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Backstage with Ron Onesti: Crystal Bowersox worthy of an ‘Idol’ title

Published: Wednesday, March 6, 2013 6:24 p.m. CDT • Updated: Wednesday, March 6, 2013 6:34 p.m. CDT

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I have been producing music and food festivals for the past 25 years. During that time, I have crossed paths with a regular stream of entertainers who have graced our various festival stages. Most were good, some not so good, a couple were idols in the making.

One individual who fit into that last category was a young girl with dreadlocks and a guitar. A friend asked if I would hire this girl for one of my Italian festivals. She was struggling and knew that I was always up for helping young entertainers striving to succeed. I was impressed with her demo and put her on. I, along with everyone in front of the stage, was blown away. That was August of ’08.

Fast forward to January of 2010. I was armchair-quarterbacking the ninth-season opener of “American Idol.” C’mon, after all, I AM a seasoned industry professional who could have easily occupied a fifth chair next to Simon. Wait a minute … is that the dreadlocked blonde that performed for us at the festival? I couldn’t believe my eyes! It was her ... and it made so much sense.

Crystal Bowersox and her twin brother were born in a small Ohio town. When she was 17, she ventured off to the big city of Chicago, where she performed at coffee houses and subway stations. When pop-country megastar Shania Twain came to Chicago to audition rock star-hopefuls for “American Idol,” she saw in Crystal what we all saw at the festival – a blossoming superstar.

It ultimately came down to the wire where she emerged a very close second to Lee DeWyze – another Chicago-area performer.

So, when I found out she was touring the Midwest promoting her new album, “All That For This,” I jumped at the chance to bring her to our Arcada Theatre. To my surprise, she contacted me on Facebook and asked if I remembered her! “I am so looking forward to seeing you guys again,” she said.

I really couldn’t believe it! She actually remembered us from the festival.

The exciting day came – the day of her show at The Arcada. So many fans were all over, just trying to get a glimpse of their “Idol.” We have had Idols at the theater before, including Season 2 runner-up Clay Aiken just recently, and Season 6 contestants (and Chicago-area natives) Leslie Hunt and Gina Glocksen on numerous occasions. Still, this excitement was a different kind of electricity that flowed through the building.

She was so humble, and so down to earth. When she first saw me, she gave me a huge hug.

“I don’t know if you remember that you hired me for your festival years ago,” she said.

“I sure do,” I responded. “I was watching the show pulling for you every step of the way!”

“I have to tell you,” she said, “that show was a turning point in my life. It was the week of my birthday; I’ll never forget it. It was the first time people actually came up to a stage to say how much they liked my music. I actually had fans! It was kind of a tough time for me then, so that night helped give me strength to keep going. After that, I auditioned for ‘American Idol,’ and here I am today.”

“You’ve got to be kidding!” I said.

“I’ll give you a couple more tidbits about that night at your festival,” she continued. “It was behind the stage at your festival where Brian, my future husband, and I first kissed. It was also the highest paying gig I had before ‘Idol.’ I STILL have a photocopy of the check.”

What a humbling conversation. You just never know how you may touch someone’s life. As she was killing the audience with a powerful rendition of the Janis Joplin classic, “Me and Bobby McGee” as her encore, I was watching from backstage, just thinking about her journey.

Five years ago I was backstage watching this young girl with 20 people in front of her just singing her heart out, and here she is now, back on one of my stages doing it again.

She may have been the runner-up on “American Idol,” but as an Arcada Idol, she will always be No. 1.

• Ron Onesti is president and CEO of Onesti Entertainment Corp. and the Arcada Theatre in St. Charles. He provides personal recollections of events and people that he has encountered over the years. Send comments to spark@kcchronicle.com.

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