Janis Joplin classic, "Me and Bobby McGee" as her encore, I was watching from backstage, just thinking about her journey. Just a few years ago I was watching his young girl singing her heart out to 20 or so people. Now, she is playing to sold-out house at The Arcada and beyond.
She may have been the runner-up on "American Idol," but as an Arcada Idol, she will always be No. 1!
• 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.