I Play For Peoria


“Will it play in Peoria?” Ever since I left the heart of Illinois, this phrase has been a constant rejoinder when I divulge my hometown to new acquaintances. Strangely enough, during my morning commute from Santa Fe to Los Alamos a few months ago, my own car radio reminded me that not even the sparsely populated mountains of Northern New Mexico can insulate me from that famous idiom:

The enduring legacy of this saying is surprising given that its roots stretch back to vaudeville era, and subsequently popularized in the 1920s and 30s by Groucho Marx. Known for its particularly tough, working-class crowds, Peoria miraculously became the barometer by which one could measure the universal tastes of the simple folk. In the twentieth century, Peoria would become the beta tester for musical acts and consumer products. Amy Groh, writing in Peoria Magazine, points out that Peorians were the first folks in the country to wear Pampers’ disposable diapers, nosh on the McRib, and guzzle down New Coke. It should be noted that the McRib was released in Peoria the same year that I was born.

This may explain my vegetarianism.

Of course, Peoria has not only served as a bellwether of national success but has also seen quite a few celebrities play in its city limits before hitting the big time.

Betty Friedan, author of the Feminine Mystique and credited with sparking the second wave of American feminism, was born and raised in the Peoria. Given the conservative bent of city, it is no surprise that she did not look back fondly on her hometown. When asked where she was born during a PBS interview with Ben Wattenberg, she responded:

I was born and grew up in Peoria, Illinois, which you might say is the middle of the middle of America, what used to be a synonym almost: “hick,” “hayseed” or “will it play in Peoria.” Well, I played in Peoria, but I got out of there.

Richard Pryor grew up in his grandmother’s brothel on the south side of Peoria in the 1940s. Growing up poor in a racially segregated city, Pryor had very little love for his hometown. In Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him, David and Joe Henry recount Pryor’s interaction with Peoria Journal Star writer Phil Luciano after a show:

Luciano: “Do you have any message for the folks back in Peoria?”
Richard answered in his horror-movie rasp: “Get out!”

While the rest of the nation honored Pryor as a comedy pioneer, Peoria remained relatively silent on his legacy. However, recently, Scott Saul penned Becoming Richard Pryor and created the spatial history project, Richard Pryor’s Peoria. After much controversy, Peoria finally honored their native son with a statue at the intersection of State and Washington Street in 2015.

Pryor would not be the only comedian Peoria would produce, however. Though born in the state of Washington, Sam Kinison was raised in an East Peoria Pentecostal church in the 1950s. The church stood tree blocks from my childhood home on 223 Everett Street.

In a MovieLine Magazine interview from 1990, Kinison recalled his childhood:

Question: Just what in God’s name were you like as a 13-year-old boy in Peoria?
 Sam Kinison: The only thing I remember is ditching school and sneaking off to the movies to catch The Graduate, Bonnie and Clyde, and The Wild Bunch. I was a runaway at 15 and took my first job as a busboy at the Peoria Ramada Inn. Later I became a tree planter for $10 a day.”

At the same time the Kinisons were settling into East Peoria, two future musicians were born on the other side of the Illinois river. Dan Fogelberg, perhaps best known for “Missing You,” and Gary Richrath, lead guitarist and songwriter for REO Speedwagon. Richrath penned the roadtrippin’ tune “Take It On The Run.”

Though both musicians have Peoria roots, their musical careers would be sharpened in Urbana-Champaign at the University of Illinois. Today, you can even cruise your 86 Camaro down REO Speedway, Main Street, in downtown Champaign. Sadly, it wouldn’t be until the musically-confused late 1990s that Peoria would launch another national music act: Mudvayne.

Of course, like many a Midwestern town, Peoria is perhaps best known for its sports figures, specifically in basketball and baseball. Three of the most notable Peorians who played in Peoria are:

Joe Girardi, current manager of the New York Yankees

Jill Briles-Hinton, LPGA golfer

Jim Thome, future hall of famer and currently ranks #7 on all-time home run list for Major League Baseball

Marie Wadlow, first woman elected to the National Softball Hall of Fame

Shaun Livingston, drafted out of Peoria High School and current member of the Golden State Warriors

Naturally, the city’s most famous motto has been successfully intertwined with Peoria’s prowess and pride in the local sports and rap scene.

Though I am now far removed from sweaty summers on the Illinois River and a landscape of industrial decay, I do occasionally find myself wandering around the deserts of New Mexico humming silently in my head, “I play for Peoria.”