Ron Onesti: The 'souls' of The Arcada
As we are painting, sweeping and cleaning in preparation of reopening, we have had many "quiet" nights at The Arcada. It's a combination of excitement, anxiety and a bit eerie being alone in that magnificent grand hall when it's dark. I know there is bat that must be sleeping upside down in there somewhere!
The other night, it was late, most of the lights were turned off and I was closing up. I was on stage and I just stopped and looked out into the sea of empty seats, unused for 13 months, so far. I looked around and, once again, admired the original architecture and decor of this 1926 treasure. Even after 16 years, I still find new intricate elements of beauty within walls, windows and ceilings. What a true gem.
There have been thousands of guests The Arcada has hosted in its 94-year storied history. When it first opened, vaudeville fans dressed "to the nines" with three-piece suits and bowler hats, long gowns and "Sunday" hats, and kids donning their best knickers. It was the center of social engagement, next to the various churches in the area and the Fox River itself.
I was imagining those evenings full of excitement. People there for two reasons: to see the show, and to be seen by the socialite community. Ahh the splendor of it all!
Then I got to thinking about the many conversations had here. Think about some of the topics: Prohibition, the Stock Market Crash of 1929, the Jazz Age at The Arcada with Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, the last vaudeville show by George Burns and Gracie Allen, the repeal of Prohibition, the Little Rascals, U.S. announcement entering World War II (A day that will live in infamy!), all those "Movietone News" episodes where the community got info before television was popular, Playmakers Community Theatre, Korea, Elvis, the Beatles, Nixon, Vietnam, the Democratic National Convention and Richard J. Daley, the first man on the moon … and so many more discussions had while waiting for a show to begin. Crazy, right?
Think about the personal moments -- the first dates, birthdays, anniversaries, girls' nights out, guys' nights out, people in mourning, people downtrodden, people just trying to escape life for a couple of hours.
How about those community presentations over the years? The dance recitals of 5-year-olds who are now moms (and grandmas) themselves. The candidate debates, graduations and company seminars. So many more personal moments!
So much happens at these community-style venues. At one time, almost every neighborhood and suburb had one (at least). Then, with urban renewal and development, city planners in their infinite wisdom decided to knock down many of these golden palaces full of memories and replace them with gray condominiums and office buildings.
Then came 9/11, followed by the economic downfall of 2008 and now the pandemic. Two steps forward, ten steps back.
But we are still here in St. Charles, renovating and remodeling. And doing the same in another amazing palace, the 1925 Des Plaines Theatre that is nearing the completion of its renovation!
The power of the souls within these generations-old rooms have withstood all they have faced, good and bad. Now, as we hopefully are returning to some form of normalcy and will reopen soon, we will keep building on the foundation built by brick, mortar and the will of those grand souls that still grace the halls of these vaudeville houses.
I am not sure how much I believe in "hauntings," but I am really starting to believe the spirits there are not just the ones on the bar waiting to be mixed with tonic water.
• 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.