- Editor’s Note: This article is part of a weekly series on Kane County’s amazing history. Today’s post was written by Tim Kirsininkas and reposted from the website of the St. Charles History Museum.
Earlier this year when COVID-19 put a halt to live music and shows of all kinds, the future of many theaters across the country was cast into doubt. Without being able to have shows, the halls of many venues across the country have fallen quiet, waiting for the days they can have visitors again.
But that wasn’t the case for the Arcada Theatre.
Led by their new owners, the Hurst family and Onesti Entertainment CEO Ron Onesti, the building began a top-to-bottom and inside-out renovation earlier this year. Originally planned for coming years, the shutdown provided a window of opportunity to the owners to move ahead of schedule on the project.
“I’ve tried to maximize this opportunity to the fullest potential so that when we do reopen, we’re the biggest thing around,” Onesti said in an interview earlier this summer.
Since 1926, the beautiful Arcada Theatre has stood on Main Street as one of St. Charles’ defining landmarks. Another gift of Lester and Dellora Norris and their family, the theatre was built as a center for arts and entertainment in the community.
Outfitted with the finest furnishings and decorations money could buy, the theatre was sure to rival the lavish theaters of downtown Chicago and officially put St. Charles on the map as a destination.
Ahead of its opening, one reporter said, “It is the last word of elegance and will itself set the country talking about St. Charles.”
The theatre, designed by Elmer Behrns in the Spanish revival style, was to resemble an open courtyard of Colonial Spain. Complete with columns, faux balconies, and a mock skylight above the main hall with twinkling stars, the theatre was designed to be an immersive experience.
During shows and intermissions, guests would be treated to the sounds of a Marr & Colton Organ, described as “the finest music attainable” and one of “the finest organs in the world.”
An excerpt from the St. Charles Chronicle dated June 17, 1926, reads: “No effort has been spared to complete the harmonious surroundings. It has been our hope that the spirit of its conception, its architecture, its influence will be an inspiration to all.”
When the Theatre opened its doors on Labor Day of that year, there was no doubt that it had lived up to expectations and more.
That night, Lester Norris and stage manager William Pracht chose a double feature of silent films and a Vaudeville show as the opening night entertainment. A private railcar was booked to transport top stars and VIPs from Chicago, and the red carpet was rolled out for a party that Jay Gatsby would be proud of.
Over the years, the Norris family would work with staff to book the finest acts available in between the showings of feature-length films. The signature marquee was added in 1943 to complete its classic-mid century look.
Next door, a chic and lavish gathering spot known as Club Arcada (House Pub today) would entertain guests and performers alike for many years.
By 1978, the theatre had become outdated and underwent its first renovation project. Live music acts stopped around this time as well and the theatre solely depended on films until the newer theaters claimed that market in the late 80s and early ’90s.
The Norris family owned the Theatre until 1981 when it was sold to the Franks family, who again invested money in a renovation project to restore its original details.
While it faced an uncertain future, the building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1994. The theater experienced a short stint under the management of Classic Cinemas, showing second-run movies until the early 2000s when first-run movies and live music returned again.
Ron Onesti and the Onesti Entertainment Company took over operation of the theatre in 2005, and the Hurst family purchased the building in 2019.
Under their direction, the ongoing renovation will see the addition of two new restaurants, a new bar, new bathrooms, a new courtyard, and even a few hotel rooms.
Onesti promises that he will host a grand celebration once the renovation is over. As the sign on the marquee of the building has read for the past several months, “we will rock again.”
Once the storied doors of St. Charles’ grandest theatre reopen, the Arcada is sure to inspire awe once again, just as the Norris family envisioned during those early days in the Roaring ’20s. Almost a century later, this next ’20s party is sure to be one to remember.
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