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Backstage with Ron Onesti: Memories are made of … Dean Martin

Published: Thursday, Dec. 27, 2012 5:30 a.m. CDT • Updated: Thursday, Dec. 27, 2012 8:00 a.m. CDT

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We all have those legendary performers we wish we could have met in person. For me, the list begins with Jackie Gleason, Jimmy Stewart and James Cagney. But one name resonates as being at the top of my “Wish I woulda met” list: The King Of Cool, Dean Martin. He passed away Christmas Day, 1995, so I thought I would share my experience with the Dean Martin family this holiday week.

I had the good fortune of meeting his daughter, Deana (yes, that’s Dean with an “a”) at a panel presentation with the children of famous Italian Americans in Washington, D.C. a few years ago. At the time, I was managing Lena Prima, the daughter of entertainer Louis Prima, who was asked to be a part of the discussion.

That day, I also had some incredible “face-time” with Kathy LaGuardia, granddaughter of New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia; Dale Berra, son of baseball great Yogi Berra and Frank Capra, Jr., son of Hollywood Director Frank Capra. I could write volumes from that weekend!

As beautiful as she is classy, Deana and her husband John went from friends to family quite quickly. I would even go as far as to say she is my “big sister” and an adopted godmother of my daughter Giuliana (we still refer to her as “Baby Deana”).

Deana had an eventful history with her dad, singing on his television shows, acting in movies and being a part of the Beverly Hills “in crowd” with the likes of Desi Arnaz Jr., Nancy Sinatra and Lorna Luft. A great storyteller in her own right, Deana wrote a loving memoir titled, “Memories Are Made Of This: Dean Martin Through His Daughter’s Eyes.” It is a culmination of stories about growing up as the daughter of a legend, with “uncles” Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr., Don Rickles and Jerry Lewis. It is an amazing and courageous recollection of the guy who was, in her words, “A great man, but not a great father.”

As a result of the popularity of the book, Deana and John produced a live, multi-media musical tribute to her legendary father. She tours all over the world, performing all the songs herself while adding heartwarming stories and rare video footage to the show. It is a tremendous presentation and a rare glimpse into the personal life of the Rat-Pack icon.

The first time I brought her to Chicago for a show, she performed at one of my Italian festivals in the city. On the way there, I thought it would be cool to stop at The Chicago Theatre where in 1951, Martin & (Jerry) Lewis headlined.

There is a famous photograph of the popular comedy duo sitting on the second story window ledge tossing photos to the State Street packed crowd. She had never been there before.

I contacted a buddy who was in charge of the theatre at the time. He was excited to meet her and was quick to offer a bit of trivia I had never heard before. I had been backstage at the Chicago Theatre dozens of times producing shows. The entire stairway is covered with hundreds of autographs of celebs who have performed there. Even Frank Sinatra signed the entrance to stage left. Stage right, however, had a different story.

Dean Martin was so respected, his privacy was honored with a dressing room away from the others. To this day, his signature is the only one that has been allowed on stage right, an homage to Dino and the legacy he carried. She was floored and we all shared a tear-jerking moment.

I had subsequently opened a restaurant in St. Charles, “The Onesti Dinner Club,” a Las Vegas-style supper club.

As a favor to me, Deana came to my grand opening weekend. We had a private “Dean Martin Dinner” for 50 people. We served dishes Dean loved including Veal Milanese and escarole and bean soup. Of course, we had “Dean Martinis” while Deana shared some of her stories with us.

She took photos with the guests beneath a huge painting of Dean that we had prominently featured in the dining room. She ended by singing his signature song, “Everybody Loves Somebody” (a B-side tune that was an afterthought suggestion by Dean’s piano player Ken Lane). What an incredible night!

Another great memory I will cherish was from a concert at our Arcada Theatre with the late Monkee Davy Jones. I was on the phone with her when I mentioned that Davy was coming to the theatre.

She said something to the effect of, “You know, I appeared on a famous episode of ‘The Monkees’ where Davy falls in love with a girl and sits across from her in a soda shop with stars of passion projecting from his eyes in her direction. That girl was me!”

So, I flew her in to surprise Davy. And what a surprise it was.

Davy did his entire show to a packed house. As he walked off, I went on stage and brought him back to the standing ovation.

“Davy, I have a surprise for you and the crowd tonight,” I said.

A 40-foot screen came down and we showed the clip from the television show that featured the two lovebirds.

“Who was the girl?” I asked.

Jones said something like, “Well that was Dean Mahtin’s Daw-ta (in his British tongue). We were in love on the show …and a bit off the show as well!”

I asked Davy when the last time he saw her was.

He said something like, “Goodness, it must be at least 40 years or so.”

“Well my friend,” I said, “I have a surprise for you.”

The big screen went up and there Deana stood, with her arms extended. They hugged for real. You could tell they had great memories and the crowd went absolutely crazy. What a moment!

With arms around each other, they sang “Everybody Loves Somebody” and the audience left with a rare show biz experience.

Dean touched people in a way that few entertainers have. His daughter has successfully fostered his memory and carried his torch. Who would have thought this boxer from Steubenville, Ohio would go on to be a show biz legend. And his daughter came to St. Charles to keep his memory alive … now ain’t THAT a kick in the head!

• 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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