After controversy, mayor says standards coming for Des Plaines Theatre bookings

Following community backlash over a controversial group's now-canceled booking of the city-owned Des Plaines Theatre, municipal leaders are developing standards for future events.

The city's legal team is drafting a proposal to be shared with Onesti Entertainment Corp., the company that operates the venue, and the city council, Mayor Andrew Goczkowski said Friday. He hopes a plan will be ready for review in February or March.

"I want people to be proud of this theater," Goczkowski said. "We want the theater to draw people to the city. I can't have it be a point of controversy."

Onesti Entertainment CEO Ron Onesti couldn't be reached for comment.

Last week, Onesti canceled a scheduled Feb. 8 event called "Out of the Echo Chamber: Coalition for Kids" after an outcry about the gathering's organizer, Naperville-based Awake Illinois, and its sponsors.

Awake has spoken out against suburban drag events, medical treatments for transgender youth and the state's new sex education standards, among other topics. The sponsors were to include politically conservative groups.

Scheduled speakers included conservative politicians and the founder of a group that's been at odds with the transgender community.

At the Jan. 17 city council meeting, LGBTQ advocates accused Awake and the other groups involved with the event of spreading hate.

In a tweeted response, Awake called the people opposing the event "child mutilation advocates."

Ron Onesti initially said he wouldn't cancel the gathering, citing free speech rights. But he reversed course and pulled the plug two days later, blaming "hateful calls" and threats from opponents.

Awake plans to stage the event at a different, as-of-yet undisclosed venue.

The city has owned the theater since 2018. The facility reopened in 2021 after a multimillion-dollar renovation.

Onesti Entertainment has a five-year deal to operate the theater. City officials aren't actively involved with the booking process, Goczkowski said.

But after the controversy, Goczkowski feels a policy is necessary.

A clause in the contract with Onesti could legally pave the way. In part, it says the city and the company "shall cooperate and collaborate to establish standards and guidelines for booking to ensure that all events ... meet community standards and reflect well upon the character and culture of the City of Des Plaines."

Goczkowski would like the theater to stick with "content neutral" entertainment and avoid gatherings that "make people feel uncomfortable" or are divisive. He hopes to work directly with Ron Onesti on the guidelines.

Not all city officials believe a policy is needed. Seventh Ward Alderman Patsy Smith thinks disputes could be avoided if Onesti better researches groups that want to rent the theater or perform there.

"He should be aware of what he's having there," Smith said.

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