Ron Onesti: Our 'Showbiz Palace' at 96
On Sept. 6, 1926, the Arcada Theatre first opened its doors, making this past September its 96th birthday. And I am celebrating a personal milestone as it has been 18 years now since I first came to St. Charles. During that time, I had to endure several challenges with regards to not only keeping The Arcada open, but also making it a viable part of the community.
To be honest, I really didn't know what I was getting myself into. The venue was in gross disrepair, and far enough from Chicago to keep it off the radar of nationally touring entertainers.
But still, every time I walked into the place, I felt something. It was an indescribable feeling, but there was a sense of warmth and character that overcame me. I walked around town getting input from the locals who all had a sincere fondness for the historic venue. The mayor at the time, Don DeWitte, couldn't be more welcoming.
When the town movers-and-shakers found out I was contemplating taking over, they formed a "Friends of The Arcada" group and gave me all sorts of input and support. Local residents Bonnie and Al Jacek stepped up to buy the very first pair of tickets to whatever show was to be my first. Tom and Chris Anderson of Colonial Ice Cream, Bob Hoge of the local bank, Vern and Sharon and several others did everything they could.
I thought with this kind of support, I could do something with the place. A few meetings and phone calls later, the place was mine. I thought to myself, "I have always dreamed of having my own place to showcase entertainers I have worked with for years! Now I have one!" Then I looked around and said to myself, even louder, "What the heck am I thinking?" A true testament to the age-old axiom of, "Be careful what you wish for!"
The theater was celebrating its 80th anniversary back then in 2006. We did the best we could to commemorate the 80 years of survival, at a time when so many other theaters of the vaudeville era had been razed or repurposed.
The Arcada has become THE place for retro-musical experiences with acts from the 1940s through the 1990s bringing memories back to generations of concert goers. The theater's old-school charm and historic nature has also made it a favorite of the acts themselves. So many return year after year, from the Glenn Miller Orchestra to Peter Noone of Herman's Hermits, as well as the 1960s garage-rock superstars such as the Buckinghams and the Ides of March, classic rockers from Burton Cummings of the Guess Who to America, "Hair" band superstars including Bret Michaels of Poison and Vince Neil of Motley Crue, country favorites including Josh Turner and Trace Adkins, and Las Vegas legends from Engelbert Humperdinck to Paul Anka. So many come back!
It has been 18 years since I arrived in St. Charles to keep the Arcada Theatre alive. During that time, I am proud to say we have taken this historic yet physically-challenged building and turned it into one of the most popular entertainment venues in the Midwest.
Fast forward ten years to 2016, the 90th anniversary of The Arcada's grand opening. It had been enjoying a popular resurgence as we continued to renovate and replace infrastructural elements of the tired building (the antiquated HVAC system, the old bathrooms!). That anniversary year was filled with Prohibition-style celebrations, including a parade down Main Street with more than 50 Model A and Model T Ford cars and over 200 people in Flapper dresses and Newsboy costumes.
I have always loved the 1920s and 1930s. As a matter of fact, The Arcada's "Roaring Twenties" feel is what enamored me to the venue in the first place.
As I prepared for the 90th anniversary of the theater's opening in 2016, I researched the history of the building. It turns out that during Prohibition (that era began in 1920 and ended in 1933, so the theater opened right in the middle of the time period) the "Red Parrot Tea Room" served "tea" to patrons who wanted to imbibe forbidden moonshine. In 1933, upon repeal of the Volstead Act prohibiting the consumption of alcoholic beverages, "Club Arcada" restaurant and show room opened on the second floor of the building.
I thought, "How cool would it be to reopen a speak-easy called 'Club Arcada' in honor of the 90th? But where? In one of the second-floor offices?" I started poking around the third floor of the building. It had many walls and small offices. There was a dropped ceiling and the floors had 1970s carpeting. This was the place!
There was a worn wooden dance floor that took up one of the rooms. It was a dance school for many years. Then it became offices and storage. Like much of the building was when I arrived, it was bland and forgotten. Not since Lester J. Norris created the third floor as a meeting room for the local Masonic Lodge did it truly have any real life to it.
I found the actual ceiling to be much higher than that of the rest of the building. The dance floor was in the biggest office, and I thought, "I could probably fit 50 people in here. This DEFINITELY could be the speak-easy!"
After doing a walk-through with the city of St. Charles engineers, I found the walls that separated the various sized offices were not original and not protected as being part of the "historic" nature of the building. "Somebody grab me a sledgehammer," I belted out!
Then it just began unfolding in my head. No designers, no drawings, no plans. I just picked out colors as we went along, and brought in tradesmen to do carpentry, painting, flooring, electrical and plumbing to my specifications. I hired local artists as well as flying in one of my favorite muralists and portrait artists from Russia. Yeah, RUSSIA!
All along I collected antiques, went to estate sales and combed the internet for specific items that would add to this Prohibition-era experience. My friends Mike and Judy Bradfield, who had also been collecting that type of stuff for years, donated so many of the priceless items. People even left me precious family heirlooms in their wills!
We had to put a kitchen and a bar in there, as food and drink are always a part of my entertainment experience. I was able to feature my recipes and creative way of preparing steaks, seafood, sandwiches, flatbreads and desserts.
The entrance had to be a "Wow" experience, so the reception area became the "library" with a secret door behind a bookcase. As you entered the speak-easy on your left, you would pass the first room, the "Prohibition Lounge" complete with a copper 1920s washing machine and generations-old curio cabinets filled with antique glassware.
Ornate lamps and fountains welcome you as you continue down the hall. On your right is "Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp Room." In there are all things Chaplin including rare photos, movie posters, commissioned paintings, the original spotlight and stage light from The Arcada in the '20s, antique cameras creatively mounted on the walls and a hat rumored to have been worn by the comedy great himself! Black-and-white silent films are also projected on the Chaplin-decorated back wall in the room.
You then will enter the "Fred & Ginger Ballroom." That's the room with the dance floor! It is breathtaking as the copper, yellow and orange tones make for a warm atmosphere. Antique chairs and couches add to the comfort of the room. A massive hand-painted mural occupies the entire back wall.
A semiprivate room is annexed to the ballroom. It is called the "Great Gatsby Room" and has a cozy space for about 20 guests. There is another full-wall mural with Gatsby-esque free form artwork hand painted in the Jazz-Age style.
The final room is a spectacular experience for two to six guests aptly named the "Jean Harlow Room." The furniture is exquisite, French Provincial with more paintings, rare photos and a "Public Enemy" movie poster. The 10-foot multi-paned window overlooks the theater's classic marquee and St. Charles' Main Street. Truly fabulous!
The Club Arcada Speakeasy & Restaurant recently celebrated it's four-year anniversary. Folks are just loving the food, the creative cocktails and the exciting shows in the ballroom.
But as I sit there at the end of the night, spending quiet time in each of the classic rooms, I get a feeling that I am not alone. I truly feel the souls of those who ate, drank and danced in these rooms generations ago. Is it "haunted?" I don't believe I would say that. I do believe, however, it is a place of timeless happiness that I, just by coincidence, have tapped into.
If there is a Heaven, then I believe Club Arcada is "Heavens Waiting Room," one of those places "Angels" like "Clarence" in the film "It's A Wonderful Life" wait until they get their wings, probably with a 100-year-old bourbon in his hand.
• Ron Onesti is president and CEO of the Onesti Entertainment Corp. and the Historic Arcada Theatre in St. Charles. Celebrity questions and comments? Email email@example.com.