Over the last 30 years Paul McKenna has become a familiar face in Forest Park, slinging cold cuts and stacking sandwiches at Starship Restaurant, the sandwich and soup shop on Madison just west of Desplaines Avenue. Recently though, McKenna has been making a name for himself in an entirely different field, and just a few blocks to the east.
McKenna’s customers may be surprised to learn that the man behind the counter can sing, and this Friday night, Dec. 19, McKenna will take the stage at Village Players Theatre in Oak Park.
“I have this creative side that continues to need nurturing,” McKenna said.
For about as long as he’s been in the sandwich business, McKenna has been strumming a guitar. He plays rhythm for the Paw Minnow Band and sings lead, but doubts that any more than just a few of his customers know of his talents. To be fair, the band only plays a couple shows a year. Before jobs, marriages, kids and mortgage payments saddled he and his band mates, though, McKenna said the Paw Minnow Band was beginning to look like a full-time gig.
But that was decades ago.
About four years ago McKenna joined the board of directors for the Village Players Theatre and has spent much of that time serving as its president. He said he’s driven by an interest in seeing others succeed, both on the stage and in the community. Being the board president of a small theater, he said, is kind of like doing an improvisational performance: You pull back the curtain and hope for magic.
The Dec. 19 show, billed as a rock ‘n’ roll Christmas, will no doubt feature a bit of improvisation. In trying to raise money for the always scrapping theater, McKenna is calling on handfuls of musicians-many of whom are friends-for what he hopes is a lively and spontaneous good time.
“When we do our Christmas music it’s a little different,” McKenna said. “I’ve had women dancing on the bar to ‘Silent Night.'”
Carl Occhipinti is the artistic director for the theater and, on occasion, has guided McKenna’s singing and playing. The sound is straight-up rock, said Occhipinti, but McKenna’s somewhat gravely voice carries a lot of emotion. That, and he thrives on getting the crowd involved.
“It is definitely one of his strengths,” Occhipinti said. “Just like he does with his business he does with his performance. He brings people together.”
Whether on stage or in his Brookfield home, plucking the strings of a guitar and putting his thoughts to music is a supremely satisfying experience for McKenna. He has also taught himself to play the harmonica, and learned mostly while sitting idle in heavy traffic. He now looks forward to brutish commutes.
McKenna, 52, is married and has two daughters. He credits his wife with supporting his creative outlets, though she’s not his biggest fan. The girls, too, don’t really care for dad’s music, he said.
“Kind of. One of them likes rap and they both like country music for some reason, but they’re not that into me,” McKenna said of their tastes.
McKenna and his rowdy band of musicians take the stage at 8 p.m. on Dec. 19, 1010 W. Madison in Oak Park. Cover charge of $25 includes complimentary beer and wine.