From Raymond to Christine to the Millers, this Peoria native found her calling in television.
It was Horace Greeley who was credited with telling our youth to go west in 1865—and quite a few Peorians took his advice. I’ve written a lot about these young folks, and now I want to introduce you to Lisa Helfrich. She is “a child of our city,” as the early newspaper reporters used to refer to those who were born here and went off to seek their own fame and fortune. Most of them told me that in order to do so, they had to leave Peoria… and history has often proven that to be true.
“I had an idyllic childhood in Peoria,” Lisa tells me. “Every time I go home, I’m reminded how nice the people of the Midwest are. I try to get home at least once a year, and I have family and a lot of friends still living in Peoria. One thing I miss… is the lack of traffic. It is so nice not to have to sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic during rush hour.”
Life in Peoria
“My twin sister and I fought a lot in the early years, sharing a room at home,” she says. “[We] used to torture our brother Steve until he got bigger than us. In college, we just made fun of him. He ended up marrying a very close friend of ours, and now we are all very close.”
Lisa graduated from the same grade school and university as I did. “Norm, I graduated from Woodrow Wilson Grade School in 1979; Central, which is Peoria High School, in 1982; and our beloved Bradley University in 1986. I was in a lot of plays whenever I could get a role, active on speech teams, and did some community theatre as well. I even played a gangster in Guys and Dolls. I studied voice and dance outside of school and had a very active social life.”
A fun girl looking for fun friends, Lisa admits she was no “top student.” “I barely survived my freshman year at Bradley. I never let academics get in the way of my fun. I wanted to please my parents, so I chose a field of study that sounded responsible, like business. But my heart was in theatre, and by my sophomore year, my college career began to come into focus. The theatre department was small, and there were a lot of opportunities for me. I spent an awful lot of time in the Hartmann building. My… if those walls could talk.”
Channel 47 to Hollywood
She was a member of Pi Beta Phi and a Bradley basketball fan, enjoying the games at the old Field House. “I have very fond memories of Bradley and still visit there whenever I return to Peoria.”
But the most important experience Lisa had in Peoria was at the local PBS station, which at that time was located on the Bradley campus. She met Jerry Spivack there—he too has built a successful career out of those experiences working in the studios of Channel 47.
“There we were one day in Hollywood working on a show that I was producing,” Lisa recalls. “Jerry owns a successful digital company and we were sitting on the stage marveling over how on earth we got from Channel 47 to being together here in Hollywood. It was a nice moment, both doing what we wanted to do—and it all started in Peoria, Illinois.”
The L.A. Odyssey
“I had a friend—now my sister-in-law, Janelle Helfrich—who moved to Los Angeles right after college,” Lisa says. “She told me how much fun it was and that there were a lot of jobs there. So I packed up my car and left for L.A. I can still remember my parents crying in the driveway as I drove off in my crappy old car.
“When I think about it, I can’t believe they let me do it, but they knew I needed to figure things out for myself. My first job was a temp employee for an auto parts warehouse. Later, I got a job selling beepers, calling on television production companies. Every day, I hit people up for a job as a production assistant, and one day someone finally hired me. Later, I got a great break as an assistant to the producer on an HBO show called First and Ten.”
...And Here I Am
“Norm, the title ‘producer’ confuses people, but… I am considered a line producer, which means I am responsible for the daily management of the production. You might say I am in charge of logistics. I don’t make a habit of talking about the celebrities I have worked with, but I have been lucky to have worked for some deeply talented and very funny actors. The cast becomes like a family—like my first gig, Everybody Loves Raymond, where I stayed nine years. I had a spectacular time on The New Adventures of Old Christine, and I can honestly say that I go to work and laugh most of the day.”
Lisa lives in Sherman Oaks in the San Fernando Valley with her husband Mark Jackson, 16-year-old son Daniel, and their family pets. She tells me she hates commuting, so she lives pretty close to the studio, where her usual workday is 10 to 12 hours long.
“The show I am producing now is The Millers, starring Will Arnett, Beau Bridges and Margo Martindale, and we are having a ball. I hope all my friends and fellow Peorians tune in and check us out. Norm, say hello to all the people you and I know, and when you see my parents, please give them an extra hug for me.” a&s
Norm Kelly is a Peoria historian and author of 12 books. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.