Ron Onesti: Backstage (and behind the bar)
This past week marked the 102nd anniversary of the ratification of the 18th Amendment, thus creating Prohibition in America.
Along with that came the first "speak-easies," which helped shape the era of the Roaring Twenties. About four years ago, I wanted to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the Arcada Theatre, which was opened in 1926. What could I do to commemorate that time in history?
So I thought opening a small bar decorated with a few of the historic artifacts I had accumulated would be a nice experience for those interested in the history of The Arcada. I first looked at a couple of vacant offices in the theater building as options. Then I went exploring on the third floor.
There were holes in the floors, walls that made small offices and water-stained drop ceilings with fluorescent lights. After further review, I found the actual ceilings were quite high, and the city said I could knock down the drywall. I was initially concerned because the building is on the National Registry list. But the third-floor walls were not original, so I could knock them down!
An hour later, I had a sledgehammer in my hand and drywall dust on my face.
The third floor was originally a Free Mason's Hall where more than 100 men would meet and eat. Now, after 14 months of construction and decoration, the Club Arcada Speakeasy & Restaurant is celebrating its fourth anniversary -- just as Prohibition was initiated 102 years ago!
On Jan. 16, 1919, the Volstead Act -- named after Andrew Volstead, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee who managed the process -- was ratified with Nebraska's passing of the 18th Amendment. It was not until Jan. 17, 1920, that the law officially went into effect. It is interesting that the law originally did not address consumption of alcohol. It was about controlling the manufacturing, selling and distribution of alcoholic beverages. So basically, the law didn't say you couldn't drink, you just could manufacture it, sell it or distribute it.
The Senate and Congress passed the legislation, even though President Woodrow Wilson vetoed the bill. For the next 13 years, more martini shakers and ice cubes were used than any other time in history!
Franklin Delano Roosevelt capitalized on the country's desire to imbibe, making the repeal of the Volstead Act one of his top campaign platforms. He became the only four-term president in American history.
Then on Dec. 5, 1933, the 21st Amendment repealed the law, and America could legally drink alcoholic beverages again. It was quite the celebration!
But during that time, Americans "lived it up" with food, cocktails and dancing. Of course, the need to "speak easy" about the locations of drinking emporiums, and the sliding doors and secret entrances to the "Blind Tigers," went away in 1933. Ironically, the amount of drinking establishments went down with the legalization. In its heyday during Prohibition, there were more than 100,000 speak-easies in the Chicago area.
So today, 102 years later and after decades of fads and style changes, the concept of the 1920s-themed entertainment establishment is stronger than ever! At Club Arcada Speakeasy & Restaurant, you can enjoy dinner, craft cocktails in 100-year-old glassware, more than 100 bourbons and a variety of floor shows. Same thing coming soon in Des Plaines, at Bourbon 'N Brass: food, live entertainment and over 60 bourbons and whiskeys available to sample while dancing the night away!
Those days of free-spirited eating, drinking and dancing are even more missed as we begin to come off as big a "dry spell" as it was during Prohibition ... maybe even bigger! The days of gangland Al Capone, Bugs Moran and bathtub gin are long gone, but the experience of bootleg booze, flapper girls and velvet curtains are very much alive. You just have to find the right bookshelf to walk through!
• 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.