Will it Play in Peoria?
Peoria, Illinois has become famous for its ability to most accurately represent a microcosm of the United States of America. Due to its diverse demographics, and perceived mainstream Midwestern culture, Peoria has often been used as a primary test market for a variety of products, services and policies that subsequently reach the whole of the U.S. Peoria’s utility as America’s litmus test was certainly not lost on the theater industry. During the days of Vaudeville, the phrase “Will it play in Peoria?” was coined as a reference to a show’s ability to appeal to the mainstream American Public. This mandate has undoubtedly lived on for 90 years in the care and keeping of the Peoria Players Community Theater.
In its 90th season, Peoria Players is the longest continuously running community theater in Illinois, and the 4th longest running theater in the U.S. Throughout its lifespan the stage has never gone dark for any season, even when faced with daunting obstacles ranging from economic hardship to national crises.
During World War II, the city of Peoria experienced a shortage of men, opting to cast mustache-laden 8th graders in lead male roles to remedy the problem. In the 1950s the creation of the “super highway” I-74 forced the company to move, with construction plans calling for the new transit artery to run directly through the space they inhabited. The 1960s found the Peoria Players in a leaking building and in a financial bind. A partnership was arranged with the Peoria Park District to transfer ownership, unburdening the Theater from the onus of maintenance, and allowing the group to focus more intently on filling the seats.
Let’s be clear that none of the aforementioned challenges stopped the Peoria Players from putting on a show. Be it Gypsy, Singing in the Rain, or I Never Sang for My Father, the Peoria Players have maintained a nucleus of artists and citizens dedicated to the survival and success of the Theater.
Emerging from the long line of passionate players are Jerry Klein, Bob Brandes and James Wilhelm. All have been with the Theater in some capacity for a number of years. From actors, to critics, to board members and even president, these gentlemen discuss the strengths and challenges of maintaining their rich artistic heritage in a small town.
“The first commitment of a community theater is to entertain. And if you don’t entertain, then you’ve missed the boat” says Bob. “It has been proven time and time again that comedies and musicals pay the bills.”
Discussing the finer points of commercially viable theater versus more artistic and intellectually challenging work, they reminisce and relive more than 50 years collectively spent supporting the Peoria Players: a period representing nearly half of the Theater’s existence. Differences aside they rest on a single agreement: Community Theater cannot exist without strong community. And it is their success in reflecting Peoria, IL that has sustained the Peoria Players for 90 years.
“We have people today that the only difference between them and professional actors is that they don’t get paid.”
Coupled with the support of a devoted community of theater-goers, 90 more years are sure to follow.
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