The phrase, “If it plays in Peoria” originally comes from Peoria’s deep connection to Vaudeville. You might ask how Vaudeville came to Peoria, of all places. Among other things, the Illinois River brought Vaudeville to Peoria.
In the Civil War era, show boats would cruise rivers of the country making stops at river towns like Peoria, Pekin, and Chillicothe. Around 1900, one of those showboaters – a minstrel singer named “Honey Bay” Evans – decided to stay bringing his act to Rouses Hall. By 1902, Rouses Hall changed its name to the Main Street Theater and was a bona fide Vaudeville house.
The Orpheum opened on Madison just north of Main about 1910. The Orpheum was part of a circuit of theaters created by Martin Beck of the New York Orpheum. If you could make it at the Orpheum in Peoria, you had a crack at the Orpheum in New York.
Before television but after Vaudeville, radio was the prime mode of entertainment. With it’s roots in Vaudeville, it was only natural that Peoria would be the birthplace of one of radio’s early icons, Fibber McGee and Molly.
Starting out as a singer and a piano teacher, Peorians Jim Jordan and Marian (Driscoll) Jordan parlayed their talents into radio success as Fibber McGee and Molly. Fibber McGee and Molly was a situation comedy radio show that was broadcast from 1935-1959 on the National Broadcasting Company, and can still be heard today on various local stations broadcasting old-time radio programs. The show was known for its vaudeville humor and Midwestern flavor. The action revolved mainly around Fibber and Molly McGee.
James Edward (Jim) Jordan was born on November 16, 1896 in the Kickapoo region near Peoria, Illinois. As a youth, he played basketball and sang at church functions. It was at church that he would meet Marian Driscoll. Marian I. Driscoll was born near Peoria, Illinois on April 15, 1898. She was very interested in the arts, giving dancing and piano recitals, as well as singing at church.
Peoria is well known for being the home of Richard Pryor. Richard grew up on Peoria’s south-end. He often joked about how he grew up in a brothel. Born in 1940, Richard Pryor spent much of his early years with his grandmother, “a well-known Peoria madam who operated several houses of prostitution.”
- Comics Richard Pryor and Sam Kinison
- ’70s crooner Dan Fogelberg
- Science fiction writer Philip Jose Farmer
- David Ogden Stiers – Charles Winchester on MASH
- Susan Dey – Laurie Partridge on the Partridge Family and Grace Van Owen on LA Law
- Camryn Manheim – Delia Banks on Ghost Whisperer. Her other television credits include Chicago Hope, Ally McBeal, Family Guy, Will & Grace, Boston Public, Two and a Half Men, The L Word, How I Met Your Mother and Hannah Montana.
David Ogden Stiers
An accomplished actor of stage, film, and television, David Ogden Stiers’ career has spanned over 30 years. He was born in Peoria, Illinois, and he began his acting career in Northern California. He then moved to New York City, where he studied drama at Juilliard and joined the Houseman Acting Company at its outset. He has also worked with the Old Globe Theatre. A three-time Emmy-award nominated actor, Stiers has appeared in a multitude of both television films and series. He is most widely known for his role as “Major Charles Emerson Winchester III” on M*A*S*H, for which he garnered two Emmy nominations. More recently, David has played Reverend Gene Purdy on the Dead Zone.
Captain Jinks and Salty Sam
Television debuted in Peoria on WEEK-TV Channel 43 in 1953. It wasn’t long before local stars Captain Jinks and Salty Sam aboard the S.S. Albatross came to TV. George Baseleon (Salty Sam) and Stan Lonergan (Captain Jinks) had joined WEEK staff in 1953 and 1955 respectively. Their show became the most popular program on local TV with 76 percent of the viewing audience in 1966.
The Captain Jinks Show was in fact the most watched and longest running local children’s show in the history of the region. Each afternoon after school, kids (and adults) were invited to come aboard the SS Albatross to join in the fun. Cookie (whose arm was the only part of him to be seen), the talking parrot, local magicians, animal handlers and the like joined the Captain and Salty.
