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Backstage with Ron Onesti: Food, Frank Sinatra Jr. and an incredible night

Published: Thursday, Nov. 22, 2012 5:30 a.m. CST

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With more than 25 years in the entertainment business, there are many moments for which I am thankful. Just being able to walk on the same stage and share a microphone with show-biz icons is in itself an honor. But to rack up the behind-the-scenes experiences I have over the years? I am truly blessed.

For an Italian-American such as I, there are two “trinities” that guide my soul. There is the main one of course. But as Sunday church leads into Sunday gravy, the secondary trinity of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Tony Bennett always adds a certain spice that mellows the flavor of the garlic. 

So, when I recently hosted Frank Sinatra Jr. at the Arcada Theatre in St. Charles, you can just imagine the excitement (and the smell of meatballs) that filled the air.

He is known in the industry as being somewhat standoffish. As he exited the tour bus, I could immediately feel a sense of protective shyness to him. He clutched the case that carried his precious music charts and greeted me without a smile. 

I remember thinking to myself that I could understand his demeanor to a degree. I mean, talk about growing up in the shadow of somebody!

I gave him his space and kept it completely formal. His 23-piece band took the stage for sound check, and it was like a vintage radio with the tubes in back brightening again and coming back to life. Each instrument was being tuned and polished in a way we rarely, if ever, witnessed on our stage. But as Frank Jr. (or Mr. Sinatra as we were told to refer to him) began the rehearsal, I witnessed another “first” for an entertainer on our stage.

When most vocalists want to adjust the sound in their monitors, it is usually denoted by a vigorous pointing to a speaker and a thumb up or down gesture. In Frank’s case, he softly spoke into the microphone, “Can you go from 400 hertz to 450?” 

That was pretty specific, and he continued to test our technical savvy throughout the sound check. After about two hours of this, he and the band retreated to the dressing rooms downstairs. As the excitement built in the audience, the fact that a “Sinatra” was in the house kept resounding in my brain. Another career moment!

OK – it’s show time. His road manager asked to have the backstage lights turned off. The orchestra reverently took the stage behind a closed velvet curtain, leaving me standing alone in the dark wings. 

As they adjusted their bow ties and opened their music books a hush immediately came over the group. Almost out of nowhere came this all-too-familiar figure. I would normally wish the entertainer a good show and thank him or her for gracing our stage at this moment. But this was different. 

I could see the concentration on his face.  I couldn’t help but stare at him hoping I wouldn’t break his focus.

With the darkened backstage, just the reflection from the drum cymbals made his face glimmer. Now I have never been one to dwell on the “haunted” reputation of the theater, but one of my most startling experiences there happened right at that moment. I swear, for a few fleeting seconds, Frank Jr.’s familiar face turned into a larger-than-life Frank Sr.’s right in front of my eyes! 

His head did not move but his eyes rolled in my direction, meeting my eyes with a warm yet somewhat icy glare. I’m telling ya, probably one of the freakiest things that has ever happened to me.

The show was incredible as he performed all “Ol’ Blue Eyes” hits. His reputation of being a stiff performer was checked at the door that night. He was loose, shared classic stories and even did an acceptable Dean Martin impersonation!

Later at dinner, he let his hair down and we joked and laughed with the band for hours. I asked him about his specificity when it came to sound checks. 

He said something to the effect of: “Ya know, most people listen to music, but they don’t really hear it. Many songs bring people back to another time or experience, and that contributes to their appreciation of the song. A piece of music is prepared like any other recipe. Too much or too little of an ingredient is the difference between a good piece and a great piece. People need to close their eyes and really listen to each note. ‘Taste’ the music as you would any other recipe. You will find you have an appreciation for styles of music you never dreamed you would.”

Just like an Italian – it’s always about the food.

• Ron Onesti is president and CEO of Onesti Entertainment Corp. and the Arcada Theatre in St. Charles. Send comments or celebrity questions to spark@kcchronicle.com.

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