Des Plaines Theatre operator defends decision to provide venue for controversial political event
The CEO of the company that operates the Des Plaines Theatre defended leasing the city-owned venue to a group that's been criticized for making queerphobic social media posts and other controversial statements.
Describing himself as a proponent of the First Amendment, Ron Onesti of Onesti Entertainment Corp. on Wednesday said Naperville-based Awake Illinois has the right to hold meetings and discuss the issues it pleases. Despite the controversy, Onesti said he won't cancel the event.
"It's not for me to be judge and jury," Onesti said.
During Tuesday's Des Plaines City Council meeting, about a dozen LGBTQ advocates voiced outrage over a Feb. 8 event Awake is holding at the theater. Awake says the gathering, set to start at 6:30 p.m. and called "Out of the Echo Chamber: Coalition for Kids," aims to "transform the conversation on issues affecting children." Admission is $5.
Awake has railed against suburban drag events, medical treatments for transgender youth and the state's new sex education standards, among other topics.
Speakers are set to include Awake founder Shannon Adcock of Naperville; Jaimee Michell, founder of a group called Gays Against Groomers that's been at odds with the transgender community and its allies; Stephanie Trussell, a recent Republican candidate for lieutenant governor and Lisle resident; and former Republican U.S. Senate candidate Matt Dubiel of Naperville.
Sponsors include conservative groups Turning Point USA, the Chicago Log Cabin Republicans, Public Square and No Left Turn in Education.
Many of the speakers who criticized the event Tuesday accused Awake and the other sponsors of spreading hate. They and their allies have since taken to social media to condemn the gathering and question why the theater is hosting it.
Likewise, some sponsors and their supporters have used social media to blast their attackers.
"Why would anyone take issue with an event that is protecting children from indoctrination and sexual exploitation? #groomers," Awake tweeted.
Onesti said he wasn't aware of Awake's political stances before it booked the theater for the Feb. 8 event a couple months ago. While saying he'd draw the line at allowing swastikas or other Nazi symbols to be displayed, Onesti said he doesn't examine groups' beliefs before booking them, regardless of whether they're musical acts or political organizations.
"My role is to provide a venue," he said, adding that he wants to provide a forum "for healthy discussions about the issues of today."
Des Plaines is fortunate to have a place like the theater that hosts such discussions, Onesti said. Opponents "are welcome to come and have their own event the next day," Onesti added.
Some LGBTQ advocates plan to protest outside the theater at 5:15 p.m. Feb. 8.
Onesti Entertainment has a five-year deal with Des Plaines to operate the theater, which the city purchased in 2018 and spent millions to renovate.
During Tuesday's council meeting, Mayor Andrew Goczkowski and other officials said they'll seek to talk with Onesti about the types of events and groups the theater hosts.
"There's no place for politics in a building that's publicly owned," Goczkowski said.