During the show’s height of popularity, children who wanted to be in its audience would wait on a list for up to a year’s time. The draw of the program was in the personalities of these two men. Stan Lonergan was a quick-witted yet low-keyed improviser whose quips often went over the head of George Baseleon. Yet what George lacked in spontaneity and keenness, he more than made up for in genuine warmth and sincerity. In short, they were a perfect complement to each other.
Peoria’s Continued Entertainment Strengths
Peoria is home to the Peoria Symphony, Opera Illinois, 2 ballet companies, and several art galleries. Lakeview Museum, affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution, is one of the only museums in the U.S. that features both the arts and the sciences. Professional and community theater abound, from national touring company productions like “Phantom of the Opera” and “Miss Saigon,” to Peoria Players, the oldest continuously running community theater in Illinois.
In the 80s, musicians such as Bob Dylan, Robert Plant, Genesis, and Phil Collins each perfected and launched various tours in Peoria. During Presidential campaigns, major TV networks would visit Peoria to ‘take the pulse’ (gauge the response) of everyday Americans on national issues and candidates.
The Apollo Theater opened as Peoria’s first silent-movie picture theater on May 11, 1914. Prices for the Grand Opening feature of “Anthony and Cleopatra” were 15¢ for the matinee and 25¢ for the evening performance. On Sunday, October 24, 1920, in an attempt to fend off competition from the newly opened Madison Theater, the Apollo featured a one week run of a historic silent motion picture, “Romance in Peoria”, which was filmed locally and featured prominent Peoria residents, including Mayor E.N. Woodruff. The Palace was one of the last of the great vaudeville houses, and its stage was home to some of the most familiar names from the 1920’s to 1950’s. Among the big names that played the Palace were Duke Ellington, Spike Jones, Sally Rand, Burns and Allen, and Ozzie and Harriet.
By Bill Knight
When the Apollo Theatre replaced the Crescent in 1914 after a fire on the Main Street location, it was at a turning point in the amazing story that Peoria has been for show business for more than a century.
Although Peoria had been a music-hall and vaudeville mainstay for years, the Apollo started by showing silent motion pictures. It continued screening movies until May 31, 1958, when Peyton Place showed — and the Apollo closed for a time.
Some of the theater’s ground floor and backstage area were destroyed to make room for a parking garage, but in the 1990s attorney Tom Leiter rescued and restored what was left of the Apollo and local impresario Bob Brandes helped run the Apollo Fine Arts & Entertainment Centre, a nonprofit outfit incorporated in 1991.
The Apollo built on Peoria’s impressive heritage in arts and letters, and its special place in entertainment.
After a Peoria Civic Center benefit performance for St. Jude in the ’80s, comedian Jay Leno held up a generous donation to his audience and said, “This is for all the years of all the comics telling all the jokes about Peoria.”
The cliché “Will it play in Peoria?” was a show-business staple, a reply asking whether the tough, hard-to-please crowds in Peoria would like the joke, the number, the routine or sketch or show being readied elsewhere — and ideally destined for New York or Hollywood some day. Peoria was a formidable market where entertainers had to succeed if they expected to go on. Peoria was not a city of rubes, but a demanding, even sophisticated, place that had seen hundreds — thousands — of shows and was a test for entertainers of all types.
Besides the Apollo, entertainment on stage and screen were offered at the Duchess theater at Adams and Liberty, the Grand Opera House on Hamilton, the Orpheum on Northeast Madison, the Palace on Main, and the Majestic on Jefferson.
The names alone conjure thoughts of bright marquees and crowded lines awaiting the latest dog act or melodrama or singer or film starring favorite celebrities: the Empress nickelodeon, the Hippodrome (which became the Rialto) on Jefferson, the Madison on Main.
There was Rouse’s Hall (later the Main Street Theater) and Weast’s Theatre (later called the Lyceum); the Deluxe, the Sangamo and the Star, the Elysium, and the Cort. There was the Warner (previously the Grand), the Garden and the Princess, all on Adams Street. There was the Columbia, the Imperial (which became the Avon), the Crest in Peoria Heights, and, later, the Beverly on Knoxville, and the Varsity on West Main.