Ron Onesti: Here's to my heroes!
Ever since I was a young boy, I have enjoyed watching biographies on TV. I think it started with Frazier Thomas and "Family Classics." Although the first thing that comes to mind when I think of that Sunday afternoon show is Frazier in his uniform with those scrub-brushes on his shoulders introducing "Mutiny on the Bounty" and the clip of Charles Laughton addressing the captain: "Mr. Christian…" (You either remember these early WGN days or you don't. If you do, then you know what I am talking about).
"Young Tom Edison" starring Mickey Rooney totally captivated me. I was always inquisitive myself, but seeing how the boy's thirst for knowledge turned him into one of the most prolific inventors in history made me go down the path of science as a hobby for many years. When "Family Classics" followed up with "Edison, The Man" starring Spencer Tracy, Thomas Edison became a "hero" whose story has helped channel my inquisitive nature through my journey today.
Another popular television show from the early '60s was "Biography," narrated by a pre-"60 Minutes" Mike Wallace. I LOVED that show! And the episode that affected me most was the story of Walt Disney. I learned from that presentation what a "visionary" was. I strove to be like Walt in that sense. And I cannot tell you the amount of times I have been called crazy, just as he was.
However, as I kept moving forward with my career, I used the lessons learned from Disney's story to keep me going. Had I not, there truly would not have been our connection to the Arcada Theatre. I was warned by several people that it would be impossible to save that "old building."
Another early biographical film that had a profound impact on me was the James Cagney classic "Yankee Doodle Dandy." It is the story of Broadway legend George M. Cohan. It was also a favorite of my father's. He would laugh heartily as Cagney would dance "pigeon-toed" as my dad would say.
Cohan was a song-and-dance man, as he put it, who wrote, produced, directed and starred in a host of Broadway plays and musicals. He wrote his own music, as well. There were some instances when "George M. Cohan" was on multiple marquees at the same time. That visual comes to my mind frequently as I seek new outlets for my business.
I think about Cohan regularly, as my quest for new opportunities is fostered by the example of Cohan's fearless drive to succeed. Also, his love for this country was an early lesson instilled in me by this film. Cohan wrote "Over There" and, of course, "Yankee Doodle Dandy." I truly believe, however, it was the combination of Cohan's story and Cagney's incredible performance that had this lifelong impact on me.
For as long as I can remember, P.T. Barnum has also been an influence in my life. As we would regularly go to the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Barnum was always the name most heard during the history and promotions of the spectacle.
For example, in the early 1970s when I was about 12 years old, "The World's Smallest Man, Michu" joined the circus. At 33 inches tall, he was a star of the show. But he was always compared to Barnum's "Tom Thumb" at the turn of the century. Barnum's story about being one of the earliest showmen helped spark an interest in the field that would ultimately be my driving force.
The recent release of "The Greatest Showman" starring Hugh Jackman also "sealed the deal" for me, as the story of P.T. Barnum grew and additionally fueled my showbiz fire.
I cannot write about my mentors and heroes without bringing my dad into the picture. He was a dreamer. He loved people and saw the best in them. He had a dozen or more questions always ready to be asked at any one particular time. He loved America and was so proud of his service in World War II. He had a hearty laugh that made people smile, even if they didn't know him but happened to be in the room.
Edison, Disney, Cohan, Barnum, (Albert) Onesti … these are my heroes. I hope you have yours and you think about them regularly. Their legacy is the effect they had on the lives of those who came after them.
Honor them by learning from their victories and from their failures. By doing so you just may be able to enjoy life a little bit more. We are only on this planet for a short time so anything that makes our stay here better is worth trying!
• Ron Onesti is president and CEO of the Onesti Entertainment Corp. and the Arcada Theatre in St. Charles. Celebrity questions and comments? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.