Backstage with Ron Onesti: When ‘Jersey Boys’ were Chicago Boys
By RON ONESTI - email@example.com
A big part of the “fun” for me when I produce shows is being able to work with acts that I love. At fifty years of age, I am a classic rocker from the ’70s, with a deep appreciation for those musical acts that came before and paved the way.
One of those groups that I grew up really enjoying was one that nobody realized just how popular they actually were, until a musical about their ups and downs became one of the biggest shows in history. The group was “The Four Seasons” and the show was “Jersey Boys.”
Producing Italian festivals since the mid-eighties has allowed me to work with some of my early favorites from Dion and The Belmonts to Nancy Sinatra, Julius LaRosa to Keely Smith, Johnny Maestro and the Brooklyn Bridge to Bobby Rydell.
One such festival was Chicago’s Festa Italiana on the pre-renovated, practically condemned at the time, Navy Pier.
It was my first experience with Frankie Valli. We had construction trailers backstage for dressing rooms that I outfitted with all of his “needs” on the rider. I brought in couches, mirrors, blow dryers, antipasto trays, Italian wine, and a host of other things. It was OK, though, it WAS Frankie Valli!
About twenty minutes before his time to take the stage that was set with Lake Michigan as its backdrop, Frankie peeked his head out of the trailer door and motioned me to come over.
“Ron, you read my rider, right?” he asked. “Of course I did, I could barely fit you guys in there with all the stuff you wanted!” I teased. “Well, if you did, you would see that I requested a bottle of Crown Royal on the list. I don’t see it here,” he said.
Now I know I bought it. I saw it on the table! Sometimes things like that have a way of disappearing from “off-limits” backstage areas. Somewhere there was a maintenance guy pushing a broom with one hand and sipping a smooth shot of Crown with the other.
So, I summoned one of our Chicago Police officer friends over and described my dilemma. “Hop in, let’s go find a bottle,” he said.
As I mentioned earlier, this was happening at the pre-explosion of the Navy Pier area-not a lot of stores around, let alone those who sell upscale whisky in a cloth bag. So, I called a friend who lived at Lake Point Tower, the big building facing the lake, and he had one.
We pulled up to the building, I jumped out and grabbed the decorative bottle, and we sped away.
So, my police officer friend takes no chances, flips on the lights, turns on the siren, and we race back to the scene of the crime … the mystery of the vanishing Crown Royal. He literally pulls op to the stage with lights flashing and sirens blaring, as if he was delivering a president or a king.
I delivered the package personally to Frankie, he nodded and said, “Thank you.” We got there with one minute to spare … the show commenced on time.
This may seem a bit extreme to most people, but sometimes vocalists use a shot of whisky to relax their throats before they sing, so I respected the request. As the years went on, we would always laugh about that day.
A few years later, I received an invitation to an opening of a show at the then-called LaSalle Bank Theatre in Chicago. I had heard about this project from a couple of entertainer friends who were asked to invest in the show, but didn’t as Frankie himself was a little skeptical about a musical that told the story of his and fellow-Four Seasons’ careers.
The show, of course, turned out to be amazing. Frankie had invited my wife and me to the private after party at the neighboring LaSalle Bank building. As I congratulated him and his life-long musical partner and writing genius behind the group, Bob Gaudio, he offered to introduce me to the cast.
The next day I get a call from Michael Ingersoll, an incredibly talented performer who played the part of Seasons’ bass singer Nick Massi. “Frankie speaks very highly of you and I have an idea I want to talk to you about,” he said.
For the next three years I worked with the cast coordinating private appearances and helping to develop what ultimately became Ingersoll’s current project, the PBS smash “Under The Streetlamp.” The guy really is a creative producer in his own right, with an amazing career ahead of him … I feel fortunate to have been a part of it in the beginning of this chapter.
It was amazing to have been part of the “behind-the-scenes” action of the blockbuster show. Jarrod Spector, the original Frankie character in the Chicago cast who was so good that he became the lead on Broadway for two years, would pull his tongue for a half hour before the show.
John “Smitty” Smith, the musical director, would actually be playing the music with the rest of the live musicians not on stage, but in secret rooms downstairs. Racks and racks of shoes, flamboyant jackets and character costumes lined the hallways of dressing rooms.
Drew Gehling who played Bob Gaudio and Jeremy Kushnier who played Tommy DeVito would join Michael and Jarrod in their dressing rooms warming up before the show, Barbershop Quartet style. It was magical.
Today, I still see the guys every so often, and we just shake our heads and smile. They carry the torch that fostered an appreciation of music classics given passed to them from Frankie Valli.
Jarrod, with another former Chicago “Frankie,” Dominic Scaglione, are part of an incredible vocal tribute to those great songs from the 50s and 60s entitled “The Doo Wop Project.” John Michael Coppola, a swing performer in the original cast, has his own show called “Sinatra to Springsteen and Everything in Between” that we present at our Italian festivals.
It’s been an incredible run with The Jersey Boys since that hot day on Navy Pier. By the way, after that show was over and Frankie had “left the building,” I went in to clean his dressing room trailer. The salami was gone, the wine bottles were empty, and ashtrays were filled.
In the corner of the room, on a small table was an unopened bottle of Crown Royal. I almost killed myself getting that bottle, all for nothing, but Frankie proved his point. Maybe “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” but at that moment, I sure did.
• 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.