The Phrase That Put Peoria on the Map
Google the phrase “Will it play in Peoria?”, and you’ll get more than a million results. Dating to the vaudeville era—the early 1880s through the early 1930s—the popular saying has retained its meaning for over a century.
While no one can say for certain who coined the expression, it was comedian Groucho Marx who made it popular. In the vaudeville era, it was believed that if an act received good reviews in Peoria, it would do well nationwide.
This was ostensibly because Peoria was a tough audience. Wikipedia explains that phrases like ‘It bombed in Peoria’ had recognizable meaning from one coast to the other. Bill Adams asserted in a 1989 Journal Star column that if a show did “bomb in Peoria,” one of several things happened: “The production was either rewritten, recast or otherwise improved, or it was canceled altogether.”
The success of this resilient phrase can be attributed to the fact that the population of Peoria was fairly representative of the country as a whole. It is located in the heart of Illinois as well as the heart of the nation. “Perhaps most important,” notes Wikipedia, “at one time Peoria closely reflected the diversity of the United States population in terms of race, income, age, rural and business interests, educational background and other key criteria.” For this reason, not only was Peoria often the first stop on show tours, in the 1960s and ‘70s it became one of the nation’s strongest test markets for consumer products. Pampers’ disposable diapers, McDonald’s’ McRib sandwich and New Coke were all marketed in Peoria before being sold across the nation.
Politics Play in Peoria
Not only was Peoria a test market for consumer products, it was—and remains—an ideal place to take the “pulse of the nation” on political campaigns and proposed legislation. John Ehrlichman was credited with reviving the phrase while working in the Nixon White House in the early 1970s. In a 1999 Journal Star article, he’s quoted as saying, “‘In some conversation or another in the White House…I said, ‘How is this going to play in Peoria?’ meaning how is the average American going to react to this?” The same article notes that Tom Brokaw came to East Peoria in 1992 to host NBC Nightly News, using the Peoria skyline as a backdrop when “gauging the city’s political climate in advance of that fall’s presidential election.”
The phrase has been used in reference to many politicians since the Nixon Administration. In 1982, an article in Time magazine addressed the “highest unemployment rate in 42 years” and stated that “recovery remains elusive”—words with an all-too-familiar ring. It followed a campaign stop in Peoria by President Reagan on behalf of then-Congressman Bob Michel and was titled, naturally, “Does it Play in Peoria?”
President Clinton’s campaign used the phrase on many occasions in his 1992 run for office. President George W. Bush notably made two stops in Peoria within 18 months of each other in 2007 and 2008, and while covering those events, the national media put the famous phrase to work once again. When it comes to Peoria, it seems they just can’t help themselves—the phrase slides so easily off the tongue and fits itself so neatly into a headline.
Earlier this year, just one day before President Obama visited a Caterpillar plant in East Peoria, CNN Senior National Editor Dave Schechter posted an article to the Anderson Cooper 360° Newsroom, which began, “I want $1 for every time…a reporter, commentator or anchor wonders aloud how President Obama and his plan to stimulate the economy are ‘playing in Peoria.’” There are, of course, many instances of the phrase being applied to the economic stimulus package.
Through the years, “Peoria” has been used in various media to signify the average American town, synonymous with “Anytown, U.S.A.” Harkening back to the phrase’s origin, Elmer Fudd’s vaudeville show in the Bugs Bunny cartoon “What’s Up Doc?” opens in Peoria; likewise, I Love Lucy’s Fred and Ethel open their vaudeville act in Peoria. The “Playing in Peoria” phrase makes an appearance in the 1935 Marx Brothers classic, A Night at the Opera, and an episode of the animated series, Futurama.
A magazine ad for Gillette once asked, “Do they pivot in Peoria?” A movie review in Newsweek claimed that the films in question were “unlikely to play in Peoria.” On the Web, the phrase is used extensively. It’s found on news sites and technology blogs, in an article begging AC/DC to come back to town, and one about the merging of two local, racially diverse churches.
This widespread usage in the media contributes to why Peoria is so well known across the nation. Brent Lonteen, president and CEO of the Peoria Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, reported, “We’ve encountered people who have never been to Peoria and probably couldn’t point it out on a map. But when they find out we’re from Peoria, their eyes light up and they throw out that phrase, because that’s the familiarity—the bond, if you will—they have with Peoria.”
Will Peoria Play Elsewhere?
While the history of the storied phrase is intriguing, it is its future that the River City is most interested in. “Go just about anywhere in the world, certainly anywhere in America, and ask ‘Will it play in Peoria?’” suggested Adams in 1989. “You won’t have to explain it. Everyone knows what it means.” In its most recent marketing campaign, the Peoria Area Convention and Visitors Bureau rides the coattails of that nationally-known brand.
“Will your event play in Peoria? Yes!” goes the campaign that has been getting rave reviews. “That saying is what Peoria is most known for nationwide,” says Lonteen. “We hope to capitalize on its ‘fame’ and have this campaign ‘play’ in cities across the country, getting event planners thinking about the Peoria area when planning where they want to hold their next convention or sports event.”
Without a doubt, we haven’t seen the end of “Will it play in Peoria?” While some longtime residents tire of the phrase’s heavy use, it is a distinctive part of our history. It is something to hang one’s hat on. And it will be playing in America for many years to come. iBi
Great article about the origins and history of this expression! I am using it for the title of a blog article which will include some memories from my days cooping with Caterpillar from 1979 to 1982. Will send you a copy of the link when I post it on our USA Melting Pot website.
Thanks, Dale. Please do send the link!
I'm researching the LaRocca family, musicians/ vaudevillians from Peoria. Roxie, a harpist act, the most famous at that time. Please contact/respond if you are related. Thank you!