Backstage with Ron Onesti: A stroll down memory MacLaine
Like so many others, I went from “Sesame Street” to “The Electric Company,” then from “Soundstage” to “NOVA,” then from those Doo Wop shows to “Chicago Tonight.” PBS has always been a big part of my educational and entertainment growth process.
Then a program based in the 20th century came along and captivated audiences all over the country. Although I was a Sunday-night “Monty Python” fan back in the day, I never thought I would get into a British television experience that didn’t involve Benny Hill, or Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes. But as I watched this year’s Emmy Awards, I noticed a show called “Downtown Abbey” (at least that’s what I thought they said) was racking up all the accolades.
Almost as quick as it took me to flip the channel, I was hooked on the masterful ways the Crawley family, their servants and guest inhabitants of the 18th century English castle with a storyline set in the 1920s were interwoven in “Downton Abbey.”
When Shirley MacLaine joined the cast in season three as Martha Levinson, mother of Countess Cora and a sharp-tonged liberal from America, I was reminded of what an American show-biz treasure she was. An Academy Award winner for her work in the 1983 classic “Terms Of Endearment,” she is the star of many other iconic films, television shows and Broadway presentations, as well as a most respected author.
So, when I got the call that she was interested in coming to our Arcada Theatre to perform her one-woman, multimedia career retrospective, my response was reduced to a Jackie Gleason-style “Homina, homina, homina,” followed by a deep breath and a poor attempt at an English accent, “But, of course!”
She was such an open and friendly lady. Very quick-witted and a superb conversationalist, she seemed genuinely interested in everyone she met. Whether it was with Rick who met her at the airport, or Johnny who drove her to The Hotel Baker, she quickly made all feel comfortable and got them to talk about who THEY were. She actually cared!
We spent two hours at lunch and she was literally an open book. I was enamored with the fact that she was an unofficial member of the famed “Rat Pack” as the “little sister” to Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. “I was very close to [legendary Hollywood film director] Vincente Minnelli,” she said. “... he cast me in ‘Some Came Running’ that starred Frank and Dean. Frank had so much power, he actually told Vince to cast Dean. He also had the ending of the film changed so that it focused more on me. So much so, that I got my first Academy Award nomination for it. Ever since that film, I became close to all those guys, and they allowed me to hang around the folks in their inner circle like Jack Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, Sidney Poitier (who I had a huge crush on) and so many others.”
She told me about a young up-and-comer named Al Pacino she met in New York while she was doing Broadway.
“He just got the role as Michael Corleone in ‘The Godfather.’ He was freaking out because the director of the film, Francis Ford Coppola, was really on him to ‘do something’ with the character. His character was more quiet than anything and typically without expression, and Coppola thought that this son of a mob boss should be more expressive. In his heart, he felt the character was more powerful ‘Being there by not being there.’ He knew the strength of just using his eyes to control the emotion, something Michael Corleone became famous for. He was a young genius that stuck to his convictions,” Shirley said.
“So, how did this ‘Downton Abbey’” thing come about,” I asked. “I had not seen the show,” she said, “but my hairdresser and everybody in the salon was talking about it. So, when my agent called to tell me they were interested in having me become a part of it, I watched it for about a week. I was hooked!” she said.
“Me too,” I snapped. “What do you think the magic of the show is?” I asked.
“I think [series writer] Julian Fellowes has the winning formula,” she said. “He has many characters involved with varying plots and subplots. So many ways to keep people interested. It’s not a show based on one or two characters or themes. It’s what hooked me!”
After lunch, we went to the theater where we sat for another hour talking about Jack Nicholson, more about Frank and Dean, and even about Chicago mobster Sam Giancana. It is no secret that she is a huge proponent of the afterlife, UFOs and spiritual beings.
“What haven’t you told me about this place?” she asked me directly as she sat in the main dressing room, located in the theater’s basement.
“Are you asking if there are any ghosts here?” I responded just as directly.
“That’s exactly what I am referring to,” she said.
Did that creep me out? You bet it did! I began telling her about some of the stories I have heard over the years (as well as a couple of personal experiences I have had) regarding possible “ghost stories” involving my 1926 vaudeville theater.
“I knew it,” she said. “I swear I felt it as soon as I entered this room.”
Now I am not sure if any of that stuff really exists. But when a “Grand Dame” of Hollywood gives you a piercing stare and says it does, it tends to turn you into a believer real quick. I told her that as long as the spirit of Shirley MacLaine remains around our stage, I am sure we will always enjoy classic success. She then said, “On your knees,” and proceeded to “Knight” me as “Prince of the Theatre.” The next day, I sent my headshot with a note to the “Downton Abbey” folks. Maybe her highness can use a good ol’ Court Jester.
• Ron Onesti is president and CEO of Onesti Entertainment Corp. and the Arcada Theatre in St. Charles. He provides personal recollections of people who he has encountered. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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