Scientists believe that the center of the universe is either a place you cannot reach or a place that you cannot escape. When you’re traveling by air to or from Peoria during Fall, Winter, or Spring it often feels like a place you cannot escape or reach.
Over the years I’ve traveled extensively. Whenever I introduce myself, I get those interesting questions and funny looks. I hear “Peoria, IL, Caterpillar, right?” Or “Peoria, IL, Richard Pryor, right?” Many say “If it plays in Peoria…” I find that everyone has misconceptions of Peoria, IL. In response to their misconceptions, I go into my pitch about how Peoria is such a great place to raise a family. Then, I drop little bits of Peoria trivia in order to change their perceptions. I’ve got quite a list.
Men in Black 1 – Agent K says ‘1,500 years ago, everybody “knew” that the earth was the center of the universe. 500 years ago, everybody “knew” that the earth was flat. And 15 minutes ago, you “knew” that humans were alone on this planet. Imagine what you’ll “know” tomorrow.’
My hope with this site is that you will get to “know” Peoria the way I’ve come to know Peoria. Do you know where the term “If it plays in Peoria” came from? Do know how WBMD radio got their call sign? Did you know Peoria is the home of the first commercially available automobile?
Center Of the Universe: Science
Hundreds of years ago, everyone believed that the Earth was at the center of the universe. Today we know better. But if one subscribes to the theory that the Universe is boundless, measuring the middle of an endless space is as difficult as measuring the ends. Not true.
Modern scientists agree that gravity keeps mass together, perhaps in an oscillating fashion. Where most of the mass is gathered then must be the middle. Alternatively, the center could be where there is the least amount of mass. Then, gravity prevents one from either entering the center or escaping it. In either case, the center of the universe is either where everything is happening or where nothing is happening; the scientific misconception equal to the perceptions people have of Peoria.
World’s Most Beautiful Drive
The first place I like to take people when they come to Peoria is Grand View Drive so I can show off the view of the river. This stunning view from the vista above the historic Illinois River is breath taking. In October of 1910, Theodore Roosevelt came through Peoria, dining one evening at Doc Gray’s Ye Olde Tavern in Peoria Heights. After dinner, riding along in one of the locally made Glide automobiles along Grand View Drive, Roosevelt is quoted as saying, “I have traveled all over the world, and this is the world’s most beautiful drive.” That’s how WMBD got their call sign; Worlds Most Beautiful Drive.
Most don’t expect this kind of view in a prairie town but the view of the river valley below is like looking back in time. When the leaves change in the fall, as in this picture, the view is even more captivating.
First Commercially Available Automobile
Charles Duryea, developed the first commercially available gasoline-powered automobile in the U.S. in 1893. These cars were built right here in Peoria. Charles, actually born in Canton, and his brother were bicycle manufacturers. The car depicted below was built in Peoria Heights, IL. The latest edition of the book, Charles E. Duryea-Automaker, by George W. May, tells us that while Peoria was one of the places that Duryea’s automobiles were made, it may not have been the first. The oldest known, fully restored, Peoria built Duryea, is exhibited at the Peoria Public Library.
If It Plays In Peoria…
The phrase “If it plays in Peoria” or “Will it play in Peoria?” comes from Peoria’s vaudeville history. Peoria was once a top vaudeville locale. The phrase originally came from the test of a good vaudeville show. It is rumored that vaudeville directors in New York were challenged by a producers if the show would play in Peoria because if it played in Peoria, then it would be more likely to be a winner anywhere. The saying was popularized by movies with Groucho Marx, and on radio programs such as Jack Benny and Fibber McGee. Richard Nixon is alleged to have revived “how will it play in Peoria” as a litmus test for how his politics would go over with the regular folks living regular lives in regular towns like Peoria. Because of its location and demographics, Peoria has since become a well known test market to gauge the popularity of products and ideas nationwide.
In Vaudeville’s hay-day, Peoria was home to numerous theaters visited by top talent like Will Rogers, Al Jolson, and Jack Benny. Vaudevillian houses like the Orpheum, the Hippodrome, the Majestic, and Weast’s helped make Peoria a popular stop. The Orpheum (right) opened on April 24, 1911, was built by Albert and Edward Leisy (of the Leisy Brewery family), and was connected to the Orpheum Vaudeville Circuit of New York. Local management soon took control of the Orpheum and other theaters making Peoria a financial success for Vaudeville actors and owners alike.